Back…to the Drawing Board

drawing board

Secret Cinema’s showing of Back to the Future fell to pieces at the weekend with the PR side of things taking an absolute battering online. What can we learn from this example in how to fail at crisis communications?

Woah, this is heavy doc.

Like roughly 64,499 other Back to the Future fans, I’ve been getting increasingly concerned over the course of this past weekend. Why so? Because of news that the opening weekend of Secret Cinema Presents Back to the Future was cancelled – at incredibly short notice – and the ensuing excrement storm that has followed.

The immersive cinema experience, which has seen people buy £53 tickets for an event which includes an actual recreation of 1955 Hill Valley to walk through, themed pop-up shops in London and an Enchantment Under the Sea Dance after party should have started its run last Thursday, but was pulled just 90 minutes before it was due to open, with no real reason given.


At around 17 minutes past the promised 11am on Friday, Secret Cinema then released a short statement promising, er, another statement later that day.

Then, about two hours before Friday’s show was due to start, it got cancelled again (but at least the site was ‘looking spectacular’).

Later on Friday the rest of the weekend’s performances also got pulled – something that was announced, bizarrely, in the form of an interview on the BBC News website (giving far more detail than any previous official communication) and not via any Secret Cinema channel – in fact, no mention of the Saturday and Sunday cancellations have been posted by Secret Cinema on their Facebook, Twitter or website – instead they’ve linked to articles on other news sources.

Unsurprisingly, folk have been angry. Angry about being given 90 minutes notice when most had already started (or completed) their journey, as well making hotel bookings and buying fancy dress for the event, at the request of the show’s organisers. Angry about the complete lack of a reason for cancelling. Angry again on Friday at the stupidly short notice. Angry about the lack of official updates about the subsequent ditching of the Saturday and Sunday shows.

As I said…angry!

While it’s clear the PR and social media side of things has been handled really badly here – the term ‘slackers’ appropriately springs to mind here – I don’t want to use this blog to pass too much judgment (just go and read the Facebook comments for plenty of opinions that I probably agree with on the matter), this calamity did strike me as a learning opportunity.

As plenty of disappointed punters have pointed out, the Secret Cinema experience is quickly turning into a stellar case study of how to fail at crisis comms, so what can we learn from last weekend’s debacle? Here are a few of my thoughts, which I’ve tried to write wearing my comms hat rather than just turn into another angry customer.

Decide early

If you’re organising an event to which you know people are travelling from all over the country/world and it looks like you might have to cancel, you simply have to make that decision as early as possible…certainly not 90 minutes before kick off. Even first thing in the morning of the big day would have been better. While cancelling will upset many, if you do it early enough for punters to alter their plans they’ll be thankful in the long run.

Give reasons

In this glorious, open age of social media-driven communications, your audience will want to know ‘why’ – saying things are ‘completely beyond your control’ is a really difficult line to push nowadays. In fact, it just lends itself to the rumour mill, which this weekend ranged from the site not being finished, pesky council inspectors playing hard ball and, weirdly, the whole thing being part of the immersive experience. Authority is key in these situations and, as event organiser, you can establish that authority by simply saying what the problem is. Look at how brilliantly councils and emergency services pushed out timely, accurate information during the 2011 riots to keep people informed and quash rumours.

Don’t try and manage the message

Watching the comments fly into the Secret Cinema Facebook page, a couple of things were striking. Firstly, Secret Cinema were clearly very anxious to take conversations offline when people directly asked for the reasons behind the cancellation – while I can sort of understand why they were doing this (after all, knowing when to move offline is an important skill) it just didn’t work in this instance. In fact, it made people angrier. Secondly, it looked like Secret Cinema were deleting viable comments from upset customers. Don’t. Do. This.

Keep your promises

If you promise a detailed statement at 11am the next day, deliver it at 11am, not 17 minutes past. Oh, and don’t issue a statement promising another statement later on.

Be the official voice

Announce your own news, don’t link to a news article talking about your news the day after said news source has published their story and had it read by millions.

Update ALL of your channels

If you have a presence on numerous channels and a website update them all with the latest information. Technically speaking, anyone who only followed Secret Cinema on Twitter or who relied on their website might not have known about the weekend’s cancellations.

Don’t patronise your audience

The middle of a statement cancelling something for that night is not, repeat not the time to drop in how fabulous the event is going to be, if it ever takes place.

Think McFly, think!

If, as was the case with Secret Cinema, you tell people in advance they won’t be able to have their phones with them for the event, it’s likely people might well leave said phones at home. In that case, announcing the cancellation via email and on social media is not the best move.

Keep it together

Don’t announce half of your news on your official channels and leave the other half for your founder to tell a BBC journalist. It’s disjointed, confusing for your audience and unprofessional  – particularly if this third party article contains more useful information than your own channels do!

Keep talking

In any difficult situation – from the cancelling of a fun event to a genuine crisis – you need to update people regularly with useful information, not fluffy statements. Secret Cinema has, sadly, failed miserably on this score this weekend.

This weekend has, without doubt, tarnished the legacy of what was something supremely cool and different. The communications around this feels severely ill-thought and the social media backlash has been rightly furious. I now join the other August ticket holders in waiting to hear from Secret Cinema/read on other news sites to see if my showing will go ahead. I really, really hope the event comes back from this setback and is a roaring success, but fear that the damage done over the past few days could be very difficult to get back from – even at 88mph.

PS There’s also a GREAT open letter to the organisers of Secret Cinema by David Gurr, which you can read here.

In the meantime, here’s some of my favourite, customer-generated memes from the weekend (if you’ve never seen BTTF, these references will probably be lost on you).

Photo 25-07-2014 12 11 18 Photo 25-07-2014 12 11 29 Photo 25-07-2014 12 11 41 Photo 25-07-2014 12 12 22


think mcfly

Oh, and here’s a picture of the crew ‘working tirelessly’ to sort things out on Thursday evening, which did the rounds on Twitter #awkward

Photo 25-07-2014 12 13 11

No song title reference this time, but I couldn’t not include this video now, could I?


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