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With the harsh facts of the Dreamworld accident now known, we move onto the next step. What will happen to those who ran the park?
Dreamworld and its parent company have more than a few obstacles to climb if they’re to weather the storm stemming from an in-house tragedy.
There is something of a perfect storm, just on a conceptual level, about what the next steps would be for the management at Dreamworld, and for their parent company, Ardent Leisure. When four of your customers die at your park because of something going wrong with one of your attractions, it’s not something you recover from easily.
An ASX-listed company, Ardent will doubtlessly be in full damage control and be enacting all manner of crisis management strategies even as we speak. But there’s a world of “what if’s” to take on board. On the day in question, they kept their response statements brief, sympathetic and public. They’re doing it right so far. But there’s a long, long road ahead of them. And many questions to ponder.
When do they re-open their doors… or do they?
You’d think so, as Dreamworld is the jewel in the Ardent Leisure crown – there’s not a lot of money to be made in just running a chain of bowling alleys and indoor rock climbing venues. They really do have a job ahead of them. You’ve got the initial (and justified) media skirmish, as well as the additional weight carried by social media chatter. But even if they handle themselves well – which by all accounts they have thus far – they still have the PR problem faced by the idea that if they open their doors again: when is it ever going to not be “too soon”? If they re-open, does the public take a softer approach than the share markets (Ardent stocks have fallen over 20% following the accident), and acknowledge that accidents happen? Or do they steer clear altogether? You’ll need to have been under a rock for some time before Dreamworld is not instantly synonymous with the events of this week. There’s guaranteed to be police, OH&S and coroner’s inquests to take place. This could take years, cost millions in outside legal costs, penalties, compensation, and ruin the company. There’d be thousands of jobs at stake, too.
Do they re-brand?
That’s another tricky one. Dreamworld has been a substantial name brand for decades, among the top family destinations in the country for just as long. If and when you do re-brand, the inherent problem you’re faced with is the fact that a paucity of people will see your rebranding (and crisis marketing) as anything other than a cynical exercise in just that. “Dreamworld killed four people, now they’ve called themselves ‘Brisbane Adventure Park’…but they still killed four people.” Malaysia Airlines could re-brand themselves Penang Jetways, and they’ll forever be tarnished with the plane that vanished, and the one shot down over Ukraine. Ardent have to figure out a way to conduct market research without looking opportunistic, and still ask the questions without seeming like they’re clueless and don’t know the answers. There was a fundamental duty of care failure at their hands, and you don’t come back from that too easily. Especially when the safety of children is in question.
Do they tear the ride down?
You’d think so. Johnson & Johnson pulled Tylenol off all American shelves when it had been found that a bunch of bottles had been tampered with, leading to the deaths of seven people in Chicago in 1982. J&J’s response has since then been seen as the “gold standard” of crisis management, in that they yanked every last bottle from the shelves, hanging the expense: you don’t want your product hurting people. The event also sparked stricter packaging and anti-tampering measures taking place. Tylenol remains a market leader, and Johnson & Johnson is blue chip. Should Dreamworld tear down the ride in question, it’d send a similarly clear signal. But then what? Do you replace it with another ride? Do you establish a memorial? If you do, does that stand as a constant, permanent reminder that four people died on your watch in 2016? Not an easy one to answer.
Following the advent of the “Ghost Train” fire at Sydney’s Luna Park in 1979, when seven people died (six of them children), the park was closed for three years, eventually re-opening with a new name and new owners. That was all pre-OHS, pre-Internet, pre-social media. Word travels fast. Armchair experts weigh in in real time.
We’ve not heard the end of this, not by a long shot. The news media, on a meta-level, love this stuff. Whenever news retrospectives take place, or stories link to the initial cause of the event, they have resources devoted to dredging it up. This event will doubtlessly rank alongside the likes of the Westgate Bridge collapse, the Thredbo landslide or the Granville rail disaster as go-to images for news networks to exploit.
There’s a lot in the air, and the outcome is to be determined. Nobody knows anything. The only winners in this whole thing will be lawyers.
That you can count on.