Alton Towers: Recovering from a Damaged Reputation

Introduction

Over the last decade, there has been a drastic change in the way in which consumers communicate with brands (Giannini, 2011). Instead of one-way communication in which companies present unsolicited information about brands and products through advertisements and promotion messages in the market place, they seek information when they are ready to participate in a dialogue and become part of a mutually beneficial community comprising of marketers and consumers (Giannini, 2011). Public relations is the field which emphasises the importance of two way brand relationship using both traditional and new media channels (Butterick, 2011). This essay focuses upon how Alton Towers Resorts can use the aspects of public relations as part of its marketing efforts to recover its damaged reputation - which has caused it a significant loss in revenue - due to the crash of Smiler roller-coaster in 2015.

Significance of Trust

Developing trust with the consumers contributes towards sustaining a needed market share and profitability in the long term (Giannini, 2011). Enhanced consumer trust in brands also contributes towards generating greater consumer satisfaction market place (Giannini, 2011). Alton Towers, which is the UK's most favourite and number one theme park (BBC, 2015), has enjoyed good consumer trust for years. Alton Towers has always taken the health and safety of its guests very seriously and consequently it has the best health and safety records among all the theme parks in the UK (Layton, 2015). All its rides are subject to thorough safety assessments undertaken by specialist maintenance engineers in line with strict procedures (Layton, 2015). The company also undertakes training of its employees and conducts regular health and safety audits (Layton, 2015). It has an excellent first aid care service and an on-site responder team trained by West Midlands Ambulance Service (Layton, 2015). Resultantly, the company delivers 12.6 million individual rides every season (Layton, 2015).

However, the reputation of Alton Towers following the accident of its Smiler roller-coaster ride in June 2015 has been damaged significantly. The accident resulted in several people being seriously injured and led to the temporary closure of the theme park (BBC, 2015). The accident had an adverse effect on its trading at the beginning of an important summer season (Schram, 2015). The company estimated that its half-year profit is expected to drop between 43%-54% from last year's £87m to £40m-£50m this year (Schram, 2015). The suspension of market activity across all the other visitors' attractions owned by Merlin - the owner of Alton Towers - also had a strong negative impact on the sales (Schram, 2015).

Public Relations Strategy

In order to recover the damaged reputation of the brand, Alton Towers needs to deploy a public relations campaign to engage with the public rather than run a marketing campaign. Public relations campaign enable organisations to respond to a business challenges - such as the one faced by Alton Towers in the aftermath of Smiler roller-coaster accident - rather than simply produce favourable media coverage. Smith (2013) asserts that public relations theories primarily identify a four-phase process for devising and implementing a public relations campaign. Public relations theorists have summarised these as: (1) the RACE acronym (research, actions, communication and evaluation); (2) the ROPE acronym (research, objectives, planning, and evaluation); (3) and the RAISE acronym (research, action, implementation, strategy, evaluation) (Kendall, 1997; Hendrix and Hayes, 2010). All these theories revolve around the basic four-phase model which involves (1) analysing the environment, (2) identification of audiences and objectives, (3) development of a strategic approach and (4) development of the implementation plan (Smith, 2013). Smith (2013) has combined all these theories to offer a comprehensive strategic planning framework for public relations campaign comprising of the above four basic phases. It is as follows:

  1. Formative Research
    • Analysing the situation
    • Analysing the organisation
    • Analysing the publics
  2. Strategy
    • Establishing goals and objectives
    • Formulating action and response strategies
    • Developing the message strategy
  3. Tactics
    • Selecting communication tactics
    • Implementing the strategic plans
  4. Evaluating Research
    • Evaluating the strategic plan

(Smith, 2013 p.16)

Formative Research

In the above, the background of the company and the situation and its impact upon the image of the brand and its revenue has briefly analysed. Therefore, it is now imperative to analyse the 'publics' or the stakeholders that are to be affected by the public relations campaign. The identification of the publics will enable the marketers to select a suitable channel of media to best engage the audience (Baines, et al. 2007). Publics are defined as a group of people having a common interest and values in a particular situation (Reddi, 2009). In public relations, publics are 'a group of persons, especially one that is interested in or affected by an action or an idea of an organisation' (Reddi, 2009 p. 68). In this instance, publics comprise of all the active audience who are connected, however loosely, by some common concern which has consequences for Alton Towers (Hallahan, 2000; Reddi, 2009).

