Cancellation of Halloween Horrors: A Public Relations Horror

22 Sep

By now, you should have already heard: there will be no horrors at the Night Safari come this Halloween.

The cancellation of the spook fest has been the talk of the town since the announcement was made last Tuesday. It sparked a furore both online and off.

It seems that everyone has something to say. The topics run the gamut from speculating why the event was abandoned to condemning the poor management of public relations of the Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS), the parent company of the Night Safari.

Netizens are up in arms over the sudden cancellation of Halloween Horrors and slammed the decision on blogs and social media. Offline, newspaper forum pages have been abuzz with viewpoints and opinions on this issue.

I am in no way affected by the cancellation and can only offer my views as a passive observer of the chain of events that unfurled over the last two weeks. I don’t celebrate Halloween (always thought it’s just another reason for adults to dress up in an attempt to hark back to their childhood days) and have never been a fan of these fright nights.

The last (and hopefully final) time I went through one was during my freshmen year. In fact, I went through two. Two fright nights in a span of two months – one for my faculty camp, and the other during hall orientation camp. Needless to say, I was terrified of the ‘ghosts’ and ‘spirits’ that jumped out at me along the dark corridor and I vividly remember telling myself that I am never going to let anyone put me through this anymore.

Still, this saga is of immense interest to me.

What immediately struck the communications student in me when I first got wind of this news was the appalling manner in which the company managed this whole issue.

Lessons from my Public Relations Writing class came flooding back as I read reports after reports about the controversy. I shall take the liberty to delve into some of these lessons.

Lesson #1: Be honest 

This is, what I believe, to be the root of all the heated public discussion. WRS seem to be hiding something behind their backs, given the abrupt turn of events. The private company, set up in 2000, cancelled the Halloween fest merely two weeks shy of the event. This was after 1000 tickets, which cost between $40 and $56 for adults, were sold. This was after 17 Singapore Polytechnic students spent the last seven months working on the event as part of their final-year project. And this, was after nearly $1 million had been pumped into the organisation of the event.

The reason for the sudden cancellation was due to “negative feedback from corporations, friends of the zoo, the public and the media, especially over the event’s relevance in relation to conservation”, said Ms Isabella Loh, WRS’ new chief executive.

It is a valid reason, granted, if the decision made to can this event was made long ago. Detractors have pointed out that if that really is the reason, then the show should go on for the last time this year. I cannot agree more. It shows a complete lack of strategic planning on the part of the management. Using this feeble excuse to justify their actions is puzzling and suspicious all at the same time.

If WRS is bold enough to make such a radical decision, then they should be daring enough to come clean with their real agenda.

Lesson #2: Never stay silent

It was reported in a story published on Monday in The New Paper that since releasing a statement, WRS has “decided not to answer further queries”. Staying silent is one of the worst thing an organisation or an individual should do when thrust into the media and public spotlight. Not coming clean with the truth is bad enough, but staying silent is worse. Keeping mum would do nothing to quell speculations and would only create the impression that the organisation is indifferent to the storm that is brewing in the public sphere. It shows a complete lack of respect to what the general public thinks. Eventually, the public backlash may even translate to poor business in future as the level of trust in the company goes downhill.

Lesson #3: Be consistent

There is disparity in WRS’ public statements. Ms Isabella Loh first attributed the cancellation of Halloween Horrors to the need for “more family-bonding and wholesome activities”. To support her point, she drew reference to President Tony Tan’s comments at a separate event at the zoo three weeks ago.

Dr Tan had said then: “Such family bonding, I believe, is very important for Singapore because we need to create informal occasions where families, children can bond with their parents and grandparents.”

Ms Loh subsequently apologised to Dr Tan for taking his comments out of context and in the process implicated him in this issue.

A few days later, she explained that the decision to abandon the fright night was because stakeholders feel that the Halloween fest has little to do with conservation. Yet a few days later, she revealed that after a visit to the Halloween Horrors programme, she felt “uncomfortable” and “upset” because it was “too scary”, suggesting that her personal views and beliefs were reasons for the cancellation.

This incongruence simply reflects poor corporate messaging. It would have worked better had WRS stated all the reasons from the very beginning. The varied accounts confuse the public and as mentioned, fuels speculations that they have something to hide.

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If anything, the horror of these events lie not in the fright night itself but in the mismanagement of the corporate communications team of the WRS. It is shocking and  horrifying to see an established organisation make such grave mistakes when the stakes are so high.

The good news for WRS is that this saga would undoubtedly tide over in no time. People will move on, in pursuit of the next scandal. But this incident will not be forgotten completely. The impact of such controversy is far-reaching. If WRS continues to clamp up and refuse to get down to the crux of this issue, they just have to live with the consequences of a tarnished reputation that will surely haunt them for a long time to come.

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One Response to “Cancellation of Halloween Horrors: A Public Relations Horror”

  1. Jeremy Wagstaff October 6, 2011 at 2:38 am #

    Well argued and clear. I think you might have gotten to the point a little faster, and hit a little harder with your first sentence. It could also have been a bit shorter. But otherwise good.

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