See the little yellow”update” tags below for latest on the story that keeps on giving – you couldn’t make it up!
The Asylum – Thorpe Park’s “scary mental patient” live action horror maze – is no more. It closed at the end of the 2013 Halloween season and will not reopen. Thorpe Park has – at long last – agreed to change the name.
After so many weeks of campaigning, how has this agreement been achieved? Appeals to Thorpe Park’s humanity and kindness seem to have fallen on deaf ears: all we met with brush offs and no promise of action. What made the difference? In the end, Thorpe Park’s agreement to change the Asylum’s name came only after Surrey police investigated them for hate crimes.
That’s right, the police. Thorpe Park did not agree to make any changes to the Asylum as a result of:
- direct approaches via twitter, email, letter and phone call
- over 4, 250 uses of the #AsylumNO hashtag since 17th October
- almost 6,000 signatories of Katie Sutton’s petition hand-delivered to their Surrey HQ on 30th October
- a plea from the Royal College of Psychiatrists, mental health charities Rethink Mental Illness and Mind, the editors of the Lancet and the Lancet Psychiatry, anti-stigma campaign Time to Change and Professor Graham Thornicroft (and Katie Sutton and I) (24th October)
- waves of press coverage on national and regional TV, radio and newspapers (for example, this story from the Metro, 21st October)
- a plea from their local mental health trust, with a mental health hospital based just 3 miles from the theme park (31st October), appealing to Thorpe Park’s “humanity and kindness”
None of these, it seems, counted as (to quote Thorpe Park) “serious complaints”. It was only when psychiatrist Dr Nuwan Dissanayaka reported Thorpe Park to Surrey police for hate crimes on 25th October, and the police started to investigate, that (a full two weeks later, just after the Asylum had closed for the 2013 season) Thorpe Park apologised – via the police – and agreed – via the police – to change the name. In the words of Surrey police in their letter to Dr Dissanayaka of 5th November (pictured below right):
“… due to concerns of yourself and others, Thorpe Park have agreed to change the name of this particular maze for 2014 Fright Nights. In addition, the management have given their apologies for any distress the maze may have caused to any individual or group.”
When concerns were raised with Asda about its “mental patient” fancy dress costume, Asda promptly withdrew them from sale. Asda also paid the profit it would have made from the sales to mental health charities. Tesco did the same.
In contrast, Thorpe Park kept the Asylum open throughout the Halloween season and only announced the name change after the season ended and only then after having been reported for hate crimes. The agreement to change the name is good news. It is to be welcomed. But it is only a start. Why? For two reasons.
First, the action agreed by Thorpe Park does not go far enough, and the linguistically-guarded (in other words, mealy-mouthed) “apology” appears to reflect a lack of understanding of the seriousness of the issues. For instance, what is the point of changing the name of the horror maze if there are still “scary mental patients” chasing guests around to make them afraid?
That’s why Dr Niall Boyce – editor of the Lancet Psychiatry and author of the joint letter from the Royal College of Psychiatrists et al – is still pressing for the Skype call we’ve been asking for since October. Earlier today, Dr Boyce spoke with Lionsgate, Thorpe Park’s partners in the Asylum horror maze. Thorpe Park didn’t answer the phone. Let’s hope Lionsgate have a better sense of corporate social responsibility than it appears Thorpe Park has.
In the proposed Skype call, we will ask for the actions set out in Appendix II of my open letter to Thorpe Park fans of 21st October, namely:
Some suggested steps which would cost no (or hardly any) money:
- Apologise for the harm caused by evoking the “scary mental patient stereotype – no excuses, no hedging, no fudging, and to come right from the top (if it doesn’t sound like an apology, you’re only making it worse)
- Make the Time to Change mental health pledge, get involved with other anti-stigma actions and encourage staff to do so too
- Include links to mental health information on its website page, facebook and videos
- Invite mental health charities to do the following:
- to hand out leaflets at the park
- to host an information stall at the park
- to discuss what further steps would help improve the mental wellbeing of management, staff and customers
Steps that would involve expenditure:
- Rename the Asylum and change the scare actors’ costumes so they no longer have any connection to the outdated, inaccurate and damaging “scary mental patient” stereotype
- Donate the profits from this year’s the Asylum to a mental health charity such as Rethink Mental Illness (which started the #AsylumNO and #AsylumOK hashtag campaign), local mental health charity and/or anti-stigma campaign Time to Change
- Provide training and support (for instance, through mental health charity Mind), including:
- mental health awareness training for its senior management team, PR team and HR department
- making mental health support services available to all staff
- training staff in mental health first aid (in addition to physical first aid) and provide parity of esteem between mental and physical health first aid services to customers and staff throughout the park’s operations
However, given the actions Thorpe Park has taken since that, these very reasonable steps may no longer be enough to redeem Thorpe Park’s position.
