In 2011, the Indiana Office of Tourism Development (IOTD) faced a media and Facebook crisis as they were lambasted on Facebook by hundreds of people from all over the country and even Canada over an event called Snapperfest. There were articles on BuzzFeed, the Huffington Post, and all kinds of animal rights and ethics websites.
The event was happening at a southeastern Indiana campground in Ohio County, where contestants would try to yank a snapping turtle’s head out of its shell far enough to wrap a hand around it. This often injures or kills the turtle, and people were understandably outraged. There was a media firestorm that seemed to center on the IOTD because they’re responsible for all tourism in the state.
The IOTD was being hammered because they had done nothing to stop the event. The problem was, they’re an informational agency, not a regulatory one. They publish travel guides, they don’t enforce any laws or regulations.
(Disclosure: I’m a travel writer for the IOTD, and used to be the Risk Communication Director for the Indiana State Department of Health (ISDH).)
My editor emailed me for some help with quelling the crisis, so I sent back a suggested statement they could issue on the Facebook page. They posted the statement, and the storm stopped as if someone had flipped a switch. One person complained that it wasn’t enough, and three of the former detractors leapt to the IOTD’s defense.
If you’re in the public eye, you or your company will eventually do something to piss people off, and they’ll complain loudly on social media, so everyone can see how terrible you are. But if you act fast, you can control the issue, and keep it from becoming a full-blown crisis.
Here are four steps we took to shut off the PR crisis surrounding Snapperfest.
1. Apologize Immediately
This one step can go a long way into solving most PR crises. If you just acknowledge you screwed up and apologize, then discuss what you’ll do to prevent it in the future, people are usually satisfied.
One rule of Crisis & Emergency Risk Communication (CERC), which is government/first responder crisis communication, is to apologize for anything you’re not able to do. We did that in IOTD’s statement.
I’m sorry, I wish we could do something. We do not have any authority over the organizers of this event, and we condemn what they do. But because we are not a regulatory or enforcement agency, we have absolutely no power to stop this activity. I wish we did, but we do not. I’m truly sorry.
2. Release As Much Information As Possible
The first inclination will be to keep this as private as possible, so the fewest people know about it as possible. That will only make people angry, inflame tempers, and get everyone to dig and burrow into the problem, which could end up blowing up in your face.
Instead, release as much information as you can, and show that you’re doing everything you can to fix the problem. Share what happened, discuss your next steps, and answer as many questions as you can. If you can show you have nothing to hide, people will lose interest.
For the IOTD, they said they had called the Indiana State Police and asked them to investigate. Since cruelty to animals is a Class A misdemeanor, police could arrest anyone who abused the turtles.
Of course, there’s certain information you can’t release because of HIPAA, FERPA, FTC regulations, or proprietary business interests. If it’s against the law or company policy to release certain information, don’t release it. (I shouldn’t have to mention it, but any time I say “release everything,” there’s always some nitpicky wag who feels the need to bring up the stuff that “goes without saying.” So I said it.)
3. Discuss Next Steps
This goes hand-in-hand with the apology, because it shows you recognize the problem and are working to see that it doesn’t happen in the future. You’re taking ownership of the issue and are working for the best interests of your clients and customers.
While the IOTD couldn’t do anything to the festival organizers, they promised to take action against the campground by refusing to include them in any travel guides. This is part of the statement I sent to my editor:
We will ask the Ohio County CVB to contact their local authorities to lend their support as well. And we will refuse to support this event, mention the organizers, or even include the host facilities in future directories or travel guides. While we cannot condone their actions, we can also remove any support that might help them host these events in the future.
While our immediate goal was to end the firestorm, we also wanted to do what we could to help end Snapperfest altogether. Thanks to the media coverage the festival got, and all the pressure the campground owners received, in 2012, they canceled the event, and promised to never hold it again.
The first instinct of most companies is to circle the wagons and refuse to release any and all information related to their crisis. This only aggravates the general public, makes the company look uncaring, and rallies more people around the cause.
As hard as it may be, if you can apologize, show what you’ve done, and explain what you’re doing in the future, you can head off many PR situations before they ever become full-blown crises.