After three months of meme-driven cyberbullying over the death of Harambe the gorilla, the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden threw in the towel on Monday and deactivated its Twitter account.
Experts say the zoo overreacted, and while stepping away from social media when emotions are running high is understandable, deleting an account can have dire consequences for a brand.
The zoo has been the target of keyboard critics since May, after a boy fell into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo, and zookeepers shot and killed Harambe, a 17-year-old silverback gorilla, to save the child’s life. Since then, Harambe has turned into a source of myriad internet memes.
The zoo’s director, Thane Maynard, told the Associated Press on Monday: "We are not amused by the memes, petitions, and signs about Harambe." Hackers took over Maynard’s personal Twitter account this month, and dedicated messages to Harambe.
Screenshots purportedly of the zoo’s now-deactivated account show an intern begging other users to stop the harassment.
"Harambe could have been an office intern" ?????? https://t.co/tAmxF2W7L2— Jamie Runge (@jamierunge) August 23, 2016
This is what he or she was up against:
"This is certainly a unique situation," said Michelle Curley, the zoo’s communications director. She declined to comment further.
Experts: Quitting Twitter a mistake
Scott Farrell, Golin’s president of global corporate communications, calls the zoo’s decision to delete its Twitter account the "nuclear" option, adding that the internet fascination with Harambe has extended well beyond the zoo’s Facebook and Twitter pages. (The zoo’s Facebook page was operating as normal on Wednesday morning, but earlier media reports said the zoo had also deleted that account).
"I understand they were under constant attack with people hijacking the zoo’s posts, but I’d ask: Did they have a publicly available policy that addresses people who behave poorly or don’t contribute to the positive exchange of ideas?" said Farrell. "If they did, then they had justifiable and defensible grounds to ban those who persisted in violating policy and shut down non-conforming comments."
While the harassment may not have been preventable, the zoo could have better prepared its response, says Archie Smart, EVP and head of MSLGroup’s digital practice, adding that social media crisis preparation and playbook development are essential.
The zoo’s decision also opens it up for more criticism, both on social platforms and in traditional media, and pages impersonating the zoo will likely pop up to fill the void, says Russ Williams, EVP for crisis and issues management at Cohn & Wolfe.
"Online trolls are a tenacious bunch, and the zoo may find that some are simply emboldened by the decision to take down its social channels," adds Williams.
Last year, after taking a stance on race relations in its Race Together campaign, Starbucks was met with harsh criticism on social media. Corey duBrowa, SVP of global communications for the coffee brand deactivated his Twitter account after a deluge of negative posts aimed at him about the campaign. He rejoined the social network the next day, but the damage was done. (DuBrowa couldn’t be reached for comment).
Despite the internet fascination with Harambe’s death, the zoo has a business to run, and deleting a major element of its marketing and communications structure was "short-sighted and possibly detrimental," concurs Aaron Gordon, partner at Schwartz Media Strategies.
"The zoo should have continued its regular posting, reported abusive content to the social media platforms, and launched a stronger gorilla-conservation campaign to build goodwill," he adds.
Or, the organization could have tried to get people to feel its pain, reminding them that the gorilla was part of its family and taking his life was a difficult decision, suggests Jeff Hunt, founding partner of PulsePoint Group. By doing that, it could have shamed people making Harambe jokes
"What happened was not funny; it was tragic," adds Glenn Selig, president and CEO of Tampa, Florida-based Selig Multimedia. "And most people will see it that way."