Anatomy of a PR disaster
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.
Oh yeah, and this piece of important context missing from two previous stories.
“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.
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.