Ardent's crisis comms nightmare

|| October 31, 2016

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places”.

Ernest Hemingway wasn’t writing about crisis communications in A Farewell to Arms but let’s adapt it for the next few minutes.

Crises aren’t necessarily all bad for businesses. For some, it’s when their true colours can be shown – when compassionate, decent companies emerge stronger from a crisis by the way they respond.

And then there’s Dreamworld. Or, specifically, its owner Ardent Leisure.

The devastating incident at Dreamworld last week received massive media coverage for the most obvious reasons – the deaths of decent, loved Australians in front of friends and family, at a place many people knew well.

And, it was the power of the opposite – people go to Dreamworld for memorable, fun times. They don’t spend their final moments there.

As sad as the story seemed, it didn’t have to be a crippling moment for Ardent.

It was a time for the company to show compassion, professionalism and decency.

Well, that’s how it could have played out.

Instead, Ardent botched it, creating a case study for crisis comms workshops for years.

Here’s a selection of Ardent’s dunderhead behaviour:

  • Not travelling to Dreamworld as soon as the incident happened. Ardent’s bosses remained away too long.
  • Claiming at a press conference that Ardent had “reached out to the families” but, when challenged by a journalist, admitting “we didn’t know how to contact them”. Sheesh.
  • Holding its annual general meeting about 48 hours after the incident, approving a massive bonus for its CEO. While it may have been difficult to postpone the meeting, did anyone discuss deferring the vote on the bonus?
  • And, probably the most ridiculous point, trying to re-open Dreamworld three days later for a “memorial opening”. What the hell is a “memorial opening”? It sounds like something you would hear in an episode of The Simpsons after an accident at Itchy and Scratchy Land. Unsurprisingly, police told Ardent to forget about re-opening for at least a few more days. The rest of Australia nodded along.

There are more tests ahead for Ardent which, fortuitously, renamed itself Main Event Entertainment Ltd at its AGM.

We’ll be hearing a lot more of that new name if it’s determined in numerous investigations that Ardent had cut corners in its maintenance of Dreamworld’s rides. That prospect should be causing sleepless nights for Ardent’s management group.

Crisis communications is really about common sense.

And it’s about authenticity.

Journalists on the Gold Coast say that the Dreamworld staff have shown plenty of this – they’ve been excellent since the incident despite their exposure to the raw emotions.

Unfortunately, Ardent hasn’t replicated this.

When Hemingway wrote about the world breaking everyone, he mentioned that “many” become strong at the broken places.

He didn’t write “all”.

May the families and friends of the victims, and those at Dreamworld that day, become strong as time goes on.

As for Ardent, there’s a whole lot of mess to patch up.

And that may not be possible if the findings of investigations compound Ardent’s woeful behaviour of recent days.

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men know that not everything can be fixed.

- By Michael Crutcher