Bernard O'Riordan, Media Trainer
If Dreamworld’s reputation wasn’t already trashed by its botched response to an accident that killed four visitors on one of its rides, then the coronial inquest into the tragedy will almost certainly see to it.
The avalanche of damning evidence heard at the inquiry – including safety oversights and a culture of secrecy - claimed another scalp on Friday when Dreamworld’s chief executive Craig Davidson was ousted as part of a management shakeup.
In every crisis there's a fall guy and Davidson was the last man standing from the October 2016 tragedy that killed four people on the Thunder River Rapids ride.
Neil Balnaves, the former chairman of Dreamworld's parent company Ardent Leisure, retired a month after the tragedy and was followed out the door soon after by chief executive Deborah Thomas. Even her replacement, Simon Kelly, bailed out just four months into the job.
After the embarrassing series of bungles, backflips and backdowns that occurred on their watch, and the blowtorch of media scrutiny that has followed, a clearing of the decks was inevitable.
There were aborted attempts to reopen the park early, an AGM that should never had been held, embarrassing revelations about not contacting the families of victims, apparent clashes over media strategies, and talk of bonus payments for executives just days after people died.
The fact is people, and organisations, make mistakes in fast-moving scenarios. But this really has been a crisis communications calamity of the highest order.
As a result, the Gold Coast theme park has become a virtual ghost town and hefty compensation claims are looming. Ardent in February posted a net loss of $15.6 million for the half year, after a $22.8 million impairment charge relating to Dreamworld.
The real crisis for Dreamworld has nothing to do with financials though. It's all about the loss of one of the most intangible but precious business assets there is: trust.
Like any theme park, Dreamworld has nothing if it’s not seen to be safe, trustworthy and reliable. But what has emerged at the coronial inquest is enough to keep people away in droves for a very long time, if Twitter is any guide.
It’s a point not lost on Ardent chairman Gary Weiss, who admitted on Friday: “We need to once again earn the trust of our visitors."
Despite Dreamworld's reputation hanging by a thread, Ardent has no plans to sell the business. It is committing to a long haul plan of trying to rebuild confidence in its brand and its safety standards.
I say 'trying to', because the Dreamworld brand is so tarnished that some analysts and brand experts doubt whether there is any goodwill left to salvage.
Allan Bonsall, a strategist at Brand Genetics, told ABC News last week: “Dreamworld is now in a position where its trust level is down to rock bottom and I do not see how it can recover from that."
No matter what happens, the Dreamworld tragedy is a sobering reminder for all major brands just how quickly you can go from hero to zero when tragedy strikes and a crisis communications plan is bungled, or worse still non-existent.
It’s impossible to say whether things might have panned out better for Dreamworld had management responded differently. But executives certainly could have avoided trial by media had they responded decisively, and with empathy anchoring everything they did and said.
While it may seem callous to think about a communications plan during a tragedy, it is a critical part of balancing the support and empathy for victims and their families, while also satisfying the needs of reporters, who will be demanding answers about what went wrong.
Having a crisis communications plan is actually a lot like having flood or fire insurance. You might not ever need it, but it can save your brand if the unthinkable happens.
Here are a few simple reminders to give you and your brand a fighting chance in a crisis:
Have a Crisis Plan in Place
If you’re scrambling to figure out what you should say and who should say it, you’re only going to create more chaos during a crisis. That’s why it’s crucial that all major organisations have an established, documented and well-tested crisis communications plan in place long before it's needed. It should include your media plan, social media response, employee communications, holding statements and relevant contacts. The communications team might drive the messaging, but it’s crucial that your plan becomes embedded in the company’s broader emergency response system. Remember though, a crisis plan is no good if it is just gathering dust. Put it into practice.
Gather the Troops
Bring in all of the team leads that are likely to be involved in a crisis (CEO, Legal, HR, Safety, Comms). Your crisis team needs to be established well before a crisis hits. Participants need to be put through their paces regularly with crisis simulation role plays to ensure they can react and respond immediately if a crisis occurs. Create a "war room" of sorts, as well as an email distribution/phone list so that clear communication occurs on all fronts. Think about any outside experts that might need to be involved from a legal or communication perspective – you need the best people advising you in a crisis.
Choose the Best Spokesperson
Usually in a crisis we want to hear from the top dog, the chief executive. But it really depends on the situation and the issues involved. On most occasions it would be unthinkable for the CEO not to appear in front of the cameras and to be accountable when the stakes are high. When choosing the right spokesperson, ask yourself: Do they have grace under fire? Do they keep their emotions in check? Are they authentic and convincing in what they say? Are they media savvy and media friendly? Are they across all potential issues, including the worst left-field questions that a hostile media pack might ask?
In a Tragedy, It's All About Empathy
Good leaders don't wait for a tragedy to strike to show they care. They practice it day in, day out with their employees, clients and even their own family. As this study on empathy in leadership found, showing genuine care and concern is an essential aspect of 21st century leadership and the key to preventing prolonged ethical disasters in the business world. It's not always easy to put yourself in the shoes of someone who has suffered pain or loss, but in a crisis it's all that matters - particularly when you are seen as responsible. Ardent's Deborah Thomas played the sympathy card when she revealed she had received death threats just days after the Dreamworld tragedy. It went down like a lead balloon with the media and the public because this was not the time for self pity.
Get Expert Media Training
In a crisis, what you say and how you say it can make or break your reputation - as well as the brand you represent. Just asks Tony Hayward, the former boss of BP. In 2010, Hayward was the most hated man in America, pilloried over the Gulf of Mexico disaster, the biggest marine oil spill in history. His quip "I'd like my life back" and the fact that he took a day off to go sailing in the Solent, near the Isle of Wight, at the height of the furore did not go down well. It's no use having a crisis communications plan if your top executives don't understand the white-hot power of public outrage and show that they identify with the victims. What you do and what you say during a crisis takes tremendous discipline and requires you to ignore normal formats of acceptable conversation when it comes to the media. That’s why expert crisis media training should be embedded in every crisis communications drill your organisation does.
Be sure to read our earlier Dreamworld blogs:
LESSONS FROM THE DREAMWORLD TRAGEDY
DREAMWORLD SPINS WORKPLACE H&S
DREAMWORLD: SHOULD THEY OR SHOULDN'T THEY?