Hollywood Struggles to Respond to “Dark Knight” Shooting: Crisis Communications Takeaways for the Rest of Us
By Susan Vernon-Devlin, Director of Public Relations Services, Massey Communications
After the shooting in an Aurora cinema during a “Dark Knight Rises” showing on early Friday morning, Warner Brothers canceled the Paris red carpet premiere of its $250 million dollar blockbuster “The Dark Knight Rises.” They also immediately issued a statement saying the studio was “deeply saddened’’ by the incident and expressed sympathies to the families of the victims. The stars and producers did not make appearances over the weekend, and director Christopher Nolan issued a statement declaring tragedy “appalling.”
And as reported by The Los Angeles Times, industry sources estimated on Sunday that the film still grossed close to $160 million on its debut. However, “official weekend estimates were not made available Sunday because Warner Bros. and other major Hollywood studios did not release box office revenue figures out of respect for those involved in the tragic movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo.”
These steps move in the right direction. But is this enough? In the wake of this tragedy, should the Hollywood movie-making machine devise a crisis communications strategy to manage incidents like these? My answer is yes.
This is a crisis that will have long term repercussions. It has long been stated by those in the psychology and psychiatric field that we have becoming an increasingly violent society. Video games now have more fire power than ever before. And every movie appealing to the male demographic 18-24, (the shooter in the Colorado incident is 24-years-old), is filled with car chases, gun battles and fist fights. Some may say this is an isolated incident, but humans are impressionable and if violence and crime are viewed as a thrill, and are inspired by the movies, this will happen again.
Studios large, small and independent need to have crisis communications plans at the ready. We advise all our clients to do so. Here are some additional crisis tips and general rules of thumb:
- Be Prepared. Yes, this is the entertainment business, but look at how quickly entertainment turned into sorrow and mourning less than 20 minutes into a film. “The Dark Knight Rises” is an action-packed thriller, but a movie about a jilted lover, or a misfit in a rom-com, could just as easily incite a violent, over-the-top reaction from someone. The studios should create a plan of action to respond. Send a representative to the site; don’t respond from afar. In this age of social media, establish a platform for people to express their opinions and their sympathies. Be prepared for positive and negative impacts. It will come from all sides.
- Tell the truth about the incident. If the studio feels the level of violence in the film may have caused the incident, say so, but be sure to have a remedy or suggestions for future films that may carry this level of angst with them. Look at the situation from all sides. The studio may be afraid this may have a negative impact, or ticket sales may also go through the roof because viewers may want to see the exact moment in the movie when the violence was incited. What are the victims feeling? How is the town feeling? What are movie theaters thinking? Will they have to beef up security, perhaps install metal detectors? Have a response and make it sincere.
- Remain calm. If you respond to a crisis with calm and reassurances, the feeling is contagious. Consider former New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani after 9-11. The city could have deteriorated into a bastion of chaos, but his messages quelled the fears of many, and brought together a City and a nation.
The shooting in Aurora, Colorado at “The Dark Knight Rises” is a wake-up call for those who think a crisis will not happen to them and are unprepared to respond. More condolences, statements of comfort and after-action remedies need to be presented by Hollywood studios to show that they acknowledge the crisis, feel the depth of the tragedy and know that the dollars spent to see their films should be paying for more than high-priced actors, producers and big-budget films. Money should also be spent on plans to deal with crisis.
Director of Public Relations, Susan Vernon-Devlin, authored this article as a crisis communications expert. She recently served as crisis consultant to the City of Sanford surrounding the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case, and is certified by FEMA, NIMS and ICS in crisis communication plans.
Massey Communications is an Orlando-based full-service advertising, public relations, design and strategic marketing agency established in 1985. With over 100 collective years of experience, Massey Communications bubbles over with ideas that help local, regional and national businesses pop. The agency is a subsidiary of Massey Services. For more information about Massey Communications and its unique boutique approach to branding, please visit www.masseycommunications.com.