It’s hard to imagine a more obvious crisis for a theme park than a fatal ride malfunction – however Dreamworld owners Ardent Leisure seemed underprepared when four people died on its Thunder River Rapids Ride.
Nothing will bring back those four lives, however, in its response, Ardent has made a bad situation worse and will have to work harder to repair the reputational damage in the months and years to come.
Here are some reflections on what lessons other companies can learn from the Dreamworld Disaster.
1. Be prepared – plan and rehearse
Crisis preparedness doesn’t just mean having a crisis communications plan sitting on your shelf.
It’s about having a quality crisis plan that’s detailed, that resolves likely conflicts between legal and communications advice ahead of time, that identifies the correct spokesperson for a crisis and that’s kept up to date.
Crucially, you need to rehearse your crisis plan. A ‘desktop’ rehearsal is better than nothing, however a more realistic and detailed scenario will leave staff better prepared.
This can include real time developments, ‘media’ interviews, ‘police’ involvement and the need to contact stakeholders, access equipment and create communications materials at speed.
Having been involved in crisis rehearsals, we know the smallest of things that can cause unexpected difficulties – getting access to the office after hours, finding the key to the photocopier or remembering social media passwords…
Strong crisis planning and rehearsal can not only help prepare for a crisis, but reduce the risk of a crisis happening in the first place by enabling potential shortcomings to be identified and addressed.
When crisis struck, Ardent appeared unprepared – or underprepared – and took a number of missteps in the early days after the tragedy.
“Ardent has failed at every hurdle since the tragedy. It appears to have been totally unprepared for fatalities on its amusement rides. There is no excuse for that.”
– Michael Pascoe, journalist
2. Get your priorities straight – people (and planet) above profit and process
While businesses do have a duty to their shareholders, in a crisis the communications need to be about people first and foremost.
Ardent, in its initial communications to the ASX stated that people were the top priority, however other actions undermined that message.
When Dreamworld put an announcement on their web page notifying of the park closure above news of the accident, it seemed insensitive.
Only two days after the tragedy, it was an even worse look when the company proceeded to discuss the financial implications at its AGM and to award the CEO Deborah Thomas a hefty $843,000 bonus.
Chairman Neil Balnaves may have been technically quite correct in trying to defend the Ardent CEO on the grounds the bonus related to a different time period but, in the eyes of the public, that was irrelevant.
The subsequent decision to donate the $167,000 cash component of the bonus to the Australian Red Cross came across as media-driven, rather than from the heart.
Far better if the AGM had been delayed or, if that were not legally possible, management had refused to speculate on financial aspects of the disaster and deferred discussion of resolutions dealing with remuneration.
“Ardent Leisure share price & dividend rate virtually same as was when Deborah Thomas took over. 4 people dead. Gets $800K bonus #Dreamworld“
– Boba Khan, Twitter
“And on top of it the CEO was awarded $850k bonus for her performance two days after four people died – a disgraceful display of lack of respect and shocking arrogance.”
– News website comments section
3. Heed the warnings
Most crises are not ‘bolts from the blue’. In the wash-up – and with the benefit of hindsight – they are usually preceded by warnings.
Far too often, companies have a culture in which bad news is ignored, stifled or downplayed; no-one wants to be the bearer of bad tidings.
In the Dreamworld case, the Coronial inquest will determine what, if anything, could have alerted staff to the potential of a problem and averted the issue.
However, the ride had broken down more than once on the morning of the tragedy, and in the weeks and months beforehand.
Dreamworld reportedly admitted that a pump on the ride had failed routinely before the tragedy.
In 2012, an independent inspector reportedly found ride air receivers on 13 rides, including Thunder River Rapids Ride – which store the compressed air used to operate rides – were not fit for service.
He reported safety concerns to Workplace Health and Safety (WHS) Queensland after Dreamworld – he claims – pressured him to change non-compliance ratings which he refused to do.
