Why That Scary Omaha Zoo Video Is a Gorilla-Sized PR Nightmare

5 million views so far, but marketers criticize the damage control

According to TripAdvisor, the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium in Omaha, Nebraska, is the best zoo in the United States. Situated near the Missouri River on the Nebraska-Iowa border, the zoo boasts the Lied Jungle, which is one of the world's largest indoor rainforests and features the biggest glazed geodesic dome found on this planet.

So, with apologies to Ron Burgundy, that's why TripAdvisor believes it's even better than San Diego's. But in a similar vein to how the fictional Anchorman character and his friends once found themselves in a perilous predicament with a couple of the large creatures at their Southern California zoo, Henry Doorly's marketers have a literally gorilla-sized PR issue on their hands in the Heartland.

Late Thursday evening, a YouTube user posted a video of a Silverback gorilla cracking the glass that separates a couple humongous apes from onlookers. The 12-second clip has gone viral: It has accrued 5.3 million views and picked up speed throughout Friday. For instance, it gained 400,000 views between Noon and 3 p.m. ET and then continued to accelerate. Check it out.

OK, so a few million more people know that Omaha has a serious zoo. In branding circles, that's called awareness.

But this isn't an all-news-is-good-news type of situation, said David Deal, a digital-focused marketing consultant in Chicago.

"The video makes the zoo look unsafe and scary," he remarked. "How many parents want to take their kids to a zoo where their children flee the animals? The critical question is whether the panel actually did its job by cracking instead of shattering. The zoo should quickly create a video showing just how strong the panel is. It is important that the zoo actually show, not explain."

UPDATE: The Henry Doorly PR team issued a statement late on Friday about the incident in response to the viral video: "The glass on the exhibit is engineered to account for the size, strength and speed of a large male gorilla. It has three layers and each layer alone can withstand a gorilla's force. While one layer of glass on the exhibit did crack, leaving two layers untouched, the public was never in danger and the exhibit remains open."

Though Aaron Kwittken, CEO of public relations firm Kwittken, criticized the zoo for failing to go into damage control right away. 

"The Henry Doorly Zoo should have commented immediately by saying that this unusual incident should never have happened," he said, "[and] that they are launching an internal investigation to better understand why and how this happened and that they are extremely grateful to the staff and first responders that contained the situation and that nobody was injured."

It's impossible to characterize the viral video as a positive awareness builder, said Stevie Archer, associate creative director at ad agency McKinney.

"It may get them a lot of publicity," Archer said, "but it certainly wouldn't make people want to go there—which would be the ultimate goal of any public attraction like this."

Lastly, it's clear that the zoo's reps were—quite reasonably—blindsided by the video. We live in an increasingly mobile and social time where anything and everything can be immediately shared. (Call it the Periscope/Meerkat Era.) So the Henry Doorly example should serve as a cautionary tale for everyone from events marketers and sports facilities to music venues and sight-seeing locales.

The development also brings to mind what happened almost a year ago at the Willis Tower in Chicago, when the laminated glass under the Skydeck cracked, sparing tourists to snap photos and shoot video of the damage. The incident was far less serious than it appeared but still led to a rapid burst of questionable publicity for the landmark.

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