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Dreamworld tragedy serves sad lessons for media and business

When news broke on Tuesday afternoon of a serious incident with multiple fatalities at the Gold Coast’s Dreamworld, the shockwaves spread across the nation. Since 1981 many hundreds of thousands of Australian families, from all corners of the country, have made the theme park pilgrimage to the Gold Coast, and to the granddaddy of them all, Dreamworld.

So it’s not surprising the reaction to the horrific and tragic death of four people enjoying themselves on a ride designed for gentle thrills suitable for all ages, resonated so strongly with many of us – making many Australians recoil in horror and shed tears of sorrow. Many families had taken that exact ride…and there’s no doubt many thought, “That could have been us….”

But what of the media and Dreamworld’s management’s reaction to this tragedy?

To be fair, most of the media played it straight and faithfully reported the sad facts and developments as they happened. But then there was the Tasmanian radio host who thought making a sick gag about the horrific deaths and linking it to program’s secret sound would bring the house down…it did, right on top of her, with senior management taking her off-air immediately.  Note to Anna Dare – it’s never okay to make jokes about innocent and tragic deaths – ever.

On-line and print media seemed obsessed with a term used by a clearly distressed ambulance officer during a live TV cross – who described the victims having suffered injuries “incompatible with life”. Some on social media described the term as cold and heartless. It’s actually a very common medical term to describe extensive and catastrophic injuries. One newspaper went on to hypothesise in a macabre and totally unnecessary list, as to which type of injuries he might have been referring to…Why oh why the need to go to that grotesque next level?

Then there’s the reaction of the clearly rattled Dreamworld parent company Ardent who, so far, have made just about every crisis management mistake possible. Their press-conference after a board meeting where they’d just awarded massive director bonuses was a disaster on all fronts. Their decision to have a soft opening on Friday was misjudged and was widely condemned as being way too soon. Fortunately police stepped in and saved them the embarrassment of opening the Dreamworld gates just two and half days after the awful incident. I could go on…and on…about their missteps but you probably get the picture.

There are several golden rules for media and business when dealing with tragedies and they’re not too difficult to follow. First, be aware of and ultra-sensitive to the feelings of grieving families – be extremely  careful.  Second, tell the truth and be authentic in every outward and internal piece of communication. Thirdly, don’t rush for answers or apportion blame – jumping to conclusions is the last thing the public want or need.

Events like the Dreamworld tragedy serve us all lessons – none of them are pretty but they should be heeded by media and by business, so the next time (and there will be a next time) we don’t make the same mistakes.

Written by John Solvander the Director of Media Engagement at Media Stable

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