Secondly, despite the letter from Surrey police saying that Thorpe Park had agreed to change Asylum’s name, this morning Thorpe Park tweeted me as follows:
“To clarify, we have not agreed to change anything, but take all feedback seriously.”
These denials have been repeated. Apart from these tweets, there has been no statement whatsoever from Thorpe Park. It seems that, apart from these tweets, at present Surrey police are acting as spokesperson for Thorpe Park.
So will Thorpe Park’s “scary mental patient” live action horror maze rise from the dead like a zombie in 2014? Or is it perhaps that someone on the Thorpe Park twitter or PR team hasn’t quite woken up to what’s been happening and the seriousness of the issues. Let’s hope they do soon because, the longer this drags on, the more poorly it reflects on perceptions of Thorpe Park’s business ethics.
And, the longer this drags on, the more material it provides for business and public relations course tutors for case studies on how to get it wrong.
Related web links:
- Petition – Thorpe Park: Close down the stigmatising Asylum maze – Started by Katie Sutton and to date with 5,944 signatories
- Thorpe Park – an open letter (Thursday 24th October) – Letter from the 9 signatories
- Thorpe Park – an open letter (Thursday 31st October) – Letter from Jo Young, Director of Quality (Nurse Director) for the Surrey & Borders Partnership NHS Trust to Thorpe Park’s Head of Integrated Communications and the CEO of Merlin Entertainments (Thorpe Park’s parent company)
- Thorpe Park denies agreeing to change Asylu maze name – Get Surrey (Wednesday 13th November) by Charlotte Talbot
- Thorpe Park ‘backs down’ over Asylum maze name row – Metro (Saturday 9th November) by Sarah Kerr
- Trust joins plea to park bosses over Asylum ride – Get Surrey (regional press) (Thursday 7th November)
Theme park industry coverage:
- Surrey police confirm contact with Thorpe Park – Airgates Attraction News (Tuesday 12th October) – “Surrey Police have confirmed claims that they spoke to Thorpe Park staff during an investigation into the Asylum maze: yet Thorpe Park deny any contact with the police.”
- Thorpe Park believed to rename Asylum maze – Airgates Attraction News (Sunday 10th October) – “Following claims that the Asylum maze at Thorpe Park constitutes hate crime , there are now reports the name of the maze is to change. Thorpe Park denies these claims.”
- Dr Dissanayaka’s tweets about making a report to police for hate crimes (to date)
- Thorpe Park’s tweets this week denying they’ve agreed to change Asylum’s name (to date)
- Further Thorpe Park tweets this week denying they’ve agreed to make any changes (to date)
- Dr Dissanayaka’s update after speaking with Surrey police on Wednesday 13th November
- When hashtags go bad: #ThorpeParkMoment – The latest comedy offering from Thorpe Park, who didn’t get quite the response on the hashtag they were hoping for (Thursday 14th November)
- Chartered Institute of Public Relations code of conduct
- Bart Simpson’s PR strategy HT Dr Boyce
- Job advert for a new PR public relations manager at Thorpe Park – feel free to apply online if you think you could do a better job!
Why Do Brands Need Big Ears? The Perils of Not Listening to Consumer & Professional Feedback – A comparison of the strategies of Asda and Thorpe Park by Anne Tynan (Tuesday 19th November)
- #AsylumNO – The fight is almost won – by Katie Sutton (Monday 11th November)
- Thorpe Park and the great big lie – Kattie Sutton (Wednesday 13th November)