The Harambe Crisis

Flashback to May 2016: A young boy climbed up and fell into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo. Harambe, a 450-pound gorilla, dragged the boy around, leading the Zoo to make the decision to kill the endangered gorilla in order to remove the boy from danger. What ensued was a media frenzy and public outrage that called the Zoo’s decision into question, launching #JusticeForHarambe. How the Zoo handled the unfolding PR crisis – correctly and incorrectly – is a textbook PR lesson from which everyone can benefit.

What the Zoo Got Right

The zoo understood the need to respond quickly, but above all, thoughtfully. It first addressed the incident on Facebook, simply laying out the facts it had so far and expressing sadness over the situation. The zoo then took the critical time it needed to investigate, analyze, and prepare. It studied all of the photos, videos, and accounts of the incident and the reactions to them  by both the media and on social media so that it could better understand and respond to the facts and the perceptions. The zoo also considered the positions of important stakeholders like the boy’s family and the endangered species protection community.

Thanks to careful foresight, the zoo had an emergency response plan in place for crises like this, which helped position its response as prepared and not reactionary.

When the zoo was ready, an official statement was made. The delivery matched the mood of the incident – serious and somber. Sympathy was expressed to all sides – to the family, to the public, to the endangered species protection community, and significantly, to the zoo community who lost a beloved animal.

The emergency response plan was then explained, helping to clarify why the zoo’s response was indeed the proper one. How and why the plan was carried out in this specific incident was also detailed. For every criticism, the zoo had a careful explanation.

Next, the zoo announced the tangible steps it was taking to avoid another incident like this in the future. It updated the enclosure barrier to improve safety for visitors and it invested in raising awareness and resources for endangered species like gorillas – directly addressing both sides of concerns. It also called for community involvement in protecting endangered species, acknowledging the public’s angst and refocusing it in a positive direction helped to earn active PR buy-in.

What the Zoo Got Wrong

Despite taking all the right steps, the Zoo faced a constant barrage of insensitive internet memes and Twitter hacks surrounding #JusticeForHarambe. As a result, three months later, the zoo made the short-sighted decision to temporarily deactivate its Twitter account. What the zoo didn’t understand was that the internet phenomenon became more about the spectacle and less about the controversy. By deactivating Twitter, the zoo lost the ability to directly communicate to its followers, its Twitter-based customer service, and its social marketing. The move also opened the zoo up to additional criticism. Instead, it should have doubled-down on promoting zoo events, honoring Harambe’s memory, and protecting endangered species.

Rebranding with the Help of a Hippo

At the height of the Harambe hysteria, it was hard to imagine the end of it. But the zoo expertly turned their PR around with the arrival of Fiona the Hippo. In early 2017, the most prematurely-born hippo in a zoo arrived in Cincinnati. The zoo identified the positive PR opportunity and developed a social media strategy to support it, launching Fionamania across the country. Today, the zoo regularly posts updates and videos to share Fiona’s story as she develops into a healthy and happy hippo. The content is adorable, educational, and gives followers something to root for. Fiona is the new face of the Cincinnati Zoo – effectively “replacing” the painful reminder of Harambe.

#TeamTMG’s resident Fiona expert, Rebecca Hendrickson, shares this insight: “Whether she’s photobombing engagement proposals, or chomping on an ice cake to celebrate her second birthday, Fiona the Hippo is a true national treasure (and I’m pretty sure her hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers would agree).”

Ellen Huber

Ellen Huber

Communications Strategist at The Moak Group
In an era of rapidly changing technology and content mediums, Ellen Huber brings to The Moak Group’s clients precision communication and marketing strategies that capture the latest in cutting-edge technology and distinctive branding and marketing.
Ellen Huber