Pittsburgh Zoo faces PR crisis with new disclosure

| Friday, Oct. 25, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium faces a “smoldering crisis” partly of its own making nearly a year after a 2-year-old boy was mauled to death at one of its exhibits, public relations experts said.

Documents filed in court this week by the attorneys for the family of Maddox Derkosh, killed Nov. 4 as a result of falling into the African painted dogs enclosure, appear to contradict zoo CEO Barbara Baker's assertion shortly after the tragedy that she wasn't aware of any concerns about the exhibit's safety. The documents say the zoo's safety committee warned top officials at least four times that children could tumble into the exhibit, which has since been removed.

Zoo officials declined to address the conflict between those two statements on Thursday.

“The Pittsburgh Zoo has a very active safety committee. The committee is state certified and reviews all areas of the park,” zoo spokeswoman Tracy Gray said. “After careful inspection it was determined that the exhibit continuously exceeded the safety requirements mandated by the (U.S. Department of Agriculture) and (Association of Zoos and Aquariums).”

“As this is a continuing legal process, we have no further comment,” she said.

Some of the zoo's responses to previous inquiries about the tragedy have noted the Agriculture Department inspected the exhibit 35 times after it opened in 2006.

Citing endorsements by outside organizations isn't a unique public relations approach, but it can anger the audience it's meant to win over, said Gerard Braud, a crisis communications expert based in New Orleans.

“I get somewhat incensed when I see a public relations professional hiding behind standards from some institution when, clearly, if a person falls through a cage and is mauled to death and dies, someone's standards weren't high enough,” Braud said. “I get incensed when there's a lack of congruency between the words that are being said and the actions that are being taken or were taken.”

Zoo lawyers successfully petitioned Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Paul F. Lutty Jr. to seal photos comparing the Pittsburgh zoo's African painted dog exhibit with those of other zoos, saying they would be prejudicial. The zoo, its lawyers and lawyers for the Derkosh family declined to provide minutes of the zoo's safety committee meetings, which Derkosh's lawyers quoted in the documents filed this week.

“Increasingly organizations are turning to prepared statements and to the Internet,” said Gene Grabowski, executive vice president of Levick Strategic Communications in Washington and a former Pittsburgh reporter.

“It's easier, and it's one-way correspondence, so no extra questions are asked. Secondly, by limiting statements that way, the position of legal counsel is that it reduces the risk of saying something that's contradictory or something that can hurt them in a court of law. That's why companies do this so freely,” Grabowski said.

Such an approach can make people “cynical” toward the zoo if unfavorable news continues to trickle out, Braud said.

“This is a classic smoldering crisis,” he said, comparing it to the handling of the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State.

“I think you're going to see some folks get to the point where they're fed up,” he said.

For an entity such as the zoo that depends on public support, that's dangerous, Braud said.

“They might come back later. But this trial, I think, is going to hurt their reputation and possibly revenues because of the responses we're getting. A response has to have empathy and that's not what we're seeing.”

There are more immediate concerns for the zoo as well, said Shelley Kaufman, a Los Angeles lawyer who helped negotiate a settlement after a fatal 2007 tiger attack at the San Francisco Zoo.

The claim that Pittsburgh zoo officials were notified of safety concerns at the exhibit, despite Baker's assertion, could be “devastating for the zoo” in court, Kaufman said.

“That would exactly show the zoo was on notice of the problems,” she said.

Adam Smeltz and Mike Wereschagin are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Reach Smeltz at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com. Reach Wereschagin at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com.

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