Public relations theorists have identified a basic set of publics or stakeholders which are applicable to most organisations. For instance, Baines, et al (2007) have identified the following groups of publics:

  1. Employees
  2. Potential Employees
  3. Suppliers of goods
  4. Distributors
  5. Customers
  6. Financial markets
  7. Opinion leaders and formers
  8. The community
  9. Other publics

Reddi (2009) has identified some additional groups as:

  1. Media public
  2. International public

Friedman (2006) further adds the following stakeholders:

  1. Competitors
  2. Government, regulators and policy makers

From these groups of publics, the main focus of Alton Towers' public relations campaign should be the external stakeholders from the general population, such as the (1) community, (2) customers (individuals, companies, schools, etc.), (3) media public, (4) financial markets (including investors) (5) opinion leaders and formers (5) other publics such as those affected by the accident, and (6) government and policy makers. The reason behind this selection is that apart from the recent Smiler roller-coaster accident, Alton Towers has one of the best track record of ensuring safety and health which is presumably well recognised by the internal stakeholders such as employees, distributors, suppliers, etc. The current challenge pertains to regain the trust of external public within the wider population, which has been distorted by the increased focus of commentators on a single incident.

In order to make the campaign most effective, Alton Towers should prioritise its publics if in case it is faced by the constraints of budgets and resources. Prioritising the public can help a company to run an effective campaign even within a tight budget (Baines, et al. 2007). The publics of Alton Towers can be prioritised through the power/interest matrix.

Level of Interest
Low High
Power Low

Category A

Minimal Effort

  • Supplier
  • Distributors
  • Employees
  • Competitors

Category B

Keep Informed

  • Media public
  • Potential employees
  • Financial markets
High

Category C

Keep Satisfied

  • Opinion leaders
  • Community

Category D

Key Players

  • Customers
  • Other publics

Strategy

The second phase of the public relations campaign relates to formulating objectives, actions and message strategy. Pople and Turnbull, (2012), state that effective objectives should be SMART - that is, specific, measurable, achievable, resourced and time-based. Furthermore, these objectives can be cognitive, affective and/or conative (Lantos, 2010). Cognitive objectives are those that relate to creating awareness about something and encourage people to think. Affective objectives are those that shape the attitude, opinion or feeling of the publics about an issue. Conative objectives encourage the audiences to act in a certain way (Lantos, 2010) (see figure 1).

Figure 1

How conative objectives encourage the audiences to act a certain way

(Source: Lantos, 2010 p. 503)

In order to overcome the challenge pertaining to the reputation of Alton Towers, the company can combine a set of cognitive, affective and conative SMART objectives for its public relations campaign. These are as follows:

  1. To enhance the awareness of the health and safety measures undertaken by the company in the UK by May 2016 to achieve a 50% growth in sales in the following summer season
    • This is a cognitive objective aimed at encouraging the target audience to be assured that a trip to Alton Towers is safe and that the company takes every measure humanly possible to avert any untoward incident
  2. Rebuild the trust of public in thrill rides at visitors' attractions and theme. Change the attitude of at least 100,000 members of the publics by May, 2016.
    • This is an affective objective aimed at regaining the trust of skeptical people in thrill rides and its safety standards at Alton Towers.
  3. To generate the positive feedback of at least 100,000 people about the support provided by Alton Towers to those affected and physically impaired by incidents at Alton Towers and built an 'Alton Towers Cares' image in the eyes of public.
    • This is a conative objective which will encourage the public to provide their feedback over different forms of social media regarding Alton Towers' pledges to support those affected by its rides.

The message strategy of Alton Towers should be to convey that it is most committed to ensuring safety and health of its guests and that is does not leave any stone unturned in this regard. Acknowledging that accidents do occur in even in the safest environments, the company is very sympathetic towards those affected by its operations in case of any untoward incident.

Tactics

Once the objectives, actions and message strategy has been finalised, the next step is to determine the tactics through which the public relations campaign will contact and convince the target audiences. This entails choosing the most appropriate channel of communication through which to contact each of the target public (Gregory, 2010). Gregory (2010) asserts that the set of tactics used in any public relations campaign should engage the right number of public and get the desired message across to them in a reasonable cost. Out of the many tactics identified in the literature, the ones related to media relations , customer relations, community relations, and government relations are most suitable to the current campaign.

