Crisis Communications: SeaWorld and Blackfish

seaworld blackfish

Blackfish is a new documentary that exposes SeaWorld for mistreatment of Orcas in capture and captivity as well as the misinformation to visitors and trainers.

Blackfish was originally debuted at Sundance Film Festival in January of 2013, but gained particular popularity after it was repeatedly aired by CNN in October 2013.

During the summer of 2013, the documentary was also released at some movie theaters and was ultimately picked up by Netflix in early December of 2013. Before reaching Netflix’s audience, the film was viewed by 21 million people through CNN alone. This movie quickly gained momentum and, as it did, SeaWorld’s reputation rapidly declined.

SeaWorld refused to comment in the documentary, even though the documentary has video proof of mistreatment and previous SeaWorld trainers speaking against the corporation. SeaWorld now has issued written statements stating that Blackfish is nothing but untrue propaganda, but has refused to give any live or verbal interviews.

Despite all of the negative press surrounding SeaWorld as a result of Blackfish, SeaWorld’s third quarter of 2013 experienced a 3 percent increase in overall revenue when compared to the third quarter of 2012. However, Blackfish‘s popularity is still gaining momentum with consumers and SeaWorld is just recently increasing their crisis communication campaign.  While it may be too late for SeaWorld’s public relations / crisis management team to “get ahead” of this issue, this will certainly make for a great case study in the recreation and tourism industry. Here are some of the things that SeaWorld could have done to positively handle the Blackfish campaign in 2013.

Always Respond Verbally or Visually to a Crisis

A comment that is given by a real human being builds trust with your audience. When a consumer can see or hear the person who is giving the response, they are able to hear the tone of their voice and determine from there how sincere they sound. Because of this you need to make sure to prepare your CEO or chosen spokesperson since it will directly reflect the intentions of your organization.

SeaWorld refused to make a comment for the documentary and in interview requests that resulted from Blackfish‘s popularity. This lowered overall respect and trust that their consumers had for them as a company. It made it look as if SeaWorld was hiding. Although one can certainly see why SeaWorld would be concerned that the Blackfish producers might alter the comment they made, a comment should always be given to your consumers.

Respond Immediately

You should have a comment prepared for your business’ social media sites. This comment should be basic and posted within the first 10-15 minutes of the crisis. From that point, your number one priority should be formulating an official statement. This statement should be released no later than one hour after you find out about the crisis. This could help your company stop the crisis early and keep loyal consumers engaged in your company.  SeaWorld waited about a month after the film debuted at Sundance Film Festival before responding. This gave too much time for the issue to gain momentum without an attempt at diffusing it.

Actively Listen to Your Audience’s Response

The importance of monitoring social media sites cannot be stressed enough, especially in a time of crisis. This will help you stay informed on what consumers feel about your company and help you gauge, not only, what your next step should be but the size of the issue. This is one area that SeaWorld was extremely lacking. Although they have increased their activism recently, through their sponsored tweets and engaging website, they were relatively inactive as this film was gaining popularity. Many of their consumers would tweet them during the airing on CNN and they would not respond to any of them. It is hard to tell if they were listening to their audience at all but they were definitely not responding and now they are paying the price. Keeping an eye on the conversation and staying current in the conversation could have diminished the negative morale that is now associated with their brand.

Remain Present in the Conversation

Make sure to remain constant on your message. If the problem requires a policy change, then illustrate how the change is going! Increased customer service will not be viewed as a negative thing so make sure that you respond when consumers ask questions or voice concerns.  After SeaWorld’s initial response, they went primarily silent about the topic while it was gaining popularity. They didn’t respond to tweets or comments from their consumers. This increased the level of distrust between the organization and their consumers.

dawn brancheau seaworldNever Lie

Make sure that you do not exaggerate the truth when it comes to an event that happens with your business. Regularly practicing this method will help you avoid a potential crisis.  This tip is especially true in regards your official statement after the crisis incident. Your statement should help you gain morale and any lies or exaggeration in it will hurt your corporation.

SeaWorld made a few mistakes like this in their statement regarding this movie. One example would be when SeaWorld stated that Blackfish lied about SeaWorld blaming one of their trainers, Dawn Brancheau, for her death, but Blackfish used the direct footage from the SeaWorld spokesperson, Thad Lacink, that aired when that event occurred on which he stated, “Dawn, if she was standing her right now, she would tell you that this was her faul…mistake.”

Address All of the Accusations—Not Just the False Ones

Accepting fault when fault is due is crucial to this process.  It may be difficult to admit fault to your consumers but it is always better for them to hear it from you verses another source. If you are planning to address the wrongful accusations then you must also admit to what is true. In this process, you also should issue an apology if it is due and work towards a change. SeaWorld failed to do this with their statement when they did not comment on the quality and length of life of captive verses wild killer whales. They also did not address the misrepresentation regarding this information to their visitors.

Large corporations don’t have all of the answers when it comes to crisis communication. SeaWorld seemed to be working without a crisis plan and decided that lack of comments or omitting material would hurt them less than sincerely accepting fault and explaining their position. Whether or not you choose to believe Blackfish or SeaWorld, take note on how to avoid SeaWorld’s mistakes. Use these tips to make sure that you are prepared for a crisis!

Suggested Reading

  • Orlando Business Journal | Something’s fishy with this SeaWorld/’Blackfish’ poll
  • Daily Finance | How SeaWorld Is Surfing to Profitability Above the ‘Blackfish’ Scandal
  • CNN | Despite ‘Blackfish,’ SeaWorld expects record revenue for 2013

Image via the Animal Legal Defense Fund

Jacqueline Pruter

Jacqueline Pruter is currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in Strategic Communications at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas.

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