Harambe’s Legacy: Deconstructing the PR Failure of the Cincinnati Zoo as an Example of the Need for Effective Compliance Strategy

Three months ago a Silverback Gorilla named Harambe was shot dead by an employee of the Cincinnati zoo after an unsupervised four-year-old boy fell into Harambe’s enclosure.  The months since have seen an outpouring of grief for Harambe and also an organic movement within the Internet to question the compliance practices of the Cincinnati zoo. Harambe’s death has indeed become synonymous with failure, namely the failure of the zoo to maintain an effective crisis-management strategy in place to avoid the chilling scene of committing one murder to stop the possibility of another.

Ethics leaders have long used the human reaction to prioritize the lives of  “our own” over those of the animals as a teaching point in moral philosophy. However, Harambe’s death and the subsequent Internet movement in the months that followed symbolize the need for businesses of all sizes to put an effective strategy in place for top-down compliance.  A situation such as a human falling into an animal enclosure should never have been met with the snap decision to murder a gorilla when the more logical solution was to tranquilize Harambe and have a backup shooter with live ammunition in place in case the situation escalated. This solution is easy to see to everyone except those called to action on May 28, 2016.

In the three-month long wake of Harambe’s death there has been a tongue-in-cheek movement on the Internet to punish the zoo online for its compliance failures. Indeed, the Twitter hashtag #Harambe trends daily across the country today, more than three months after Harambe died. Further, the zoo has had to shut down its Twitter feed on multiple occasions due to activists posting memes and jokes making light of the terrible tragedy as a means of expressing grief over the loss of Harambe. Indeed, just last week the zoo’s official account maliciously requested that individuals stop expressing their grief to the zoo directly, as the zoo was “not amused.”

The Harambe situation and months long fallout unquestionably demonstrate the need for a top-down compliance strategy in the event a crisis occurs. The Cincinnati zoo situation has seen failure after failure that has painted the organization in an extremely negative light, and has brought it to the brink of ruin. How many leaders need to fail and cause PR disasters before organizations begin taking compliance seriously? It is sad enough that Harambe tragically died, but the constant failures from zoo leadership to properly address the situation at a minimum can be used as a model to other businesses as to what not to do.

The aura of compliance surrounds day-to-day activity at your business. You may feel as though following the law and having a basic code of conduct in place at your organization is enough. Those strategies are just the tip of the compliance iceberg. All employees need to be educated on how to properly handle ethical issues, from C-suite executives to low-level employees. After all, you never know when a situation can arise. If Harambe can teach us more about compliance perhaps his death was not in vein.

Syntrio is a leader in both the employment law and ethics and compliance field, with an innovative philosophy towards compliance program design and engaging, entertaining, and thought-provoking content. Contact www.syntrio.com for more information about our ethics and code of conduct online courses and remember to follow us on Facebook, TwitterGoogle Plus and LinkedIn for daily updates on employment law and compliance that impact your company!

Written by Jonathan Gonzalez, Senior Counsel for Syntrio, Inc.

Posted in Compliance Training, Custom Courses, Managing Within the Law and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , .