SF Zoo engages Singer to constrain tiger crisis

SAN FRANCISCO: As the San Francisco Zoo braces for a potential lawsuit from the victims of a tiger mauling attack, the organization has focused its communications strategy to imply the animal was provoked.

The San Francisco Zoological Society has hired Singer Associates to handle media relations surrounding the crisis. The zoo has been the center of international attention since the December 25 incident, in which a 350-pound Siberian tiger left its enclosure, killed one visitor, and injured two others.

"There was not enough question-asking going on about what causes a tiger to be provoked enough to leave its enclosure for the first time in the 70-plus-year history of the Zoo," said Sam Singer, president of the firm, about media coverage immediately following the tragedy.

"We helped the zoo tell a broader picture to the public about what might have happened," he added.

While he handles national and global media queries, Singer said the first priority has been to address local and state media to reach stakeholders, such as zoo employees, contributors, local residents, and government officials.

As the story moves from the initial crisis stage, the communications strategy now focuses on re- building the long-term reputation of the zoo, forging relationships with stakeholders, and educating the public through interpersonal relationships and the organization's Web site, Singer said.

A legal crisis still looms for the organization. The two surviving victims have hired famed attorney Mark Geragos, who has threatened legal action. Singer's media strategy now is to raise questions about both Geragos' and the surviving victims' credibility, noting Geragos' role in defending Michael Jackson and Scott Peterson.

Geragos, who did not return calls for comment, has maintained that the teens are innocent and that the exhibit's enclosure walls were too low. He has also accused Singer of embarking on a "smear campaign," according to media reports.

James Lukaszewski, chairman of the Lukaszewski Group and a crisis communications management specialist, warned this strategy can backfire.

"The longer things drag out, the greater the risk of handling things badly," he cautioned. "The more the zoo talks, the more it tries to forgive itself - the more serious their situation becomes."

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