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Massachusetts Liberal

Observations on politics, the media and life in Massachusetts and beyond from the left side of the road.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Anatomy of a PR disaster

Whoever does PR and legislative relations for Zoo New England deserves a raise. And it should come from the pocket of the folks who do crisis communications for the Patrick administration.

The Tempest in a Zoo saga we were treated to over the weekend should be required reading for reporters, PR folks and public officials. We were spun so hard we're still dizzy.

Let's start with the basic facts -- missing from the stories. Anyone and everyone receiving public support is taking a trim because of the massive cuts needed in the state budget. That includes cities and towns -- and the police, firefighters and teachers they employ. That includes health and social service providers -- like Boston Medical Center.

The likelihood is that at some point someone is going to die because of a closed firehouse or reduced mental health or social services.

The folks at Zoo New England took the classic approach to deal with the $4 million sliced from their budget. They drafted a letter with dire predictions about euthanizing animals and sent it to legislative leaders on Tuesday. And they handed it to the Globe on a Friday afternoon of a lazy summer weekend.

The reaction was as predictable as a fire over African grasslands. But despite several days head start, the Patrick administration was caught flatfooted.

“These are extremely difficult times across the state, and there have been tough cuts in every area,’’ a Patrick spokeswoman, Cyndi Roy, said in a statement. “This is an example of an unfortunate cut that had to be made in order to preserve core services for families struggling during the economic downturn.’’

That doesn't seem quite strong enough when contrasted to this from Boston Mayor Tom Menino, who is looking at closing firehouses and other budget-cutting nightmares.

“This is just another bad decision on budget cuts, affecting working families. ... It’s a big deal,’ It’s a great resource for the community. The zoo is an inexpensive place to spend a day in tough economic times.’’

On the second day, zoo officials up the ante and say that state bureaucrats - and not animal-care professionals - would be responsible for deciding whether some animals would have to be killed if the zoos closed.

Game, set, match. Zoos win.

Finally, on the third news cycle, the administration -- and the media -- catch on to the world class PR effort.

“As a supporter of the zoo and a parent who has visited often, the governor is disappointed to learn that Zoo New England has responded to this difficult but unavoidable budget cut by spreading inaccurate and incendiary information,’’ Kyle Sullivan, a spokesman for the governor, said in a statement.

And a second Patrick aide emphatically ruled out the killing of any animals.

“There will be no consideration given to euthanizing any animals under the state’s watch,’’ said Joe Landolfi, Patrick’s director of communications. If the zoos were to close, Landolfi said, the state would work to find new homes for the animals.

Oh yeah, and this piece of important context missing from two previous stories.
Zoo officials have used the prospect of euthanizing animals in prior fights against state budget cuts. Faced with similar funding reductions in the early 1990s that forced the closure of the Stone Zoo, officials initially said many of those animals would have to be euthanized. But none were. Instead, most were moved to the Franklin Park Zoo until 1994, when the Stone Zoo was reopened.
Think that the bleeding of veteran reporters from the Globe hasn't made a difference in terms of what is sometimes called institutional memory?

One other point worth mentioning. Leading the charge for the animals is Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei, you know the guys who leads that rag-tag little group of lawmakers standing up for taxpayers. See, even Republicans aren't as heartless as Deval!

There is usually a fleeting mention to the fact that the cuts would also affect the Stone Zoo -- which happens to be located in Tisei's district. All politics really is local after all.

So relax, no bureaucrat is going to bump off Little Joe. But money is going to get sliced somewhere else to pay for it. All budget politics is a zero sum game after all -- and you can't spin that fact.

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Blogger Chris Rich said...

Oh jeeze, this whole hand wringing fest travesty mainly proved that Zoo New England is a charter member of the grifter cohort.

I followed the commentariat streams over at the Glob and the Hairoil.

The outraged something for nothing ditzes outnumbered the pragmatic disgruntled by 10 to 1 with fat comment runs that were larded with near hysteria.

I wanna know what the Executive Director of ZNE is paid. Is it another grotesquerie on par with the Mark Volpe hog party over at BSO or is it more modest and altruistic?

And I wanna know where all the blue blood philanthropists are in all this? If the BSO can have a 350 million dollar endowment, what about the Zoos?

Oh wait, they mainly work to elevate the importance of being white euro mutts and can't be bothered with hapless giraffes.

What was I thinking? Why are zoos even an item in commonwealth budgets?

So let's reframe, shall we. This set of anachronisms is kept in some fiscal limbo because our philanthropy posse is a bunch of disgusting cheap skates unless an entity serves their cultural propaganda agendas.

The leading mutual funds like Fidelity, the fat corporations like Boston Scientific and millionaires like Grover Norquist could pony up the shortfall without much fuss.

So could the management of that cash cow, the Boston Red Sox. Where are they. No, lets continue to foist the cost on the plebian tax payers.

This is yet another case study in the Ditz-disgruntled-grifter dynamic where the grifters pull another rabbit out of their hat.

July 13, 2009 7:22 AM  
OpenID claverackjohn said...

EXCELLENT blog post! I was just discussing the zoo problem with my wife after having learned about it on Twitter. The zoo people could teach all of us a bit about guerilla marketing!

John Scott Smith

Twitter feed: www.twitter.com/johnscottsmith

July 13, 2009 10:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gorilla marketing, surely...

July 13, 2009 7:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually you have it wrong. The Stone Zoo was closed in 1989 and reopened by 1991. During the period it was closed to the public the zoo was still "open",incurring a lot of expense because not all of the animals were able to be transfered to other zoos. For example, Major, the polar bear had some type of virus and no other zoo would take him. The animals that were left were indeed scheduled to be put to sleep. Once that was made public there was a groudswell of opposition that went up and they did not dare touch those animals.

The point is that if the zoo closed to the public there are animals that the Zoo would be unable to transfer. So do you keep the zoos mothballed but "open" to care for them or do put them to sleep?

Zoo New England did the right and responsible thing by providing these facts to the legislative leadership. True the media blew it out of proportion but this is a mess that Deval and crew have nobody to blame but themselves for.

July 13, 2009 9:26 PM  

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