Brookfield Zoo Fumbles on Facebook

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Sometimes the best PR strategy is to keep your mouth shut. Case in point: the rapidly unfolding Brookfield Zoo Facebook fiasco.

Here’s the scoop: on October 3, a Chicago CBS News affiliate published a story indicating that the zoo was making safety repairs after CBS news ran an undercover report exposing unsafe conditions such as the existence of splintery benches and railings.

The story was prompted by an incident in which a zoo guest named Ashley Lionberg claimed she contracted a debilitating case of tetanus from a decayed Brookfield Zoo park bench. CBS News reported that Lionberg will likely file a lawsuit against the zoo.

The Brookfield Zoo responded to the CBS News story by publishing on its Facebook wall two comments that evening (you can read them here and here). The rambling posts assured the public that the zoo is committed to public safety and attacked CBS (example: “CBS did not explain that the Zoo safely receives millions of visitors every year and that the public facts show that the Zoo is an exceptionally safe place”). The zoo noted that Lionberg (cited anonymously as the “guest”) has brought a claim against the zoo, but that the zoo “is saddened by her circumstances.” (Ironically, the zoo claims it will not comment on Lionberg’s claims while mentioning her several times in both posts.)

So what’s the result? Nearly 1,000 people have commented on the zoo posts within 24 hours, some of them attacking Lionberg, others criticizing the zoo. The comments range from “Probably the same dumb ass that sued my insurance company for a 5 mph crash” to “my family and i absolutely love going to the zoo, every employee has always been very nice there. but , i can honestly say that those benches are falling apart and need to be replaced before someone does get hurt again.”

By publishing two defensive comments on its Facebook wall, the Brookfield Zoo has unwittingly triggered and is now hosting to a public trial, one that has quickly become ugly. It doesn’t matter that the zoo wished Lionberg well — by simply commenting on her, the zoo opened up the floodgates for many others to state their own opinions about her – and the Zoo. One Facebook member was moved to write the following:

Brookfield Zoo…I have been a member for a very long time and have been to many events at the zoo. You need to stop commenting ASAP on this. This is an issue between you and the guest and it feels like you are trying to make this woman look bad by your continued posts: just read all of the horrible things people are posting. Take the high road and let your legal counsel handle this. If you’re trying to avert a public relations nightmare, you’re doing the opposite.

A better strategy would have been for the Brookfield Zoo to either say nothing or to issue a statement on its website simply reaffirming its commitment to public safety (instead of using a social media channel that encourages public discussion). Ironically, Lionberg reached out to the zoo on its Facebook page on August 29, writing, “This zoo has almost killed me. They haven’t returned phone calls . . . Letters not responded to. Every one and every news channel will know how this place destroyed my life. All I wanted was for them to fix their bench that cut me. But since I’ve been ignored, I will be pursuing other options.” (The post is no longer visible.)

And she has stayed true to her word.

What do you think of how the Brookfield Zoo has responded? How would you have handled this situation? Let me know.

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