Crisis of the Week: Disney Responds to Alligator Killing Boy

This is a weekly commentary by external experts.

This week the crisis involves Walt Disney Co. and its response to the death earlier this month of a two-year-old boy who was attacked by an alligator at one of the company’s resorts in Orlando, Fla. The boy was wading in the water as his family relaxed alongside the Seven Seas Lagoon at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa when the alligator attacked.

Walt Disney Co. reacted by shutting down all of the beaches at its resorts as a precautionary measure. Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger offered sympathies to the family of the dead boy, calling them on the phone personally. George Kalogridis, president of the Walt Disney World Resort, immediately flew to Orlando from China—where he was to mark the opening of the Shanghai Disney Resort theme park. The company also said it would will install signs warning theme-park guests of alligators in the area.

Charlyn Lusk, managing director, Stanton Public Relations & Marketing: “Disney did a number of things right: CEO Robert Iger promptly called the family of the child to offer his personal condolences, Walt Disney World President George Kalogridis reportedly took the first available flight from Shanghai to deal with the crisis at home and the company issued a statement to the media offering condolences. Disney also made–and followed up on–promises to post new signs and add fencing around the waterfront.

“However, Disney missed the mark on other aspects. A visit to the company website’s home page and social media sites found no mention of the tragedy and no link to the official statements, which are housed separately on the Disney Parks Blog. Instead, visitors to Disney.com are greeted with a full-page ad for Shanghai Disney or movies ‘Finding Dory’ and ‘Zootopia.’ Even the company’s ‘Recent News’ page, which is difficult to find on the site, remains glaringly silent more than a week after the incident. Strangely, both Walt Disney World’s Facebook page and Twitter account include a heartfelt statement about the Orlando night club shooting but nothing about the alligator incident.

“For a story as widely reported as this, a public statement of regret should be readily accessible on both the website and the news page. Also, Disney’s social media channels should acknowledge the incident, since that is where many people interact with the brands. While it is understandable that Disney does not want to lose momentum for its China venture or taint the carefully crafted image that it has built up over the years, the company seems to be underestimating the reputational risk that accompanies a public perception of apathy in the face of tragedy.”

Scott Farrell, president, global corporate communications, Golin: “There are executives who live in ignorance about the possibility of a debilitating crisis striking their company. And then there are those who, acknowledging that crises are inevitable, spend time and resources ensuring that their teams are equipped to appropriately respond at the speed demanded by today’s social media-driven news environment. Disney showed that it is among the latter group of crisis-prepared companies, as executives implemented a well-orchestrated communications plan in the hours following the recent tragic alligator attack.

“The first statement from Walt Disney World Resorts Vice President of Communications Jacquee Wahler–as well as those following from Disney CEO Robert Iger and Walt Disney World Resorts President George Kalogridis–were timely and properly empathetic, key qualities in the early hours of an event like this one. Ms. Wahler’s brief but effective statement for the morning news teams was followed shortly after with complementary statements from Mr. Iger and Mr. Kalogridis.

“Disney’s response rightly focused heavily on the tragic loss suffered by the family. Mr. Iger went further, personalizing his statement, calling to himself ‘as a parent and grandparent.’ He also spoke to the parents by phone from Shanghai, a thoughtful gesture. Mr. Kalogridis immediately returned to Orlando from Shanghai, underscoring the importance that he and the organization placed on the management of the Disney response.

“Notably absent from all communications immediately following the incident was any posturing about how it happened, or who might be to blame. Too often, even the earliest communications from a company engaged in a crisis go too deeply into explanations of what happened, ostensibly laying the groundwork for eventual litigation. Disney did not fall into that trap.”

Jolie Balido, president, Roar Media: “Under any circumstances, the death of a toddler at the jaws of an alligator is a terrible accident, but against the backdrop of Cinderella’s castle, in a land spun of dreams and wonder, the tragedy becomes hauntingly horrific. Despite the extremity of the situation, Disney swiftly rallied, responding in a focused, appropriate manner.

“All beaches were promptly shut down; Disney’s CEO called the family; the president of Walt Disney World Resort immediately flew to Orlando from the new Shanghai property’s opening; and in re-evaluating its protocols, the company committed to signage alerting guests to the possibility of alligators.

“From a communications standpoint, it would be wise for Disney to avoid overly marketing itself at this time, maintaining a respectfully low profile while the public heals. But no amount of fairy dust can speed the healing, as questions will linger about why warning signs that might have prevented the tragedy weren’t posted sooner.”