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Crisis Communication Plan for High-top Family Theme Park (HTP)

Crisis Communication Plan

Situation Analysis

The situation analysis critically evaluates both the internal and external conditions currently affecting High-top Family Theme Park (HTP). The analysis is significant as it helps generate the insights necessary to develop a better understanding of the options available for managing the situation. As well as the various stakeholders targeted by the crisis communication plan. HTP is a family-owned and operated theme park located along the shores of Inks Lake in Austin, Texas. The park was founded in 1957 and has grown to become one of the largest amusement attractions in the South-Central part of the country. Over the decades, the park has built a brand reputation as a fun, clean, safe family place and boasts over 80 rides, large water parks, and 39 food stations serving everything from salads to pizza and sandwiches to hamburgers. The park is well- known for offering free sodas to all its guests and its 4,000 employees. However, HTP has become vulnerable to crises involving public health which risk undermining its future sustainability and public relations (PR). This document presents a communication plan for the theme park to guide the PR team on how to provide key stakeholders with information regarding the health incident. The following are the primary issues identified in the ongoing crisis.

On June 24th, a potential link between cases of E. coli 0157:H7 and the parks’ customers were discovered by the Texas State Health Department (TSHD); E. coli 0157 is considered one of the most dangerous infection by healthcare professionals. As such, the discovery tainted the park’s brand reputation which prided itself on maintaining a clean and safe family space. According to Byrne (2016), there is a minimum number of microbes needed to begin an infection, which is referred to as the infectious dose. In most cases, the number is significantly high and thousands of microbial cells need gain entry into one’s body before symptoms of infection appear (Wasey & Salen, 2019 and Gossman, Wasey, & Salen, 2019). However, for the E. coli 0157:H7 infectious, the dose is extremely low since a small number, as low as 10 E. coli cells, can result in bloody diarrhoea and in some cases can cause fatal haemorrhagic colitis or severe kidney disorders.

The field testing by the TSHD team found positive results for the presence of E. coli in the kiddie wading pool but other attraction in the water park tested positive. Consequently, the wading pool was closed immediately until further notice. While the other teams testing park food and other locations found no indications of E. coli, they requested a meeting with the park personnel responsible for testing to review previous lab results and procedures. It became apparent that the required rigorous testing approaches used by the park were not utilized in the period preceding the outbreak. The review conducted by the health team resulted in a shocking discovery which showed significant anomalies in the testing carried out by the park’s lab.

Early indications during the investigation disclosed evidence that pointed to one of the park’s labs employee repeatedly failing to run the real tests three weeks prior. Instead, the employee fabricated the results which had grave consequences for the park. The entire crisis can be traced back to Frank Scolini, the lab employee who is said to be suffering from mood swings and depression. His vague references to having family problems had been ignored and none of his colleagues realized he was not performing his assigned work. Beebe Thornton, a reporter from the Texarkana Gazette, wants an audience with Laura Garfield, the park’s Vice President in PR and Marketing. Having the media covering the health crisis can significantly undermine the park’s brand reputation and future businesses. The park risks legal litigation from the people who fell ill due to the lab’s negligence in testing and treating the water. The HTP’s executives know that too much cooperation opens them to all forms of lawsuits. Also, if the park offers to cater to medical bills for the people who fell sick, it would be an admission of guilt, further increasing the risk of legal litigation. Based on precedence set with the White-Water Water Park in 1998, wherein the park was sued after several children became ill from E. coli O157:H7 infections, the HTP Park also risks suffering from legal litigations.

Strategy

The strategic approach developed to handle communications related to the incident involves a dumbing down through a PR press plan. Pioli (2018) defines dumbing down as the oversimplification of information and facts to achieve communication goals. Preble (2017) further adds that the dumbing down stagey sacrifices the accuracy, honesty, and even the integrity of the message being passed along. An example of a dumbing down strategy in communication includes the catchphrases and propaganda repeated by the media during World War Two in which viewers were asked to “keep calm and carry on” (Harrison, 2016). Porcelli (2016) argues that such phrases were only meant to promote the belief that business could go on as usual amidst a global conflict which affected everyone.  The oversimplification strategy was selected because HTP does not want to admit guilt in regard to the E Coli outbreak which was traced to negligence by its lab employee. Instead, the park wants all stakeholders involved to keep calm and carry on as if the business is usual. This way, both the sustainability and public image of the park may be sustained in the future. A PR press plan focuses on how the park aims to raise its profile through the media.  This includes oversimplifying the facts related to the crisis and communicating them via print, broadcast, and online media.

