Telling the Internet to cool it with the Harambe memes is equivalent to throwing gasoline on a fire. Yet, that is what Cincinnati Zoo director Thane Maynard did on Monday, and within 24 hours, the Zoo had to shutter their social media accounts because they were drowning in a deluge of Harambe jokes. While deleting their accounts seems extreme, under the circumstances it was the Cincinnati Zoo’s best course of action.
For those just now getting on the Internet, Harambe was a silverback gorilla that was shot and killed three months ago to protect a four-year-old that fell into his enclosure. Since then, he’s become an Internet legend with many an indie artist making some sort of profit off his image. Harambe jokes were originally created to mock social media outrage, but now he is a stand-in for any joke you could possibly conceive of.
In a statement to the Associated Press on Monday, Cincinnati Zoo director Thane Maynard said:
“We are not amused by the memes, petitions and signs about Harambe… Our zoo family is still healing, and the constant mention of Harambe makes moving forward more difficult for us. We are honoring Harambe by redoubling our gorilla conservation efforts and encouraging others to join us.”
A few days prior, on Saturday, Maynard’s personal Twitter TWTR +1.02% account was hijacked by a hacker going by the moniker “Prom.” Prom used Maynard’s account to tweet hashtags like #JusticeForHarambe, nothing too damaging, and by Sunday Maynard had regained control of his account. Perhaps it was this hijacking of Maynard’s account that was the final straw for the Zoo, and compelled them to issue an official statement on the Harambe memes. The words “we are not amused” however, were fuel for the hooligans of the Internet (as are petitions calling for the end of all Harambe petitions).
Before Maynard’s Monday statement, the Cincinnati Zoo’s social media feeds were already being overrun with Harambe memes. Afterward? It became what Deadspin called, “a war zone.”
The optimal way to handle a PR situation like this would be to embrace the meme, not deny it. Think of that “
if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” adage. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t work here, because embracing the meme (in a way that would make it less cool and kill it) would be tacky and insensitive, especially to the zoo staff that were personally affected by Harambe’s passing.
The zoo could become aggressive with taking down images they own the copyright to — like how Getty Images does with licensing fees over the image used in the Socially Awkward Penguin meme. Tracking all uses of the Harambe meme, let alone merchandise like every sticker, button and t-shirt on etsy, redbubble and similar sites, however, would be a Herculean task for their communications department, and could result in legal fees. A more unpleasant experience than Harambe jokes on the Zoo’s social media channels, no doubt and probably not worth the trouble.
While drastic, closing down their social media accounts was the best thing the Zoo could have done in this situation, if only to protect their own staff from further harm.