Why SeaWorld has to go beyond comms in its fight for survival

After a slow response to Blackfish, SeaWorld is in the fight of its life. It'll need to aggressively argue its side against animal-rights groups to win back customers, say PR pros.

SeaWorld isn’t just in a battle with animal-rights activists over its alleged mistreatment of orcas, but fighting to maintain its own relevance as an attractive entertainment destination.

The marine park is at the start of a long-term campaign including TV ads, online videos, and a website highlighting its commitment to caring for orcas, also known as killer whales, in captivity and in the wild. It’s a long-overdue step in the right direction to taking back control of the narrative and undo some damage to its reputation, explain crisis comms experts.

Yet others say SeaWorld has to go a step further and change its business model to have any hope of winning the fight against its detractors. The company has seen a dramatic drop in attendance and revenue after the 2013 release of the documentary Blackfish, positioned as an expose of SeaWorld’s treatment of marine life, which was broadcast on CNN. Its stock price also tumbled by 60% since the film’s release.

PETA, one of its most outspoken opponents, is conducting an aggressive campaign called SeaWorld of Hate, which includes a website, social media, and celebrity endorsers. The organization has partnered with mom-to-be and former model and actress Marisa Miller on an ad in time for Mother’s Day that uses the inflammatory headline, "SeaWorld: Separating babies and mothers since 1970."

SeaWorld says it does not separate female orcas from new offspring.

The park needs to recognize that holding animals in captivity for the purpose of making them perform is no longer acceptable in the eyes of a growing number of consumers, notes Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management.

"If SeaWorld asked me to advise them about how it could restore its reputation, I would tell the people there not to spend the money. As long as the company continues to hold extremely intelligent mammals captive, it will have a growing number of opponents from all walks of life," he says. "It’s a lose-lose proposition. They can only serve the apathetic, and the ability of organizations such as PETA to stir up ire online will steadily erode the number of people who feel they can remain apathetic."

Bernstein notes "there are plenty of other places for vacationers to spend their money with no moral qualms."

"The best SeaWorld can do now is stretch out its lifespan until it can find another business model that would be a better fit," he concludes.

While not specifically addressing SeaWorld, Russ Williams, SVP for crisis and issues management at Cohn & Wolfe, adds "there has absolutely been an impact on zoos and aquariums as a result of Blackfish and the continued efforts of advocacy groups."

"As younger generations turn away from zoos and aquariums, they will avoid taking their own children. This will yield a snowball effect over time in which fewer people take an active interest in seeing animals in captivity," he explains. "Some of these facilities simply won’t survive the decline."

Williams contends that the parks that do survive need to demonstrate the benefits they provide to animals and society at large.

"There are those world-class facilities where research and breeding programs yield tangible benefits for animals within their care and for those in the wild. They will thrive by creating an experience for visitors that goes beyond serving as an attraction," says Williams. "They must continue to work to highlight their larger purposes and animal welfare initiatives."

SeaWorld steps up
When Blackfish debuted, SeaWorld came off as very defensive and critical of the film, say PR pros. It also did very little on social media.

"Their initial reaction didn't serve them very well," says Debbie Elliott, president of crisis and issues management firm Talk, Inc. "It was the wrong tone."

However, she applauds SeaWorld’s new campaign, which she says provides facts about the orcas in its care, outlines its multimillion-dollar investments in whale research, and puts a human face on the company. The TV spots, for instance, put SeaWorld veterinarians and researchers front and center.

"Granted, it has a lot of work to do, but this campaign with the TV ads and website is very good," says Elliott. 

SeaWorld notes that it’s only at the start of a long campaign.

"This is a long-term effort to have a conversation with the public and give them the facts about SeaWorld so they can make up their own minds," the company said in a statement. "While there are a noisy few who hope we’ll stop our campaign, we’re in this for the long haul. In our experience, when people have the facts about SeaWorld – our world-class animal care, rescue efforts, to save animals today, and conservation programs to protect animals in the future – they support who we are and the important things we do."

The company also pointed to early results from the campaign, noting that it has answered more than 1,000 questions and has more than 150 new topics on its AskSeaWorld page.

"We’re seeing good traffic to that site, and we’re also seeing engagement on our social channels – the AskSeaWorld posts are among the highest performers on our Facebook page," the company says in a statement. A SeaWorld representative was not immediately available for a phone interview with PRWeek. 

By taking a fact-based approach to the campaign, Elliot notes that the company is also avoiding getting into a mud-slinging battle with its opponents, particularly NGOs and animal rights groups. She emphasizes those groups are not held to the same standards by the media, and as a result by the general public, as corporate America in terms of the validity and accuracy of what they say.

"We’re at a time when activists can say whatever they want, and it’s recorded by the media as if it’s fact. On the other hand, corporations can’t say whatever they want, because the backlash will be strong and immediate," she explains. "So they don’t want to get into the mud with their opponent."

SeaWorld contends it is seeing the fruits of the campaign at the gates, as well. The company reported on Thursday that attendance and revenue at its parks for the first three months of the year increased versus the same period of 2014.

New president and CEO Joel Manby reportedly told investors on a conference call with analysts, "I believe that when we get the facts out to our guests, partners, and other constituencies, we win."

"We are just beginning that fight," Manby added.

Entertainment PR firm 42West has reportedly been working with SeaWorld since 2013. Tom Reno, COO of the firm, declined comment.

SeaWorld should be even more aggressive in responding to critics, says Lanny Davis, an attorney specializing in crisis management for Levick. He notes that activist groups play loose with the facts to elicit an impassioned response by stakeholders and that SeaWorld management should try to get its opponents to more clearly define their end goals.

"They need to ask, ‘Is there any difference between killer whales being cared for at SeaWorld versus intelligent animals in captivity at a zoo? Should we have no marine life? Should we have no zoos and aquariums? Or is it just that you’re anti-SeaWorld?’ These are some of the questions that SeaWorld needs to pose," Davis tells PRWeek. "Because right now I feel they are letting innuendos govern the message rather than forcing their opponent to come out of the darkness with their exact argument."

Depending on their response, Davis says SeaWorld can regain some lost credibility.

"If it is about closing all zoo-like organizations, then they can have a debate about that with them," he notes. "And SeaWorld can present a position that in the end would win people back."

This story was updated on May 12 to correct a quote from Debbie Elliot, who said SeaWorld's initial reaction to Blackfish did not serve the company well.

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