What to do when tragedy strikes

In 2007, a tiger at the San Francisco Zoo escaped her enclosure on Christmas Day to follow a group of young men, killing one.

The board asked me to become interim director until the crisis was resolved. Every crisis has a story to be told. Ours focused on the motivation of the tiger, as the zoo had never before experienced an escape like this. We learned from eyewitnesses that the men had been behaving poorly, taunting animals [subsequent blood tests revealed drug use). Nevertheless, the families of the men sued.

Legally, the case was relatively simple. Wrongful death suits are calculated by standard metrics. Public perception was more complicated. Families cancelled zoo memberships out of safety concerns, corporate donors wanted to avoid being tainted by crisis and attendance fell to all-time lows. Employee morale plummeted. We needed to restore our own faith in the zoo, as well as that of our community.

We reviewed our animal collection, focusing on the most endangered animals and species. We made safety and security a top priority. And we invested in regaining the trust of our family members. Today, the zoo’s attendance and operating revenues are back to pre-accident levels. We have a renewed commitment to animal care, our community and our members.

Here are a few key lessons that were learned:

Gather ALL of your facts ASAP
Today’s media will give you little time to investigate, yet no post-accident investigation can be completed overnight. Many leaders have trouble saying, “I don’t know,” and may provide information based more on assumption than fact. It was when we distributed inaccurate information that we suffered the deepest consequences. We found it best to say, “We don’t know,” and then gather information. Never ignore the knowledge of your front-line personnel.

Find a safe forum to tell your story
Seek safe vehicles to tell your story in your own words. Emails, op-ed pieces and your own social media are easy and efficient platforms.

Saying you are sorry doesn’t mean you are guilty
Regardless of the circumstances, you are the leader and something awful has happened. I’ll never forget the day I met with the parents of the young man killed by the tiger. As a mother, I recognized their pain immediately, and as a leader, I wanted to assure them that it would never happen again.

Ask for help
Remember that your board, family and employees all have an interest in putting the crisis behind them, too. Use these resources to help with rebuilding bridges with critical community constituents.

Remember your core values
Before the crisis, your firm or institution undoubtedly did something well or you wouldn’t be operating. Remembering prior successes and accomplishments will remind the world and your employees of your strengths.

Create a path forward
As the leader, you must create a sense of urgency to move forward. We created a vision of being the best in “animal wellness,” taking care of an animal physically, mentally and emotionally. We ultimately invested in an animal wellness center with a team of researchers, students and other experts collaborating to ensure that the zoo’s animals are thriving. ●

Tanya Peterson is president and executive director at the San Francisco Zoo.