The reputation of Toronto Eaton Centre (TEC) – Canada’s premier urban shopping and tourist destination – faced a massive threat less than two years after announcing a major $120-million revitalization and just nine months after opening its new “Urban Eatery” (UE) food court. On Saturday, June 2, 2012, MAVERICK was alerted to a series of shootings – a gunman had opened fire in the UE at 6:23 p.m. TEC was evacuated, the site was in lockdown, and the surrounding area was declared a crime scene by Toronto Police Service (TPS). By 8:00 p.m., MAVERICK was onsite at TEC’s Emergency Operations Centre, with mall leadership, security management and representatives from Cadillac Fairview (CF), TEC’s parent company.
The scope of the crime was soon confirmed: seven people shot and one man dead. Victims included a man with life-threatening injuries, a 13-year-old boy shot in the head and a pregnant woman trampled and reportedly in labour. From CTV to CNN, the shooting became breaking news nationally and globally.
Three main strategies were developed to reflect the phases of the crisis:
1. Make internal audiences the priority: Recognizing that TPS would serve as the lead on all crime-related media communications, MAVERICK counseled TEC/CF to prioritize communicating with internal audiences (tenants and employees). MAVERICK also reminded TEC of reputational risks during/after a crisis from disgruntled stakeholders, who could feel left in the dark.
2. Use media as a conduit for informing the public: Knowing the role of media as an important disseminator of information to the public, it was imperative that all audiences were kept informed of the mall status given its role as a hub in the heart of downtown and integrated within Toronto’s transit system.
3. Communicate the return to normal business operations: After police returned control of the mall to TEC late Sunday, communication strategies focused on conveying a quick return to normal operations.
By 1:54 a.m. Sunday morning, TPS informed TEC that the mall would remain closed, and updates were immediately issued using all means available, including an intensive effort to reach all tenants of the UE. The agency worked with TEC personnel to phone each store manager.
By late afternoon Sunday, police concluded their investigation and returned the mall to TEC, who decided to re-open the main retail area of the mall Monday. However, the UE would remain closed until Tuesday. All channels were again deployed including an update to local media. To ensure that retail tenants were informed of the opening, MAVERICK and TEC staff executed a telephone campaign to contact all 280+.
Media interest in the shooting was substantial, with international headlines and global trending in social media. Constant monitoring identified no reports that TEC had mismanaged the response and evacuation. In fact, TEC security was identified as professionals who calmly directed the evacuation and tended to the wounded before paramedics arrived.
When TEC reopened, media interest was intense, increasing following the TPS announcement that a suspect was apprehended. MAVERICK arranged an on-camera media statement with mall management that afternoon. TEC’s statement conveyed relief that a suspect was apprehended, best wishes for victims, and reinforced the shooting as an isolated, tragic incident; TEC was returning to normal operations. Key messages of concern, action, and perspective were reflected.
The final stage in returning to normalcy was responding to media requests to film in the UE upon reopening, which MAVERICK, TEC and CF agreed would convey the return to normalcy to retail tenants and shoppers. An advisory was circulated that morning and over 20 journalists, including all major broadcast outlets, accepted the invitation. MAVERICK staff provided onsite coordination, resulting in positive media coverage showcasing undeterred shoppers and a united Toronto that supported TEC.
The team overcame several challenges in managing communication during this intense period of crisis: uncertainty as to the status of the situation within the mall; minimal information from police during their investigation; responding to inquiries with little information and short turn-around times; and the sheer number of stakeholder audiences, including 24 UE tenants, 280+ retailers, office tenants, general public, TEC/CF staff and media.
Given the tragic situation, resulting coverage was favourable, with no negative comments about TEC’s handling of the crisis. TEC was positioned as the unfortunate location for the shooting, not a contributing factor. Many outlets included positive commentary on how TEC security handled the situation.
According to TEC management, tenants appreciated TEC’s commitment to prioritizing communication for internal audiences, and for utilizing multiple channels for updates. No complaints from retailers were reported following the shooting.