And, in 2014, a union raised concerns with WHS about “a culture of fear” among staff, where “Dreamworld targets employees who speak up”.
There have also been claims that Dreamworld rides were understaffed, which management denies.
In the 2015-16 financial years, safety officials conducted six ‘random checks’ – all sparked by complaints.
“The Ardent board should spend time at a coal mine where a splinter is rates serious enough to get a site-wide mention at a toolbox meeting.”
– Newspaper comments section
4. Own your problems
In a notice to the ASX the day after the accident, Ardent re-iterated concern for the families of the victims before a section headlined “Confirmation of Ride Safety Certification”.
“Dreamworld would like to assure the public and our guests that at the time of the incident, the park was fully compliant with all required safety certifications. The Thunder River Rapids ride had completed its annual mechanical and structural safety engineering inspection on 29 September 2016.”
It went on to quote the person who had performed the last six safety audits regarding the strength of Dreamworld’s safety culture.
One problem. When four people have just died, it’s not an ideal time to boast about your safety record.
That message may have been designed to ease shareholder litigation fears, but it failed to acknowledge the bleeding obvious: that something went drastically wrong and the ride was not in fact safe on that particular day.
The ASX announcement on 26 October ended with an announcement that the park would re-open on 28 October in a Memorial Day with proceeds going to the Australian Red Cross… which leads u s to the next lesson.
“The defective Dreamworld ride had a current certification of safety… that takes care of the box ticking, which these days appears to be a substitute for prudential management…”
– Letter to the Editor, James Ogilvy, Kew
5. Get your facts straight
The next day, October 27, Ardent announced that after consulting with Queensland Police Service (QPS), they would not be able to go ahead with the planned Memorial Day as planned.
“Obviously the integrity of the Coronial Investigation is of paramount importance and postponing the service will give QPS the time it needs to conduct this investigation,” it said.
Without going into detail, Queensland Police Service swiftly let it be known that Dreamworld’s statement was not an accurate reflection of how the decision was made not to reopen the park – and Dreamworld recanted, saying it was their decision not to reopen.
Whether coincidence, or not, earlier that day, at a media conference after the AGM, Chairman Neil Balnaves had been put on the defensive about the decision to reopen so soon, a decision which he said had been subject to a lot of deliberation and was made after discussions with counsellors and psychologists.
It’s easy in the midst of a crisis for information, and misinformation, to spread – however the Memorial Day reopening backflip wasn’t the worst instance of factual egg-on-face that Ardent encountered that day.
Famously, Ardent Leisure CEO Deborah Thomas was confronted live on air at the post-AGM media conference after the family of two of the victims sent a reporter a text message flatly contradicting what she’d just said.
“We’ve reached out to the families and we’ve finally made contact with the Dorsett family and we are talking with them today about how we may assist,” she said.
However, the reporter then interrupted to say the family were watching the conference on TV and had sent a text saying that they’ve had no direct contact whatsoever – and offering a phone number to call.
The CEO – who had, it transpired, been trying to make contact via the police rather than directly – then clarified that she had not spoken to the family directly because she did not know how to contact them.
Visibly moved, she then addressed the family directly to offer sympathies and to say she would call to offer assistance.
“The way Deborah Thomas did not skip a beat when she was caught not telling the truth at the media conference was a tribute to modern media training… It reminds me of that old expression: ‘The key to success is sincerity. Once you learn to fake that, you’ve got it made.’”
– Letter to the Editor, Monty Arnhold, Port Melbourne
6. If mishandled, crisis management can become the story
In the aftermath of the disastrous post-AGM media conference, “the story” became just as much about mismanagement of the crisis from a public relations perspective as about the tragedy per se.
Ardent took the sting out of this angle when the Chairman and CEO both publicly acknowledged that they had not handled the situation as well as they could have – see Lesson 4.
“The chairman was left mouthing platitudes at the AGM about concern for the families of the dead, only to have the façade blown away by his CEO being forced to admit in a televised media conference that she hadn’t spoken to them and suddenly promising that she would. It could be the PR fail of the year.”
