Secret Cinema’s PR Car-crash

Secret Cinema showed how not to communicate after the opening night of their latest event was cancelled.

Lots of modern knowledge-based skills are like Search Engine Optimisation: the first 80% of SEO is “build a decent website” and the last 20% is the ever-changing dark-magic that few people really understand.

I’m adding “communications in a crisis” to this list.

Secret cinema have cancelled their opening shows of Back To The Future, the first show cancelled about 2 hours before it was due to start. The comments on that post are just about as awful for the company as you’d expect.

The company is replying, but with a statement usually of the lines “please address your concerns to us at this email”. Unsurprisingly this isn’t meeting with much understanding from their customers.

As I type this on Friday evening, they’ve just cancelled the weekend shows, and the “situations beyond their control” appear to be the council aren’t satisfied the venue is safe.

Predictably, their Facebook wall has been carnage. People explaining how they’ve travelled far for this event, and are feeling let down. Now if you travel to a faraway place for a pop-up event, by a company who have cancelled opening nights before1, caveat emptor comes to mind. I’m not saying I don’t have sympathy, but I doubt I’d travel myself in the circumstances…

Crisis comms are hard

There are companies who charge you an awful lot of money for just this. The ones you call when things are really bad: like when your product kills people.  But much like SEO, companies can do the simple things to get the first part themselves.

4 Basic Steps to Delivery, You’ll Never Guess What Happens When You Don’t Do Them:

  1. Project Management is your friend: If they didn’t know until the first day that they had these problems, they don’t have a decent project/production management team. This isn’t a hobby, this is a company that take a lot of money from people, they need a decent delivery function that could warn ahead of time.
  2. Honestly within the company: can you delivery team tell you that there are possible problems, or are you stuck in an organisation where the status report has to be green? Or worse, are you in an organisation that denies possible problems until they’ve actually happened.
  3. Run Pilot events. This is the kind of thing you probably want a few preview nights, beyond rehearsing with the cast, but rehearsing with audiences there so you can check things work. You can set expectations for these nights better, with lower tickets prices, and framed as a community rather than a customer experience. Scratch that, apparently their preview on Wednesday was also cancelled.
  4. Prioritise: there will have been things here key to the experience, and things that were icing. Build and get approval for the main stuff first. If you can’t do the other bits that’s a shame, and the pilot/early nights might be impaired. But at least they can run.

The 6 Secrets to Basic Crisis Comms Techniques They Don’t Want You To Know:

  1. Don’t Weasel Word: Be very careful about the phrase “beyond our control”. I watched a documentary about Crossrail last week. The crane they needed one weekend didn’t turn up because only 2 of them are in the country, and the one they’d booked was delayed. That is “beyond their control”.  I say this with no insider knowledge, beyond the news articles, but  Secret Cinema were in control of applying and meeting council safety approvals. Saying it’s “beyond your control” makes an organisation look like it’s in denial.
  2. Appear Open:  They should have published their compensation policy and directed people to that. Telling people to “address concerns” privately makes it look like the organisation has something to hide.
  3. Appear Honest: This isn’t an outage of a complex system that takes time to diagnose. Saying you’ll post “more information later” just makes it look like an organisation in disarray.
  4. Take the Hits upfront: They could have cancelled more shows upfront, still disappointed people, but put them in control earlier. Drip-feeding cancellations just continues the uncertainty, again adding to the appearance of disarray.
  5. Finally, you’ve broken promises: Don’t make any other promises you can’t keep. It seems so minor, but saying you’ll update at 11am and failing to post anything until after 12 just continues the appearance of the organisation in crisis and denial.

I suspect this incident will be a case-study for crisis PR for years to come.