A crisis timeline: PR lessons from the Cincinnati Zoo

Moral outrage at an incident involving your organization or your client’s industry can hamper your job performance. Here’s how to prepare yourself when the media storm heads your way.

The story of a young boy who fell into a gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo has stirred people worldwide.

People are outraged that the child was seemingly unattended—and that the gorilla was shot and killed. Many are infuriated that people have differing opinions on the matter.

It was an unfortunate incident, but what’s fascinating to me is that nearly a week later, the story continues to trend on social media. People clamor for new information and angles to consume and regurgitate.

The trajectory of stories like these is as predictable as my grandma’s Sunday dinner. It hasn’t changed in many years—and isn’t likely to. That’s extremely helpful for PR pros and crisis communicators, because we can get ahead of stories when they affect us, inserting clients and organizations’ experts into stories at the ideal time.

Here’s what the Cincinnati Zoo’s crisis can teach PR pros about the life cycle of a story.

The crisis life cycle: Day by day

First, news broke. Only the facts were shared. Media outlets rushed to be the first to report a bare-bones account and the journalism-school “Five Ws.”

It’s at this stage that if there’s a video, however crude (which there was in this instance), news outlets instantly plays it on a loop, fueling more headlines and social media chatter.

If your organization is the subject of the story, as the Cincinnati Zoo is, PR pros must immediately respond. It’s at this point you put out your statement and batten down the hatches.

RELATED: Keep your cool in a crisis with these 13 steps.

By day two, the facts included more details. The video was trending. As the Cincinnati Zoo’s team did, use this time to update your statement and counter shared visuals, if possible.

Line up subject matter experts, third-party validators, background information and plan day-two and day-three stories. If you’re an outside entity for which the story is relevant, think about what experts you can offer, op-eds you can draft, and content you can share with your audiences.

Remember, there’s a line between entering the conversation in a helpful way and exploiting it in a way that’s not.

If you’re Dole, the gorilla crisis is not the time to promote your bananas. If you’re a zoologist or a conservationist who’s worked with silver back gorillas for 25 years, perhaps this is your time to shine as a spokesperson and elevate your brand.

On day three, the narrative shifted from the facts to implications and commentary. Mommy bloggers and parenting experts asked how the child was able to elude the parents’ purview to climb into the gorilla enclosure.

PR pros, now is the time to insert your voices and pitch both parenting experts and op-eds. Also use this time to publish blog posts.

By day four, the narrative shifted from the facts of the incident to more implications. Animal-rights activists asked why we care about a gorilla, but not cows who get slaughtered every day. Civil rights advocates compared the gorilla’s captivity to slavery and call criticisms of the mother racist.

If you ran communications for those sectors, you had plenty of angles for stories and responses.

Day five brought a shift in narrative back to the story’s subjects with news that a police investigation will begin to determine whether the parents are liable for their child’s dangerous feat.

It’s here that law-enforcement experts and criminal analysts had their moments to shine. Other zoos and related organization (do know an expert on fences to keep wild animals a safe distance from people?) talked about what they’re doing to ensure this doesn’t happen to their organizations.

It’s at this point that the public also cues the memes.

The repeating cycle of sensationalism

The story of Harambe and Cincinnati Zoo’s actions isn’t over yet.

It now includes the history of zoos and our treatment of animals in captivity, recreational activities for families and the probability of things going awry.

Additional themes reveal themselves in updates. Did the gorilla father a baby gorilla who is depressed because daddy is gone? Did the child suffer long-lasting injuries? Does the zookeeper have a history of violence?

The substance of Cincinnati Zoo’s crisis story matters less to PR pros interested in how these narratives unfold. The dentist who shot the lion, the family who put the baby bison in their car to keep it warm and “Chewbacca mom”—all play out the same way.

A hungry public with a lot of opinions takes to the internet and members of the media feed the frenzy until the next shiny object comes along.

PR and marketing pros can use this predictable cycle to our advantage to deliver an altruistic idea or program, elevate a brand or spokesperson, or to ride the wave and save our organizations’ reputations.

Allison Steinberg is a writer, native New Yorker and communications specialist for the American Civil Liberties Union.

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