The protocol must remain essential to the proper management of the crisis communications efforts. Each member of the park’s crisis response team should understand their responsibilities as well as when to take a proactive or reactive approach in regard to the media coverage of the incident. Irrespective of the strategy used, a company must relay protocol to personnel who may be approached by the media to speak on its behalf (Dwyer & Hopwood, 2019). As such, the oversimplification strategy will only be effective when all the employees, stakeholders, and board members are duly informed of who should be speaking with the media as well as how the inquiries made by the journalist Beebe Thornton, will be directed. Therefore, enforcing protocol throughout the communication strategy will save the park from having to explain public comments made by unofficial company representatives.

The communications strategy involving dumbing down PR messages via the press is designed to help the park communicate effectively core organizational objectives related to sustainability and brand reputation. As such, there are several key elements included in the strategy to ensure it fits into the park’s overall communications strategy. These elements provide the justifications necessary to implement the strategic approach to handling the communication related to this incident. They include the statement of purpose, organizational and communications objectives, identifying key stakeholders, messages, communications methods, work plan, and evaluating success. Firstly, the statement of purpose mentions up front why the communications strategy was developed and what it hopes to achieve (Romadhoni, 2015). In HTP’s case, this statement reads to develop strategic and tactical recommendations for managing communications in the E Coli outbreak crisis.  The statement will act as a reference and reminder for the crisis management and public relations teams.

Secondly, organizational and communication objectives will be highlighted to ensure they closely reflect the park’s overall organizational plan. Also, the park’s vision and core aims are taken into account which involves maintaining a brand reputation as a fun, clean, and safe family place. The specific objectives that the strategy seeks to achieve are discussed in detail in the section on Tactical Plan for Initial Response. The communication objectives contribute to the achievement of the park’s vision for a safe and fun place (Cooper, 2015). Thirdly, all the key stakeholders will be identified as well as the specific message that will be delivered to each. A detailed description of the primary audiences both external and internal have been provided which include the public, politicians, service users, and the staff among others. Fourthly, the key communications methods for each audience has been identified to include an e-bulletin, workshops, leaflets, press releases, and conferences.

Finally, the communications strategy concludes with a section on evaluation.  This helps in attempting to understand what success will look like and how the crisis management team will know when objectives have been met. Many tools can be used to evaluate the different sections of the park’s communications. Firstly, the number of responses generated through the e-bulletins as well as hits to the park’s website will be statistically analyzed and the results presented as tables to help conclude. Also, measures of media coverage in terms of volume as well as breadth and depth will be used to help the team understand how often the PR messages were mentioned. Measuring media coverage helps in establishing whether there has been a shift in public attitude in regard to the park’s brand perception. Moreover, the evaluations can measure the number of people pushing for legal litigations against the people who suffered from E Coli to establish whether the strategy was successful in the long run.

Stakeholders

Like most theme parks, HTP has numerous audiences with whom it needs to interact during a crisis. As such, it is significant to identify the specific audiences who must be actively engaged throughout the communication plan (Hatipoglu, Alvarez, & Ertuna, 2016). Developing a better understanding of the stakeholders makes it easier for the park to prioritize its communications work (Lim & Greenwood, 2017 and Au-Yong, Ali, Ahmad, & Chua, 2017).  Table 1 presents the key stakeholders’ analysis. It highlights the stakeholders that must be engaged during the crisis. The stakeholder analysis conducted shows that the staff, community groups, the government, the public, and customers are the priority. stakeholders who must be engaged at all levels throughout the communication plan. Table 1. The key stakeholders that must be engaged during the crisis.

 

Stakeholders Impact Influence What is important to the Stakeholder Stakeholder contribution to the communication plan How the stakeholders can block the communication plan Strategy for engaging the stakeholder
The Public and Customers

 

High High Reliable services in a safe and fun environment Their feedback is utilized in the decision-making process and legal litigations By going to court Offering guarantee of safety
Politicians High Medium Safe and ethical environment They criticize they current practices at the park By spoiling the reputation Appealing to the public
Staff High High Adherence to the best practices at work Are tasked with implementing safety standards Quitting work due to social pressure Keeping them informed and motivated
Board of Trustees

 

Medium High Overall responsibility for the management of the park Make directives Refuse to give directives Keeping them informed and motivated
Community Groups

 

High High Corporate social responsibility Social action Condemnation of the business Keeping them informed and motivated
The Government High High Adherence to laws and regulations Legal litigation Court Action Adherence to laws and regulation

 

 

Messages

Since HTP’s stakeholders are now known, the next task involves breaking down the key objectives into relevant messages. This process starts with the highest priority stakeholders. Table 2 sets out the three key messages that will form the basis of the communications plan. The public, customers, and community groups have been grouped because they all need to know the same thing and the key communication message is the same. However, it is different from what the park will communicate with the government and employees.

