The deep Dreamworld tragedy is now the nightmare that may not be forgotten or forgiven.
Equally, the reputation wreckage left in the roiling wake of that Thunder River Rapids ride was avoidable. What was needed amidst chaos were clear, and above all, human and humane thinking. Not easy, no. But necessary and totally expected from highly paid executives.
Of course, we don’t know the full deliberations of Dreamworld or the advice it took or rejected.
We only see the public result. From that it’s hard to know why the plainly obvious can remain so apparently unseeable to decision-makers in crisis, as they react – perhaps inadvertently – to deepen pain and destroy their reputation.
This crisis was bad and tragic. The disastrous effect of the bad response was totally foreseeable.
Dreamworld’s CEO started sensitively, with a quick statement after the event declaring that all efforts were bent to helping authorities, and all thought and hearts were with family and friends.
I’ve seen enough executives gripped by crises to know these feelings are sincere.
After that, things plummeted. In the Dreamworld bunker, the world must have been spinning so fast they probably felt they had no time to reflect fully on the humanity of their decisions. It truth, the executives may not have appreciated well enough how to manage the time they had.
Crises are awful, for sure. But their public unravelling, and searing media scrutiny, follow a pattern.
The first part, typically the first 24 hours, is about acknowledging tragedy, immediate condolences, unconditional co-operation with investigators, and the facts: what happened; what are the casualties; how big; what is happening now. Dreamworld did this quickly. The second part, the next day or so, is about the human face and grief: the victims and families, the scene pictures and videos, the stunned witnesses, the scene aftermath. The last part, which can take weeks, months and years, is about speculation, fault, blame, legal cases and recovery. Being clear-headed about these phases is not to diminish the tragedy, but rather to create space to respond sincerely to it.
What does this mean for Dreamworld, and why did they crash their own crisis response?
While within hours of the disaster the CEO was rightly expressing his shock and pain for victims, families, patrons and staff, internally Dreamworld needed to focus completely on day two.
Had they fully understood that every flinch of their corporate face would be interpreted mercilessly against the rawness of human grief, they could have demonstrated their sincere organisational grief accordingly. Measured against the tragedy, even the whiff of re-opening the park could only be interpreted as unconscionable. While the intent was to offer a memorial event, the effect signalled an untimely rush to reopen for business.
Keeping the victims and families as their priority, Dreamworld apparently overlooked that the only conceivable reopening or memorial event could occur only if families of victims explicitly requested it, and then only as they wanted it – and with police and safety inspectors’ endorsement. Further, that the CEO of parent company, Ardent, could be financially rewarded (a bonus) during this crisis, even if for retrospective good work, is mind boggling. Would a carmaker choose a horror fatal crash as the moment to laud the safety advances of its chief engineer?
It might be said that this is hindsight. But here’s some foresight.
Dreamworld’s nightmare is not over yet. Mercifully, Ardent finally conceded that they did not get their response right. They still have the aftermath to manage, the on-going blame, the leaks, the speculation, the recovery, the legal case all to come. Will they shut down? Or will they open?
Here is the really tough bit. Now is the opportunity for Dreamworld to redeem itself, somewhat, by being as transparent and open as possible. Yes, they need legal advice. But another error in crises is to rely too heavily on legal advice that is focussed predominantly on limiting liability. I don’t offer legal advice, but reputational advice suggests that Dreamworld must consider quickly how it may more publicly and practically demonstrate its regret and apology to families, staff and patrons and show continuing sincere empathy.
Is vowing to run one of the safest parks enough? What were they aiming for before?
To repair some trust, they must show patrons and community that they are trustworthy. That means even if they find a weakness in practices; and how they could commit to making their own internal investigations fully public.
It is about demonstrating honesty and openness when it hurts the most, even if it costs money in the short term, because you can almost guarantee it’s going to cost that and more in the long term.