In September of 2003, Zoo New England (ZNE), the parent organization managing the Franklin Park Zoo (Boston, Massachusetts) and the Stone Zoo (Stoneham, Massachusetts) was faced with a situation that all zoos fear: an escape of a potentially dangerous animal. Little Joe, a juvenile male Western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) escaped his enclosure. Though all institutions accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) develop contingency plans to deal with an escaped animal, few are prepared to deal with another potentially dangerous animal: the media. The circumstances surrounding Little Joe’s two escapes from his exhibit and the strategy for working with the media involved representatives from all areas of the zoo. Proper and immediate communication with staff, public and the media provided a forum that helped mitigate public relations damage to the zoo.
Wednesday, August 13, 2003. Boston (AP). “A gorilla who stands 5 feet tall and weighs 280 to 300 pounds got a brief taste of freedom Wednesday from the Franklin Park Zoo. Little Joe climbed down in the moat that surrounds his exhibit and then up and out to freedom, but returned only 10 minutes later, said a zoo spokeswoman.” This story was carried on various news outlets across the United States. The entire incident lasted approximately 10 minutes, when the gorilla returned to the exhibit on his own accord without intervention. The next step for zoo management was to initiate our Code One: Public Relations (PR) response.
Our PR consulting firm, Rasky/Baerlein, was contacted and a press release providing the facts of the incident was prepared. Although the incident occurred at approximately 10:05 a.m. and was resolved by 10:20 a.m., an Associated Press reporter contacted ZNE at about 10:45 a.m. asking if there had been a gorilla escape. An internal meeting was held to inform the full staff of the incident and to provide an opportunity to ask questions. Also, the company policy regarding speaking to the press was reinforced. The release was completed and distributed by noon. Preparation began for a press availability to film the exhibit that afternoon at 3:00 p.m. All the local media attended. The strategy for this encounter focused on delivering several messages:
- The incident was quickly and safely resolved.
- Little Joe and the other gorillas were fine.
- The gorillas would remain off exhibit while the zoo investigated the escape and modifications made to prevent another incident.
Questions were answered as completely as possible, particularly regarding how Joe managed to climb out. At that time, this had not been determined. The local press reaction was to present the escape as a somewhat humorous incident and although the coverage was national, it lasted only several days. This encounter with the media was considered to be successful as a result of:
- Being prepared with contact information and media response team members knowing their roles.
- Instant communication; immediate decision-making, particularly regarding informing the public.
- Being open and honest regarding the facts.
After examining the gorilla exhibit, modifications were made, and the gorillas (including Joe) were eventually put back on exhibit. Once back on exhibit, life for the gorillas and the zoo returned to normal.
On Sunday, September 28, 2003 (4 days after returning to exhibit) at 5:55 p.m., as the zoo closed to the public, Little Joe climbed out of the exhibit again (a different location) and followed a group of visitors out of the building. The visitors (a zoo employee who had brought several relatives to the park) encountered Little Joe as he left the building, and a security guard passing by called the Code One. Little Joe headed toward the rear entrance of the zoo, being tracked by the staff, and climbed over the fence separating the zoo from the 500-acre adjacent park. The zoo’s Dangerous Animal Recovery Team (DART), Boston Massachusetts State and Environmental Police, Boston Animal Rescue League, and media outlets (print and electronic) all responded to the scene. The DART members and law enforcement officials were able to dart the animal within 8 minutes of him leaving the zoo, at which time he fled into the surrounding woods. A perimeter was established to contain Little Joe within the wooded area adjacent to the zoo and locate him for further immobilizing agents to be delivered. During this whole event and darting, the media was the next in line behind law enforcement officials doing crowd control. Once Little Joe was immobilized, he was transported to the off-exhibit gorilla holding area at the zoo, and recovered within about 20 minutes. The entire capture took approximately 2.5 hours.
While the capture of Little Joe was happening, the other emergency response team (our PR crew) was also preparing for the PR aftermath. The team met immediately to discuss the following:
- The course of events: gathering as much factual information as possible from DART leaders John Linehan, Zoo President, and Hayley Murphy, DVM, Director of Veterinary Services.
- Media outreach: identify spokesperson.
- What staffing issues may need to be resolved in immediate aftermath?
- Prepare for press conference: identifying John Linehan and Dr. Hayley Murphy as key spokespeople for the incident.
- Held conference; key messages repeated:
- Statement of facts as known.
- Sympathy to individuals injured.
- Make every effort to determine how this occurred.
- Thank you to authorities for their assistance and good work.
- Preparation for the following morning’s press attention.
Monday, September 29, 2003
- Early A.M. press conference, again with key points related by John Linehan and Dr. Murphy.
- Monitored news coverage.
- Team coordinated press response including guided visits to the empty exhibit for b-roll; convey honesty and cooperation.
- Held internal full staff meeting to provide information and reiterate policy regarding speaking with the press.
- Held afternoon press conference announcing measures being taken to make sure incident doesn’t happen again.
- Continued taking media calls and reiterating key messages.
- Coordinated community and legislative outreach.
Tuesday, September 30, 2003
- Continued to monitor news coverage.
- Held press conference for community leaders to express support for zoo.
- Encouraged volunteers and community leaders to send “letters to the editor” to support the zoo.
- What began as an extraordinary event, grabbing headlines from Boston and around the world, including the Late Show with David Letterman and the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, over the course of a few days turned away from the excitement of the event toward the proactive measures taken by the zoo and its management. The PR team was able to counter images of the people injured speaking to the press with a group of activists supporting the zoo.
Summary of principles employed:
- Be prepared…in advance.
- An excellent starting point is an experienced consultant.
- Establish your relationship and priorities prior to a crisis.
- Establish key talking points.
- Have your PR people there to back up your key spokespeople if they are “animal” people.
- Be empathetic.
- Be the first to say you’re wrong when you are.
- Say you’re sorry. Say it soon. Say it in person, if possible.
- Be honest.
- The more information you can disseminate, the better.
- Include your staff in all releases and discussions; without factual information, they will make it up.
- Prepare in terms of the “48-hour day.” Respond with your messages(s) immediately and continue at least two days, if not longer.
- “What will you do to make things better?” Everyone will ask this—it is imperative to have a credible answer.
- The competition for compelling stories is fierce. Your crisis planning should reflect this and recognize that the media is not the enemy, if you are prepared. By constantly communicating, Zoo New England was able to demonstrate a willingness and openness to the media, resulting in successfully communicating the facts and getting our message out to the public.