Opinion

Lessons every company needs to learn from the mishandling of the Dreamworld tragedy

The communications around the tragic deaths of four people at Dreamworld last week has been described as the 'PR fail of the year'. James Wright looks at what every brand can learn from it.

Over the Easter break this year we took a family holiday to the Gold Coast visiting a number of the theme parks with a couple of very excited young children. Like thousands of families we had a lot of fun.

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Whilst we didn’t visit Dreamworld, the saddening events of this past week felt all too real and scary, and my thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of this terrible accident.

Having been involved with many clients that have had the tough task of dealing with fatalities at their place of work, I can tell you from bitter experience that crisis and issues management is highly subjective.

The fact is that there is rarely a single right way to deal with one but there is certainly many a wrong way, with a multitude of stakeholders more than happy to point them out.

Of course, I see the irony in me penning this article, however, rarely have I seen such unanimous disapproval from media and the communications industry, this horrible accident was mishandled from the get go.dreamworld-from-dreamworld-website

In the world of crisis management, your complete focus is on firstly ensuring as much as you can that they don’t happen through your health, safety and management processes and policies.

Secondly you invest proper resource to prepare for them, however unlikely they may be. It is not just about how you manage and communicate in the good times, but how you manage and communicate in the bad times that reveal the true character of an organisation.

Ardent appeared to the media and the public to not be prepared. That’s highly concerning for an organisation whose business is an industry dealing with the safety of hundreds of thousands of people a year.

With a situation like this the what, how and when you communicate should be focused on your empathy for the families, a complete determination to get to the bottom of what happened and ultimately the measures that you will take to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

This is about bringing back crucial public trust to the brand and the park.

For me, the management of the Dreamworld tragedy highlighted three crucial areas of crisis management that weren’t properly thought through: assessment; timing, and message. All three are intrinsically interrelated, so the following doesn’t fit neatly into each boxes, but in summary:

Assessment

As the mantra goes perception is reality. From the outset there seemed a failure to grasp the seriousness of the events. Whilst I am sure Ardent and Dreamworld were truly saddened and highly upset by the situation, the way the executives in particular appeared to act and what was said following that seemed ill-judged, at least in the immediate days following.

There should have been an assessment based on what they knew at that time, using an existing crisis and issues management manual as a basis (we presume this existed as it is a basic fundamental in any business where safety is paramount), which would have led to a working communications plan. One that could flex to change as developments occurred but also allowed them to be proactive in the right way. Assessment needs perspective.

Maybe they thought they were doing the right thing, but it was hard to understand the timing and messages that were then subsequently delivered.

Timing

Here was a big question last week. Could the AGM not be postponed? Even if they are legally bound to hold it, it was 48 hours since the deaths, I don’t know enough about Corporations Law but surely these were extraordinary circumstances. Regardless, they definitely weren’t legally bound to hold a news conference.

Former Bauer Media communications exec Deborah Thomas is now CEO of Dreamworld's parent company

Former Bauer Media communications exec Deborah Thomas is now CEO of Dreamworld’s parent company

In what has to be one of the most questionable communications decisions I have ever seen, why oh why would you address questions from the media in person before you have spoken to the families?

On being asked about this during an emotionally-charged press conference, Ardent’s CEO Deborah Thomas said “we didn’t know how to contact them”. Really? If they wanted to address the media then reading or issuing a clear statement (with strictly no Q&A) that expressed their sadness about the tragedy and what they were doing about it would have been enough, at least until they knew more.

Maybe the communications teams that had been planning the AGM for weeks or months were spread too thin to realise the enormity of the situation and the public scrutiny they would come under at the AGM and any media call?

It led to the following question: was the holding Group too focused on the business of business, and forgetting they were in the business of people?

The missteps over when the park would reopen was another example of misjudgement, who would want to go on rides just a handful of days after this? We should appreciate the need for the business to reopen but not whilst the authorities are still on site investigating the deaths and the families have yet to bury their loved ones.

Here they needed to give themselves more time to better assess what was happening with the investigation, the feelings of the families involved and the outpouring of public emotion.

Message

This accident required that their message be delivered transparently, and with authenticity and respect. One golden rule in a crisis that involves fatalities and/or injuries is your single biggest message should be about people – the people involved and their families.dreamworld-park-is-closed-website-screen-shot

In what seemed highly disrespectful to the families, they talked about profits and referred to the impact of the accident on their bottom line in the press conference. It came across as callous.

There may be a time to talk about this, but this was not it.

Then there was the subject of the huge performance bonuses. I may be wrong but Ms Thomas’s response to it, and that of the Chairman suggested to me that they weren’t prepared for such a question. You have set up a press conference, so you are fair game for what is a pretty easy line to draw.

It was concerning to watch how almost naïve their response was as they shifted very uncomfortably and stumbled out answers.

Indeed the Chairman’s interjection to defend the bonus because it was based on last year’s performance left many open mouthed. Four people have died, Mr Chairman, no-one cares about last year and does the preparation for such accidents, and investments into workplace health and safety, not come into performance from the previous year?

Workplace Health and Safety Queensland has released more than 100 pages of documents revealing years of inspections, injuries and maintenance issues at the park, after Ardent Leisure fought to block their publication following a union “right to information” application. This will be further scrutinised in the coming weeks.

But what the Chairman inadvertently did was add fuel to the fire by rationalising the business case for these bonuses during a time of a great outpouring of public emotion towards his organisation.

I am positive all of the management are truly sorry and regretful for what has happened, you can see that, but how you deliver your message needs to be empathetic and human. The subsequent change of direction on this and the later statement that the CEO’s bonus would go to the Red Cross appeared completely reactive to the response from the media.

Whilst during a crisis you can’t expect to control the message, you can at least try to manage it – they were being manoeuvred by public and media opinion, never a good place to be.

Michael Pascoe in the Sydney Morning Herald wrote that this “could be the PR fail of the year”, he might be right. But with any saddening situation like this, history will not judge you necessarily on your initial actions but on how you deal with the complete fall out, much of which is still to come for Dreamworld and Ardent.

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There are lessons here for every business, and I hope Ardent learn from them and over the coming weeks showcase a greater sense of regret and respect in their communications, especially once we know more. Other companies should take note – be prepared.

You can see that they have already taken better steps by admitting that mistakes have been made, holding a moving tribute at the park, and now centring their messaging around the families.

Theme parks are a hugely memorable part of growing up, of spending time with friends and families, they bring fun to millions of us every year and we should all want that to continue. With crisis comes change and we hope that the changes that come from this brings an even greater focus on safety to Dreamworld and all theme parks in Australia and around the world.

James Wright is CEO of Red Agency 

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