Media Relations

Marketing communications literature identifies several tactics for communicating a brand's message to its target audience. Within these tactics, the ones related to media relations include press and video releases (Fill, 2011). Alton Towers should prepare and distribute a press/video release showcasing the preparations it makes for safety and health, training provided to its staff in this regard and the readiness of the company to overcome any untoward incidences to establish that the resort is a safe place for visitors. This tactic will cover the cognitive aspect of Alton Towers' public relations campaign. The company can also inform the general public through media regarding its pledges for the support of the affected people.

Customer Relations

For managing customer relations, Alton Towers can utilise marketing communication tactics such as advertising, internet, social networks, new letters, direct mail, and media relations tactics (Fill, 2011).

Advertisements: Celebrities endorsement

Alton Towers can engage with celebrities and opinion leaders to visit the resort and project their endorsement through advertisements over television and social media to make consumers feel that a trip to Alton Towers is safe for themselves and their families.

Social Media

Alton Towers can arrange for celebrities and opinion leaders to post their photos of visits to the resort over social media. This tactic will cover the affective aspect of Alton Towers' public relations campaign.

Community Relations

For community relations, direct involvement is the most effective marketing communication tactics (Fill, 2011).

Direct Involvement

Alton Towers can invite groups from local communities such as companies, schools and institutions to visit the resort and directly observe its commitment to safety and health. It is important to engage these groups to regain their trust in Alton Towers' safety measures because these group are often conduct risks assessments before making any bookings at resorts such as Alton Towers.

Government Relations

Messages can be communicated to governments through official publications such as background material, literature and group briefings (Fill, 2011). Alton Towers can publish reports and literature about its safety procedures and measures to avert incidents; publish inquiry reports to ascertain the causes on any incidents for any concerned government department and regulatory bodies to ensure transparency for its operations and compliance with industry standards.

Evaluation

The last phase of the public relations campaign relates to evaluation of the strategies and tactics employed in the campaign to determine whether the stated objectives have been achieved (Michaelson and Stacks, 2011; Smith, 2013). The provisions of the SMART objectives have already provided measures to assess the success of the strategies and tactics. The success of this current public relations campaign will be measured against the achievement of a 50% growth in sales in the upcoming summer season in the year 2016; a positive change in attitude of at least 100,000 visitors towards thrill rides during the same period, and receiving at least 100,000 positive feedback for the company's support efforts for the affected people over various forms of social media.

Conclusion

The above public relations campaign can be effective in rebuilding the company's damaged reputations in the eyes of public following the accident of Smiler roller-coaster ride in June 2015. This public relations campaign can work hand in glove with Alton Towers' marketing efforts to regain its lost market share and levels of profitability.

References

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BBC (2015). Alton Towers rollercoaster crash causes Merlin profit warning. Available from http://www.bbc.com/news/business-33672357

Butterick, K (2011). Introducing Public Relations: Theory and Practice. London:Sage.

Fill, C. (2011) Essentials of Marketing Communications, Harlow: FT Prentice Hall

Friedman, A.L. and Miles, S. (2006). Stakeholders: Theory and Practice, Oxford University Press

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Gregory, A. (2013). Planning and Managing Public Relations Campaigns: A Strategic Approach. London: Kogan Page Publisher

Hallahan, K. (2000) Inactive Publics: The Forgotten Publics in Public Relations. Public Relations Review 26(4): 499-515

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Michaelson, D and Stacks, D. (2011). Standardization in public relations measurement and evaluation. Public Relations Journal, 5, 7-8.

Pople, A. and Turnbull, S. (2012). Advertising and Public Relations. Pearson, Harlow.

Reddi, N. (2009). Effective Public Relations and Media Strategy. New Dehli: PHI Learning.

Schram, B (2015). Alton Towers crash: Smiler ride accident dents Merlin's sales. International Business Times. Available from http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/alton-towers-crash-smiler-ride-accident-dents-merlins-sales-1520075

Smith, R. (2013). Strategic Planning for Public Relations. New York: Routledge