I wish fervently that what happened recently at the Cincinnati Zoo was the rare exception. Unfortunately, in my over 30 years of experience as a crisis consultant and university researcher, it's not.
As we know, a three-year old child somehow slipped behind a barrier and fell into a gorilla enclosure. In order to save the child from harm, the gorilla was shot. Howls of protest over whether the animal had to be killed and calls for the parents to be charged with child endangerment were immediate.
What rankled me most of all was that in defending their actions, the spokesman for the zoo said that they've never had such an incident in over 38 years. Somehow, we were supposed to be comforted by this statistic. This completely overlooks the fact that a crisis is the worst time to spout statistics. Despite one's good intentions and preparations, nothing prevented the unthinkable from occurring. Indeed, it just happened so it wasn't impossible!
Sadly, what happened fits an all-too-general pattern that pertains to virtually all crises. First of all, somehow someone--in this case a young child--slips behind, breaks through, etc. a protective barrier. The longer that the barrier's worked, the greater the belief that it will work indefinitely and therefore that it doesn't need to be reviewed periodically and redesigned. This is especially the case since the barrier met "accepted standards."
Second, little if any thought and preplanning is given to the "blame game." In virtually all major crises, stakeholders of all kinds--the author included--come out the woodwork to assess and blame all of the parties involved. Thus, the Zoo blamed the parents and the parents blamed the Zoo. Animal rights groups blamed everyone, etc.
Third, it's painfully obvious that the spokespersons for the Zoo received little if any training in Crisis Communications. If they had, then they never would have said that "It's never happened before in 38 years," or "The current barriers were adequate." They would have said something like, "Please give us the time to examine the situation more carefully before we get back to you."
Fourth, on a regular basis, the Zoo should have been examining worst-case scenarios of all kinds. A fundamental part of worst-case scenarios is the total collapse of all of the assumptions that one has been making as to why there won't be a crisis: "The barriers are sufficient." "We don't need training in Crisis Communications." "The blame game won't happen, etc." Thinking the unthinkable should have been a normal part of the everyday culture.
Does this mean that the Zoo should have anticipated and therefore planned for everything perfectly? Of course not! Perfection is not the standard in Crisis Management. It should have been doing what the best crisis-prepared organizations do. It should have been constantly expanding its thinking and thus preparations for all kinds of crises.
For instance, in the few hospitals where I've worked as a crisis consultant, realistic-looking dolls have been placed in maternity wards. The test is to see how far someone can get out of the ward holding the fake child in his or her hands. In some cases, they've gotten completely out of the hospital with no one questioning and thereby stopping them. Needless to say, the test is repeated again and again until procedures are tightened up such that one can't make it by the first nurse's station.
All zoos ought to be doing something similar. Why weren't dolls or dummies used to test how easily young children could slip through the barriers to animal enclosures? Why weren't tests conducted frequently and such that they were increasingly more difficult to pass?
Constantly thinking and testing for the unthinkable is the only protection we have against calamities. What happened should not only be a wakeup call for all zoos, but for all organizations.