Everyone was taken aback when they heard about The Dark Knight Rises shooting tragedy. Initially I thought the cancellations of the Paris & Tokyo premiers were a bit extreme -- one mentally unstable person does not reflect the actual film or those who made it. But as more details came about, I've come to see what excellent PR people already know: better to play it safe and err on the side of compassion and sympathy than appear cold, disrespectful and inevitably money-grubbing. While we know behind the scenes, the issue of lost revenue was undoubtedly a big concern for what was supposed to be one of the highest-grossing films of all time, but if played right the film wouldn't lose as much as it could. Many critics argued that the shooting wouldn't hurt sales. I went to a Sunday evening showing and could hardly find a seat for my friend & myself it was so jam-packed. However, I couldn't help but feel it was slightly eerie when the movie began and found myself imaging how awful it must have been for everyone involved.
According to the Greenfield Reporter, out of respect, Hollywood film companies like Lions Gate, Fox, Sony, Disney, Universal & Paramount banded together and agreed not to post sales numbers from the weekend. And as if all of that weren't enough, Warner Brothers not only had to manage coverage in wake of such a horrible incident but of course, had thousands of previews scheduled to promote its upcoming film, Gangster Squad, a film set in LA in the 1940s about police who violently fought against the mob. Not only was the preview potentially upsetting because of all the shooting but the original trailer included a scene where the mob goes in and shoots up a movie theater (below). Set to be released September 7th, the film is now being pushed back, all trailers have been modified (you won't find the original trailer including that scene on youtube, however I scoured to find it and you can see it below). There are talks of strongly editing the scene if not removing it altogether.
While this is an extreme case, I always think about what we can learn from situations that occur -- good or bad. This is definitely example of crisis management. While most events aren't of the magnitude of an international movie release by a major film company, it is evident that a process took place. I think thus far, it has been handled a well as could be. Hopefully no event planner has to work around parameters involving such a horrific occurrence, but it is important to consider how to handle situations where bad news alters the plan. This article discusses tips on crisis management, but I am also running through how I believe Warner Brothers went through the process to carefully manage such a sensitive subject.
ACKNOWLEDGING THE SITUATION
Once news breaks there's no un-realeasing it. Hiding from or ignoring the issue is a sure fire way of becoming the guilty party. While obviously in this instance, in no way did Warner Brothers have a relationship with the tragedy (compared to a situation where a CEO embezzled large sums of money), Warner Brothers approached it as if they had. They pulled as much violent content and previews as possible, cancelled international premiers and made the victims the focus.
CREATE A PLAN
There are varying degrees of expectations for a situation like this. When the news first broke, little information was given on the killer who put up no fight with police and simply waited to be arrested. He warned police that his apartment was booby-trapped with explosives which not only turned out to be true, but were discovered to be of very intelligent design. Because Warner Brothers had taken the approach of a guilty party, they were already a step ahead of the game. Offering condolences, cancelling events and making sure the public knew that their efforts revolved around the individuals involved in the tragedy eliminated questions about the company's intentions, integrity and even if they were ultimately to blame for the killer's behavior. The fact that the Hollywood community agreed not to release box office sales supported that ideal and, agreeably was the ethical choice to reinforce what WB was communicating.
The plan was simple at heart: let the public know that Warner Brothers is saddened by these events and ticket sales do not take priority over human lives.
It may seem that the cancellations were purely out of respect for victims and families, however there is another smart factor when dealing with this situation -- they avoided having anyone say the wrong thing. Statements released by Christopher Nolan and ChristianBale without a doubt in my mind went through a string of PR desks. It's better to lay low -- less is more. Offer your sympathies and keep it at that. Those who participated in the film may have had varied reactions and we know how media likes to take things out of context. This avoided any unwanted comments and allowed for WB to proceed in a manner that was appropriate and reflected the message they were trying to send.
By pulling as much footage as possible (previews of Gangster Squad and commercials for The Dark Knight) they may have potentially lost a few million, but no amount of money can fix public scrutiny. When a cape and mask of Batman was found in the killer's apartment and it was reported that he even said "I am the joker," then appearing in court with poorly-dyed red hair, the "guilty by association" approach proved useful. It very quickly became obvious that there was inspiration from the films in the massacre so rather than trying to 180, WB was able to remain sympathetic and most importantly, consistent in the way they began the process.
BE AWARE OF YOUR CRITICS (WHETHER OR NOT YOU RESPOND TO THEM)
Lots of questions were being thrown around about sales. Luckily they were able to avoid appearing shallow by simply not posting sales. Many people have opinions on what they feel WB should do and continue to do. There was disappointment (though hopefully understanding) from fans about premier cancellations. From a business prospective, there is a lot that must be handled with companies assisting in promotions. You don't have to interact directly with all of these individuals (in this case fans), however you need to know about who they are and what they are saying. The audience includes anyone who is listening. Keeping good standing with the general public is necessary, but so is doing the same with your biggest supporters and critics.