How not to communicate during a crisis – by Secret Cinema

Last week Secret Cinema, who claim to host ‘immersive’ cinema/film experiences had to cancel the opening two nights of their London Back to the Future show (LINK). Whatever ‘unforeseen circumstances’ are, if the cancellations alone were not bad enough, then the way they actually communicated and dealt with the crisis made everything worst.

The opening night (Thursday 24th July) was cancelled barely two hours before the start. Via Facebook and Email. No explanation was given, just a brief statement and short apology. The impact was extenuating by Secret Cinema having previously told people not to take to mobile phones to the event (there were not any mobile phones in 1955 – when the event was set), so hundreds of the 3500 daily attendees were already well on their way to the event (an effective crisis communication plan should have foreseen this stumbling block).

Predictably, this kicked off a social media storm. With most anger aimed at the timing of the announcement and the lack of any information – including no offer of a refund (which was clarified as being available later), not simply the cancellation. The only social media engagement from Secret Cinema was to ask people to email them their complaint (which were not replied to if you believe Twitter). Everything else was met with silence, including requests for comment from The Evening Standard and The Independent. Thus, and not at all surprisingly, the press coverage was negative and included that Secret Cinema were not available to comment.

The first evening alone is worth a blog post on terrible crisis communication, except things got even worse on the second night, Friday (25th) – which just so happens to be the night I was due attend.

On the evening of the first show, after a few hours of pandemonium around the Secret Cinema social media channels, another apologetic message was shared. Once again, no explanation on the reasons or issues, but an all important line about another announcement – about Friday’s show – due at 11am on the Friday. And then silence.

Friday 11am – 3500 people wait (plus all those enjoying the social media storm) with baited breath to find out if the show they have forked out 55 quid for, have spent time and money sorting outfits and accessories for was going ahead. The Secret Cinema social media channels were once again a buzz with chatter:

11am came. It went. No announcement.

11:30am came. It went. No update.

12noon came. It went. Still nothing.

Finally at 12.15pm a message: “we will make an announcement shortly”

Cue more silence. And more social media uproar.

Finally at 3:30pm two hours before the show was due to start, and four and half hours after an announcement was promised, another cancellation message.
By 9pm the weekend shows had also been cancelled (and subsequently the entire first week). Yet still there was nothing more that a few paragraphs saying it was unavoidable and apologising. Still no media interview, or news of any sort. It wasn’t until Saturday that any news organisations were able to speak to the founder Fabien Riggall – when he finally agreed to speak to the BBC (LINK)

If anyone was ever in any doubt that PR plays an important role in an organisation, or that knowledge and experience in dealing with a crisis is vital to a healthy company then please see Secret Cinema social media and press coverage as to why it is so vital. Secret Cinema’s reputation was always going to take a hit when cancelling the first week of the show. But cancellations happen. Mistakes and cock-ups happen. It is how you deal with them, how you react to them and how you communicate these cock-ups to your customers that can mean the difference between a damaged reputation and potentially the end of your organisation.

I don’t know the details of why it was cancelled, but seeing as they had to cancel the whole first week it was obviously a serious issue. The call had to be made earlier than two hours on the first night and barely three on the second. And if you say you’re going to make an announcement at 11am, you make damn sure that you make an announcement at 11am.

As well as having to cancel the opening few days, Secret Cinema has come across as absolute amateurs through its lack of communication.

I’m reminded of a bit advice from the CEO of an American company I once worked for – “mess up, fess up”. Once they knew they were going to have to can the first weekend, they should have put their hands up, apologised, admitted they messed up and moved on. Fabien Riggal should have been talking to the press and announcements and updates should have been regular. Who knows, if the public had known what was going on they may have had ideas on how to help. Instead Secret Cinema received tons of negative press (both for the cancellation and the communication of the event), full of speculation about unfinished and unsafe set, livestock issues and animal welfare issues, legal issues with confiscating phones – all of these were eventually denied, but not before they were plastered all over the news and social media platforms.

Whatever your response to a crisis, silence is never ever the answer.

The damage wasn’t in the cancellations, it was the way it was handled. Nearly all the people I’ve spoken to who were due to attend the first few days have said they want a refund not to reschedule their ticket – and after the shambles of last week, can you blame them?

Secret Cinema is going to have to take financial hit from this, and massive reputation damage – this was always going to happen following the cancellation of the opening week of a show, but it is going to be a lot worst due to how the crisis was communicated.

In terms of communication crisis scenario planning, this is a pretty obvious one to foresee. I can’t believe that over their 10 years in existence they not even spent five minutes thinking about how and what they communicate in the event of a delay or cancellation of one of their shows? I just hope that if they did, this wasn’t the plan they come up with.

I doubt they will be able to put on something so ambitious again (and sell tickets at least), and I have to wonder if they will ever get anything on again.

For more info on the Secret Cinema Back to the Future cancellation visit:
Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/news/secret-cinema-interview-why-were-back-to-the-future-screenings-cancelled-9630777.html
Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/jul/25/back-to-the-future-secret-cinema-london-screenings

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