The dust-up at the Oregon Zoo involving the ownership of a new elephant calf should remind all organizations to be prepared for a potential communications crisis.
When and how a crisis will strike is hard to predict. However, it is far easier to anticipate and plan for circumstances that can generate interest, controversy or a media firestorm.
The Oregon Zoo appeared surprised when The Seattle Times published a story indicating the female elephant calf, born amid media hoopla in Portland, was actually owned by a private company, Have Trunk Will Travel, which loaned a male elephant to the Zoo for breeding. The report raised questions and public anxiety about whether the as-yet-unnamed calf would remain in Portland.
Zoo officials immediately confirmed ownership of the calf, but were unnervingly vague about whether the baby elephant would remain at the zoo. It wasn't until a day later that Zoo officials made a declarative statement the calf would be kept in Portland. By then, the incident spawned stories about the reputation of the elephant's true owner and the whole idea of keeping elephants in the relative confines of zoos.
Even though Zoo officials had disclosed previously the basic terms of their elephant breeding program, they failed to be alert to what could go wrong when the calf was born and public interest and sympathies were at their peak.
They are hardly alone.
Here are some simple questions to ask about sensitive activities in your business, nonprofit or public agency to assess a potential crisis: