Ashleigh Johnston, Account Executive
Strategy. It’s all that really matters when it comes down to it. Whether you have compelling news you need to get out, or a crisis you are trying to bury, if the plan isn’t in place you’ll either get none of the coverage you wanted, or all of the attention you tried to avoid. But even the most PR savvy companies with the best laid plans will still feel the backlash if the news is derisive enough.
This past Saturday night, Universal Orlando hosted a large event in celebration of Mardi Gras. Anyone who covers local and theme park news would be tied up covering the event. This is when Walt Disney World executives quietly announced that for the second time in a year, there would be a price hike on all theme park tickets. Although annual price hikes are expected and customary for the company, it typically happens only once a year and follows a much more transparent pattern.
The Orlando Sentinel picked up the announcement Saturday night, despite Disney’s best strategic deployment of the news, and it spread through Twitter overnight and into the next morning. Reaction ranged from outright hostile toward the company to dismissive, acknowledging that Disney is a corporation so no one should be surprised by the move.
The latter may be true, but the PR problem the company is now grappling with is not about the price hike. It was the way the announcement was delivered. Long-time fans were disappointed that a company that was once so committed to its public cares more about bringing in new international, first-time visitors, rather than making sure the generations that have visited year after year are also taken care of. People that have never visited the parks, live out of state or have only been once or twice feel like they have been priced out of the market and would rather spend their dollars elsewhere.
Disney spokesman Bryan Melanius stated in an official press release that the price hike is in line with the “quality and breadth” of entertainment provided to guests and in response to declining popularity in single-day ticket sales and an increase in multi-day package sales. But many locals and frequent visitors are crying foul as amenities and entertainment are cut, attractions are being shuttered and left dormant, and the cost of food, lodging and souvenirs skyrocket. It’s one thing to admit that the price is being offset due to new technology in the parks and an increase in operating expenses. It’s another to assert a claim through a tone-deaf release that is contrary to public opinion.
Despite Disney’s best efforts to bury the announcement, implement changes overnight and fly under the radar, the company in fact drew more ire for the strategy. It goes to show that sometimes, even when it’s bad news, you are better off owning it, coming forward and acknowledging that you are making an unpopular decision. Audiences appreciate honesty and appearing like you are trying to avoid them may be received worse than the news you were trying to hide. You just better be ready with a solid defense to justify it and hope the public will be forgiving.