Failure of crisis communication at the Bronx Zoo

You may have heard there's a snake on the loose at the Bronx Zoo. It garnered brief mention on the evening news last night as it does when a cobra goes missing at a popular zoo.

Unfortunately the Zoo's stoic response to the situation misses a great opportunity to engage with the public and further its mission. This is the end of the last update from the Zoo:

When we discovered the snake was missing on Friday, we immediately secured the building and conducted a search of all accessible areas. Sweeping searches continue on a daily basis. In addition, we implemented a system for tracking any movement by the snake that would help aid in its capture. The difficulty is that the 20-inch, pencil-thin snake, which is months old and weighs less than 3 ounces, has sought out a secure hiding spot within the Reptile House. The holding areas of the Reptile House are extremely complex environments with pumps, motors and other mechanical systems. In this complex environment, she will likely remain in hiding and not move until she feels completely secure. As her comfort level rises, she will begin to move around the building to seek food and water.

As this may take days or even weeks, daily updates should not be expected. As the situation changes we will share any information with you. But now, we need to focus our attention and energy on recovery strategies.
Jim Breheny
SVP for WCS and Bronx Zoo Director
Updated: 3/28/2011

The response smells of classic public relations training. I'm not quite sure what WCS stands for but I'm guessing it's not Wild-animal Catching Services. Probably something to do with "Web Content Services" or the like. Anyway an ending like "we need to focus our attention and energy on recovery strategies" suggests every Zoo employee is figuring out how to catch this wayward snake. But right away readers know that's not really the case. In fact employees are doing all kinds of other things from raising money to feeding animals and cleaning the restrooms.

So the Zoo's own press release leaves readers feeling they aren't getting the whole story. To the Zoo's credit it is good to be clear that they won't be updating the public on a daily basis. Well almost to their credit. It is a good practice to set expectations which their release does. However this misses the always-on world we live in and the way people consume news and want information. It misses a very human desire - people like stories.

A story is exactly what is unfolding at on the Bronx Zoo Cobra Twitter feed. This creative outlet has already gained the fictional cobra more than ten times the followers on Twitter as the Zoo managed to attract.

If the Bronx Zoo was really on top of their public relations game they'd be telling the story of their efforts. As Dave Winer suggests "narrate your work". The Zoo could be sending Tweets about what their staff is doing to locate the missing reptile. They need not be complicated or to take time away from the work of keeping the Zoo running or finding the missing Cobra. Certainly it's necessary to close off the building since public access and a loose cobra don't mix. But they don't need to shut the public out entirely.

Does your business tell compelling stories or do they issue press releases?