Blackfish and SeaWorld — A case of miscommunication

An assignment in my communications in practice class had us analyze a communications case study. I chose a case study about how SeaWorld handled the backlash after the documentary film "Blackfish" came out. I went beyond the analysis and included what I would have done had I been working for SeaWorld.

Full disclosure: As an animal rights advocate, I am against the keeping of killer whales and dolphins (and other large animals) in captivity and using them for our entertainment. I am anti-SeaWorld and pro-animal rights organizations. However, for the sake of this discussion, I will write in a neutral voice and even make suggestions at the end about how I would have handled this communications crisis if I had been … gulp … working as a communication consultant for SeaWorld.

In “A Whale of Problem: A Strategic Communication Analysis of SeaWorld Entertainment’s Multi-Year Blackfish Crisis,” Duhon, Ellison, and Ragas discuss the case of SeaWorld’s response to the 2013 film BlackfishBlackfish is a documentary film that highlights specifically the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau by killer whale Tillikum and generally the issue of the keeping of killer whales in captivity and using them for entertainment. Brancheau was killed in 2010, and Blackfishpremiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013. It subsequently aired twice on CNN and quickly went to Netlix. CNN estimated that over 21 million people saw the documentary (2016). 

Backlash as a result of the film was swift and strong. Activist groups, led by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), spearheaded campaigns against the company, especially on social media. Musical groups, including Willie Nelson, canceled concerts at the theme park. Corporations, including Southwest and Mattel, withdrew affiliations with the company. SeaWorld was unprepared for the backlash and responded “from a defensive, advocacy posture” (2016). SeaWorld refused to appear on-camera with CNN. Instead, they issued written statements in a defensive tone that purported to give facts but which PETA, and many in the public, interpreted as lies (PETA, 2014).

It wasn’t until nearly two years after the premiere of Blackfish that SeaWorld changed its communication strategy to one of “a blend of advocacy and accommodation backed by tangible business actions” (Duhon, 2016). At this point, SeaWorld took out an ad that read: “Fact: Whales Live as long at SeaWorld,” with a written statement by a SeaWorld veterinarian (2016). SeaWorld began using the hashtag #AskSeaWorld to start a dialogue with those concerned about killer whale welfare or anyone having any questions about animals at SeaWorld. And SeaWorld announced the creation of their Blue World Project, in which they planned to build a new habitat to house their killer whales, one that would be nearly twice the size of current killer whale tanks and that contains a more stimulating environment. 

If I had been consulting SeaWorld, I would have started in 2010, immediately following Dawn Brancheau’s death, by reminding them of Ralph Crosby’s mantra that “marketing is content” (Crosby, n.d.). You can’t let outside forces dictate your content. The organization must create the content and control, as much as possible, how it is disseminated. 

To that end, I would have employed Everse’s “What/How/Who Model” of strategic communication (2012). What is the message SeaWorld should compose? The most important message immediately following Brancheau’s death should have been threefold: (1) that SeaWorld was contrite, (2) that they were going to initiate an investigation into how the death happened, and (3) that they were going to take whatever steps required to prevent future accidents and deaths from occurring. How should SeaWorld have communicated this message? They should have issued a written statement, done in-person interviews (especially with CEO Jim Atchison), and taken to social media. Who should SeaWorld have targeted as their audience? SeaWorld should have targeted the general public as their primary audience, but also investors and employees. SeaWorld’s reputation was adversely affected by Brancheau’s death. And employees, especially trainers, were likely shaken by her death. As Argenti discusses in “Strategic Communication in the C-Suite” (2012), internal communication needs to come from the top down and needs to be done in-person as much as possible. Argenti writes, “the presence and even the voice of the CEO in particular [is] critical to restoring the organization to normalcy or moving the organization to a new place” (p.155).CEO Jim Atchison should have visited every SeaWorld theme park to meet with employees and assure them that an investigation was underway and that steps were being taken to make sure nothing like that would happen again.

When SeaWorld found out that Blackfish was about to premiere at Sundance, they should have gone through the same process again. “Marketing is content” (Crosby, n.d.). Combine this with Everse’s ‘What/How/Who Model” (Everse, 2012), and create your message immediately. Don’t wait for the film to be released. Prepare your strategy before its release. Use written statements, but agree to go on-camera as well. Answer reporters’ questions. Leverage social media from the beginning. Be prepared with facts to counter PETA’s assertions of facts. Don’t just say “these are facts.” Prove them. And don’t whine when PETA and other activist groups get in your face, as SeaWorld did when they finally took to social media two years after Blackfishcame out (Duhon 2016) and complained that PETA dominated the #AskSeaWorld conversation. 

Repairing your reputation is much harder to do than protecting it. SeaWorld had known for years that it has been the target of animal activist groups. It should have had a strategic communications plan in place for any eventuality. Barring that, it should have acted with greater speed when Blackfish premiered and responded to the audience’s concerns with greater compassion – by really listening to what the audience wanted to hear from SeaWorld, that SeaWorld would make things right, that they care about their animals and their employees. Learning from this experience, SeaWorld has the opportunity to do better in the future.

References:

Argenti, Paul A. “Strategic Communication in the C-Suite.” 2017. Vol. 54(2 146-160. International Journal of Business Communication. DOI: 10.1177/2329488416687053.

Crosby, Ralph. “Lessons Learned in a Lifetime of Marketing.” 2014.

Duhon, S., Kelli Ellison, & Matthew W. Ragas. (2016). “A Whale of a Problem: A Strategic Communication Analysis of SeaWorld Entertainment’s Multi-Year Blackfish Crisis.” Case Studies in Strategic Communication, 5, article 2. http://cssc.uscannenberg.org/cases/v5/v5art2

Everse, Georgia. March 7, 2012. “Four Steps to Building a Strategic Communications Capability.” Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2012/03/four-steps-to-building-a-strat

“9 Times SeaWorld Lied to Your Face.” November 6, 2014. PETA. https://www.seaworldofhurt.com/features/9-times-seaworld-lied/

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