How a crisis workshop just two weeks before a fire at a zoo helped them communicate effectively.

On November 29, 2019 a barn on African Safari Wildlife Park (ASWP) caught fire killing 10 exotic animals. It was Thanksgiving weekend, and everybody was with family miles away from the park. Only the general manager was on site and he immediately called 911 and one of the owners, Holly Hunt. Without wasting a second, she called her partner agency Public Communications Inc. (PCI).

It just so happened that the team at ASWP had attended a workshop on crisis communications a few weeks earlier. The team was aware of the steps to take and remotely sprung in action immediately, beginning with a chain of phone calls to the staff. Jill Allread, APR from PCI advised Hunt to release the facts to media so that they know exactly what she knew at that very moment, leaving less room for speculation.

As the crisis unfolded, the team learned a lot about an effective crisis communication strategy. They shared their experience via a webinar organized by PRSA Chicago. Here are a few main takeaways from the webinar.


  • Make a crisis communication plan and prepare your team.

No one anticipates crisis, but being prepared beforehand has been proved useful. Hunt and her team didn’t have a communication plan per se but they knew their next steps because of the workshop. They were emotional but did not panic and knew how to tackle the situation and plan timely messages and with sensitivity. Having a command central is important and Hunt was prepared to speak in front of local as well as national media. She issued an initial statement quickly and jumped right into answering the media’s questions.

During Crisis:

  • Transparency and accuracy:

It is important to effectively communicate while a crisis is unfolding. Putting the story out within the first hour prevents the public and media from making assumptions. By moving quickly on an initial statement, ASWP had more control on the story and could update the media as more facts about the situation unfolded. A ‘nothing-to-hide’ approach helps build confidence not only with the public but also with the internal staff. In a crisis, each and every action will be scrutinized, so internally everyone has to be up to date to answer questions as they arise from stakeholders and media.

  • Internal communication:

Losing 10 animals, namely 3 giraffes, 3 red river hogs, 3 bongos and 1 springbok, was an emotional tragedy for the staff who cared for them on a daily basis. Keeping the staff updated and addressing their emotions were equally important goals. Hunt organized hourly staff meetings to update her staff who were busy taking care of the other animals while coming in terms with their loss. 

  • Timely updates:

The investigation was still ongoing as the fire department was investigating the cause of the fire. But facts were released as soon as they were confirmed. This proved that ASWP was transparent in their timely news releases which helped build a positive post-crisis reputation and public’s trust.

  • Updating social media channels:

Monitoring news and social media outlets is an important step in understanding what is being circulated. Keller advised webinar attendees to think about what the public may have seen and frame the messages accordingly.

She shared one specific instance -  a terrifying moment of a giraffe named Matata fleeing the flames was filmed by a bystander and the video was shown repeatedly by the media. Keller’s team had to take care of the scared giraffe who was not doing very well and also update the curious public. Her team responded proactively, the media needed an update and Keller’s team responded appropriately via the website. She utilized the situation well by making Matata the face of ASWP and gave the staff and public something positive to look up to during these tragic times. Social media posts were circulated that talked about the giraffe’s improving condition and how he was getting attention to help him recuperate quickly from the trauma. People donated to the Giraffe Conservation Fund and the community understood their pain and helped the ASWP’s team by continuously supporting them.

Updating the parks’ website and releasing a news article promptly about the giraffe’s situation, and other updates, via social media kept all stakeholders informed with the ongoing situation. This reduced speculation by both the media and concerned members of the public, protecting the park’s brand reputation from damage.

Post Crisis:

  • Reputation Management:

Hunt said, “our staff didn’t realize how loved our zoo was until the fire. We utilized this in the messaging and our stakeholders responded positively. Our proactive social media messaging helped keep our reputation clean.” ASWP has had a great 2020 as they are a drive-through park. This pandemic year they have had many guests who visited the zoo.

  • Gratitude:

Hunt sent thank you notes to the first responders. She claimed that eventually the park staff’s emotions shifted from grief to gratitude. They were thankful to the first responders and the people who jumped in to understand and sympathize with her team who wonderfully took care of the other traumatized animals.

  • Updating people with the current situation:

The ASWP team still gets emotional thinking about the fateful day, but this has not discouraged them to talk about it and add new content to keep their stakeholders updated. Keller and her team have regularly updated their Facebook page with images of Matata and how well he was doing. They run fundraising campaigns and team-building meetings which are uploaded on their Facebook page, thus engaging their audience.

  • Building and maintaining new relations:

During the crisis, Hunt and her team were in direct contact with the media and first responders, which helped them build positive long-term relationships. The Fire Sheriff called Hunt and updated her about their findings of the investigation before he released his statement to the media. Kelsey and her team have turned this crisis into a community dialogue and have new media contacts.

The reason of the fire is still unknown, and any foul play has been eliminated. With the help of Public Communications, Inc as their public relations partner, ASWP achieved an 89% positive media coverage. The park’s fans defended the zoo on social media by responding to the negative comments.

Hunt and Keller are creating a detailed written emergency plan with focus on media communication, which will incorporate the communications workshop into a detailed communication strategy.

The takeaway: if you are still thinking about starting a crisis plan, stop procrastinating and start planning.


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