Burning Man festival organizers had to act quickly after a 41-year-old man broke through two layers of security and jumped straight into the flame during the iconic “Man Burn” ceremony on Saturday night. After being pulled from the fire by Black Rock City firefighter and airlifted to UC Davis Firefighters Burn Institute Regional Burn Center, Aaron Joel Mitchell was pronounced dead on Sunday morning due to sustained injuries.
Dedicated to experimental arts and music, Burning Man is one of the largest annual festivals in the United States. Over its more than 30-year history, the popular festival grew from just 20 participants in its first year to this year’s 70,000 people who descended upon Black Rock City – a temporary city erected in the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada. The week-long festival culminates with a “Man Burn” ceremony, during which a towering 40-foot-tall wooden effigy is set ablaze.
So, when things went tragically wrong during Saturday’s event, the festival organizers had a huge communications task at their hands. Not only did they need to effectively communicate with tens of thousands of attendees who were affected by the emotional shock of the tragedy, but they also had to field hundreds of incoming calls from the media inquiring about the incident and make sure that the crisis did not put the organizational aspects of the festival into question.
On Sunday following the incident, Burning Man’s Communications Team published the following statement on the festival’s official website:
“At approximately 10:30 p.m. Saturday evening, a male participant at the annual Burning Man event in Northern Nevada broke through a safety perimeter and ran into a fire. Black Rock City fire personnel rescued him from the fire.
“The individual was treated on scene, transported to the on-site medical facility and airlifted to a burn treatment center.
“We will share more information as it becomes available.”
Even though Burning Man’s team didn’t have much information to work with on Sunday morning, they shared what they had at that point in time.
Later that day, as they received the grim news from the hospital, the festival organizers shared an update, saying that they also work with local and federal law enforcement agencies investigating Mitchell’s death. The organizers also offered emotional support services to all festival goers, providing service locations and phone numbers:
“We’re aware this incident has affected not only those who responded immediately on the scene, but also those who witnessed it, and our Black Rock City community more broadly. We are working to make resources available to those affected,” the statement read in part. “Now is a time for closeness, contact and community. Trauma needs processing. Promote calls, hugs, self-care, check-ins and sleep.”
Of course, the news of the tragic event spread across the country in a matter of hours. However, the festival organizers managed to avoid any significant criticism as to how they handled the situation. This was in large part achieved by following some of the golden rules of crisis communications:
- Respond Fast
The organizers acted swiftly issuing a statement, in which they mentioned that there was a safety perimeter separating all participants from the fire, and that they had fire safety personnel and medical facilities on-site, thus avoiding potential speculation of inadequate safety measures.
- Say it as it is
The organizers didn’t try to downplay the situation, or wait with the response until they had all the facts. They informed people of exactly what they knew at the moment and followed up with an update as soon as they learned more.
- Prioritize public safety
The organizers communicated their concern for festival goers who may have been affected by the situation, offering mental health hotline numbers and on-site counseling.
- Take real actions to remediate the crisis
Good communication is essential for an effective crisis response, but it won’t be of much help if it’s not supported by real actions. Judging by their response, Burning Man organizers cooperated with law enforcement agencies and did everything to help in the initial investigation.