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Lessons from the nightmare at Dreamworld

2nd Nov 16

By Geoffrey Stackhouse, Managing Director, Clarity Solutions

The tragedy at Dreamworld, where four people lost their lives on the Thunder River Rapids ride, is less than a week old. The victims’ bodies haven’t been buried yet, but already the vultures are circling parent company Ardent Leisure.

Ardent’s share price has crashed, they are getting hammered in the media and commentators, assuming the $235m Flagship theme park may never reopen, are already speculating on the breakup value of the assets and potential property development options.

Any death is a tragedy and should draw public attention. But the way Ardent handled this tragedy turned that attention into outrage. For a business that's all about families and leisure, it’s hard to believe that Ardent was so unprepared and is handling it so badly. And it's all down to their communication, or lack of it.

This crisis has been so ineptly managed it’s become a text book case of what not to do. And now Ardent’s PR firm - Newgate Communications - is in the news publicly distancing themselves from the matter because of the potential damage to their reputation as crisis management experts. 

This crisis will stay in the headlines for weeks or even months to come because of the nature and size of the tragedy, but also because of the way it’s been handled. The story has taken on a life of its own with unions, lawyers and other so called experts delivering fresh angles to fuel the media coverage. 

Full disclosure, I am one of the 'experts' doling out my opinions both here and on the ABC news. There's a lot more to learn from this crisis, but here are three standout crisis management lessons so far.

Pick the panic and show you get it: People before profit

In any crisis there is always one primal concern driving public reaction. You need to pick that panic and address it clearly; otherwise you’ll inflame the outrage.

For Dreamworld that ‘panic’ is safety. So every communication - verbal and nonverbal - has to show safety is their overriding concern.

But the ‘panic’ Ardent picked seemed to be their profits and share price. They inflamed the crisis by signalling that profits were more important than people.

Ardent created this impression from what they did (rushing to reopen the park, holding the AGM, approving massive performance bonuses) as well as what they didn’t do (get on site and demonstrate concern, reach out to the victims effectively, acknowledge the grief).

In some instances they talked the right talk, but didn't follow it up with right walk, like when they were caught out by the ABC in a live press conference after claiming they were in contact with the families. The reporter had relatives on the phone who hadn't been contacted. Ardent tried to get away with a half-truth and lost any remaining public trust.

Direct the narrative by keeping us informed

Ardent has been on the back foot from the start. Their spokespeople were clumsy and ill prepared. They’ve been bit players in this story rather than taking the lead, and when they had a chance to explain they blew it. No wonder the media turned to third parties to explain what was going on.

In any story, someone has to tell it. A leader would acknowledge the human tragedy with a physical demonstration, announce a full safety audit of every aspect of the park and close the park until that audit was complete. These actions would show they were in control and also help shape the media reporting of the incident.

The Qantas A380 incident springs to mind here with Alan Joyce’s powerful announcement that he was grounding the fleet. This shifted the headlines from the dramatic engine failure to Qantas’ response. Clearly Qantas picked the panic as ‘safety’ not ‘share price’.

Instead Dreamworld let others dictate the story. And the parent company Ardent held their AGM which was only ever going to inflame the crisis. Even if they hadn’t announced an $850,000 bonus for the CEO.

Forcing closure will always backfire: Pick the right time to reopen

Recovery after a crisis is delicate – you can’t force closure and make people trust you again. Ardent raced to reopen Dreamworld before the public was ready (because the ‘safety’ panic hadn’t been properly addressed).

The public believed there was a problem with safety - otherwise four people wouldn’t have died.  No actions were taken to reassure us that safety was guaranteed. Instead they tried to reopen Dreamworld while it’s still a crime scene which shows an incredible lack of judgement.

Not only does it fuel negative headlines, but it blows the opportunity to re-engage with the public to demonstrate the crisis is over and give people a reason to visit the park. Ardent should at least wait until the cause of the incident is known, and the funerals have been held. It shows respect and will give them the best chance at a fresh start because they can show they’ve understood and fixed the problem.

Backing down on the Friday opening was a good call, but it’s made the next attempt to reopen much tougher and the opening date has become a news angle in its own right. Ideally their crisis plan should state how and when to reopen the park, and with the summer holidays, Dreamworld’s busiest period, just weeks away, they haven’t got room for any more screw ups. 

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