 

Table 2. The three key messages:

Audience What they need to know Key communication messages
The public, customers, and community groups How to make the services offered safer and reliable in a fun environment as well as how to increase corporate social reasonability (CSR) activities within the community Our services are safer than ever before, and we are more committed to improving the social and economic status of the community in which we operate.
The government How to improve the working environment, how to make them more stress-free and satisfied at work, and how to help them adhere to the best practices at work. We promise to continue improving the working environment to reduce stress and help you maintain a healthy work-life balance. We shall constantly engage you with workshops and training programs to enable you to adhere to the best practices at work.
Staff How to ensure adherence to safety laws and regulations We shall work closely with all key government agencies to ensure we always adhere to safety laws and regulations.

 

Tactical Plan for Initial Response

The tactical plan designed will be executed over the next three days. However, the plan can be extended beyond this period with significant adjustments.   Communication tools should be developed to support the strategy and achieve the identified goals to include email marketing, influencer marketing, and social media platforms. The communication actions that have been recommended to deal with this crisis involve oversimplifying the facts related to the incident in an attempt to downplay the perceived consequences and reduce the risk of legal litigation and public uproar. HTP’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Dave Bristol, was selected as the primary spokesperson to reflect the seriousness with which the park had taken in addressing the incident.

Goals and Objectives

The communication plan seeks to achieve the following six objectives:  Firstly, the plan will not confirm or deny any outbreak within the park to avoid the risk of possible legal litigation. The park is within its right not to comment on the issue unless required by a court to do so. Secondly, the plan seeks to show all the priority stakeholders that the E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak is not a threat within the park and the services and activities offered are safe. Thirdly, the communication plan will show that the park remains committed to improving its social and economic contributions. Fourthly, the plan will make explicit promises that it will continue improving its working environment to reduce stress among its staff while helping them maintain a healthy work-life balance. Fifthly, the plan will downplay the decision by the TSHD to close the children’s wading pool until further notice by highlighting its continued efforts to ensure that safety comes first in everything it does. The approach is effective, as it shifts the focus from the E Coli outbreak to the park’s commitment to safety. Finally, the PR team will meet with Beebe Thornton and other reporters to highlight the park’s renewed effectors towards ensuring safety. However, there will be no mention of the E Coli incidence.

Tactical Plan and Recommended Tactics

Four tactics have been recommended: Firstly, the lab employee will be relieved of his duties and a therapist will be offered for free.  Secondly, the board of directors will engage in plausible deniability whereby they deny any responsibility for any damnable actions committed by said employee because of a lack of evidence that can confirm their contribution. Thirdly, the park should embark in active marketing to promote its safety measures to its customers (Clow, 2016). While these tactics seem cold-hearted, they are meant to safeguard the park from unnecessary legal litigations (Shapira, 2016). Finally, the park should develop and implement a system for observing employee behavior to identify those undergoing psychological problems and help them before they develop into work-related problems. The approach is effective because it increases the overall satisfaction levels among its employees.

Tactical Sequence

Relieving the lab employee from his current position must be done first as he is unstable and cannot be trusted with handling the responsibilities related to people’s health. Also, failure to relieve the employee of his duties fails to send the right message across the employees in regard to negligence offering other employees to potentially become complacent at work. Secondly, the board of directors, including the senior executives, will engage in plausible deniability which will continue for the long-term. All junior employees who join the park will be oriented on what not to say to the press. Thirdly, the park will start active marketing and promotions before developing and implementing a system for observing employee behavior.

Public Statement

“Ladies and gentlemen, as the CEO of High-top Family Theme Park, I am very pleased to welcome you to our press conference. I will be reporting on the incident relating to E. coli within the park. Our park remains committed to maintaining the highest levels of safety and health standards and we intend to continue with this tradition in our journey to becoming an industry pacesetter in regard to our patrons’ health and safety. Our rigorous testing methods are focused on taking water samples twice daily from each of the water parks to analyzing them, ensuring the appropriate mix of chemicals is introduced into the system to kill bacteria. Chlorine kills E. coli; thus, we remain confident and certain that our water parks are safe not only for adults but also for children.

Nonetheless, like any other businesses, there will always be areas that need improvement to further guarantee safety and health.  We recently discovered this area and ensuring that our employees understand how important it is to maintain high safety standards. One of our employees, whose name we shall withhold for privacy issues, failed to execute his responsibilities appropriately which may have resulted in incomplete records on how chlorine was placed in the water. While we are glad his mistake did not cause any human loss, we are saddened that it raised an alarm in regard to the emergence of an E Coli outbreak. However, I am here today to confirm to everyone that our park is safe, and we have no evidence of such an outbreak.

For those in doubt, I want to assure them that in our efforts to ensure the safety of our patrons, the employee was relieved of his duties and is currently seeking help to help him manage his transition. However, the company has distanced itself from any damnable actions committed by the said employee; investigations are ongoing. We remain focused in engaging in the best practices in regard to safety measures and are now committed towards helping our employees deal with their psychological problems.”

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