– Michael Pascoe, journalist
“Unbelievably poor decision making by Ardent post Dreamworld tragedy detailed in this piece by@SharriMarkson“
– Kristina Keneally, Twitter
7. Get good communications advice – and follow it
In the event of a crisis, most organisations will require external support – crisis communications is a specialist skill that you don’t want your communications team to have to learn on the job by trial and error just when the world is watching.
However, in the case of Dreamworld, Ardent failed to follow the advice of its communications advisors – to the extent the communications firm threatened to dump them as a client if they didn’t start following advice.
The advisors had reportedly counselled Ardent to: delay its AGM; to have Ardent CEO Deborah Thomas address the media rather than Dreamworld CEO Craig Davidson; and to close the park until the funerals were over. None of that advice was followed.
As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.
It is likely that the communications perspective conflicted with advice from lawyers or accountants – as can commonly be the case.
Ideally, these conflicts would have been thrashed out in a planning process (see Lesson 1) around likely crisis scenarios rather than decided on the fly under high pressure during an actual crisis.
Issues of legal liability are valid and important, and so is making money, however companies also need a social licence to operate – if you lose that, the organisation may never recover.
“Profit to shareholders over public safety #dreamworld“
– John Locker, Twitter
8. One person should lead the response
In a crisis situation, it’s best practice to have one company representative who leads public comment regarding the situation – usually the CEO.
That reduces the risk of mixed messages and leaves other team members free to handle other aspects of the crisis. (If necessary, the CEO can introduce other voices to address a particular aspect of the crisis – for example specialist technical staff.)
In the Dreamworld situation, initially communications were handled by Dreamworld CEO, Craig Davidson rather than the CEO of Ardent, Deborah Thomas. This was interpreted as a failure on Ardent’s part to understand the seriousness of the situation.
Ms Thomas fronted the media at the post-AGM media conference with the Chairman – meaning that there were three people being quoted publicly – then communications later reverted back to the Dreamworld CEO.
9. Speculation fills an information vacuum
Ardent Leisure has yet to make any public statement on the cause of the accident, citing a desire not to interfere with the Coronial inquiry.
That didn’t go down too well with some sections of the media, but is standard operating procedure during this type of situation – and not a communications blunder.
However, when the company fails to offer information, there is an appetite for speculation – with media instead quoting speculation from lawyers, safety inspectors, engineers, unions and members of the public who had been on the ride.
The case has also drawn what appears to be informed commentary from some sections of the public.
“I’d encourage everyone to get onto Youtube and see a video shot by a person riding the ride and the conveyor belt at the end… There’s four big issues:
- In industry such a conveyor belt would be required to have an automatic shut off in case of a blockage… So there will need to be an investigation if the Dreamworld conveyor had the same thing and it malfunctioned or relied on manual shut off.
- In industry such a conveyor belt would be required to be covered to the extent possible to stop people falling into it. This conveyor had no cover. Again, see the video and ask why?
- The seats for people on the ride did not have headrests that were higher than their heads. Overseas rides have proper seats which go higher than the heads. The Australian ride had silly bucket seats with no head protection. Although, with the exposed conveyor belt, one wonders where any difference would be made?
- What were the warnings/disclosures made to the CEO and Chairman?”
– Newspaper comments section
10. There are no winners in a crisis
The board members and executives of Ardent Leisure and Dreamworld are now in an unenviable position.
Their every operational decision will be scrutinised with the benefit of hindsight and subject to investigation. There will be lawyers, expert witnesses and insurers at 50 paces. If found wanting, they could face fines – and even jail.
They are also facing judgment in the court of public opinion, being trolled on social media and are under intense media scrutiny.
And they are no doubt gutted at the fact deaths occurred on their watch – no-one wants that.
In a situation like this, good crisis communications can avoid making a bad situation worse but – let’s face it – there are still no winners in a tragedy like this… and nothing can bring the four lives lost back.