Seeing is believing: SeaWorld’s struggle with bad publicity

When it comes to public relations, there is always more to uncover beneath the surface. As it picks up the pieces after its recent PR disaster, SeaWorld is learning a valuable lesson

A killer whale show at SeaWorld, Orlando. The film Blackfish, which sheds light on the treatment of the company's animals, has adversely affected its reputation
A killer whale show at SeaWorld, Orlando. The film Blackfish, which sheds light on the treatment of the company's animals, has adversely affected its reputation 

“Inaccurate reports have recently generated questions about SeaWorld and the animals in our care,” begins an open letter from SeaWorld. “The truth is in our parks and people, and it’s time to set the record straight. The men and women of SeaWorld are true animal advocates.”

The release of 2012 documentary Blackfish sent seismic reverberations first through the (albeit relatively contained) world of animal rights activists, until it was debuted on CNN in 2013 and subsequently thrust into the mainstream. The film has now been viewed by more than 20 million people worldwide and has fed the public’s growing fascination in recent years with the ‘animals in captivity’ debate. It follows the violent behaviour of orcas, commonly known as killer whales, in captivity, focusing on the deaths of three trainers who had been working with the animals.

Since the film’s release, SeaWorld’s shares have tumbled by as much as 33 percent (see Fig 1), profits have plunged 28 percent, a Consumerist poll revealed it to be the third-most-hated company in the US, and anti-SeaWorld petitions have sprung up in their hundreds. Then, in a dramatic turn of events, CEO Jim Atchison resigned in December, confirming what so many were thinking: SeaWorld is in trouble.


Number of shares stockholder Delaware has sold since Blackfish’s release


Dolphin and marine animal parks industry in US


SeaWorld’s current debt


Job cuts announced at SeaWorld since 2010


Decrease in attendance since Blackfish’s release


Profits drop in 2014


Stock price drop since Blackfish’s release

Where there’s smoke
The biggest issue faced by the theme park operator is undoubtedly from a stakeholder perspective. STA Travel, the world’s largest travel operator for young people and students, chose to stop working with SeaWorld in May 2014. The move was part of a vast withdrawal from unethical animal trips, and set the wheels of an industrywide trend in motion.

In July 2014, it was announced that Southwest Airlines’ 25-year marketing partnership with the amusement park was also being terminated following alleged pressure from animal rights activists, though SeaWorld officials were quick to maintain that the decision was mutual. Further negative publicity brought about by the documentary came in the form of proposed legislation in California, known as the Orca Welfare and Safety Act, which calls for a ban on the holding of orcas in captivity.

Take a quick glance at SeaWorld’s official Twitter page, and you’ll see that more or less every other post is a response in some way to negative publicity brought about by Blackfish. Add to that the admissions – from which SeaWorld collects 60 percent of all revenue – having dwindled by 4.7 percent in the wake of the negativity and outrage surrounding the company, and it becomes increasingly clear just how powerful a voice one filmmaker can actually have.

The only party unable to see that, it would seem, is SeaWorld itself, which points to increased competition, a later summer holiday for many US schools and negative publicity solely originating from the proposed legislation in California, all the while vehemently denying that there could be any truth to the claims made in Blackfish.

Despite this, it was announced in mid-2014 that the park operators planned to upgrade its whale tanks in three locations, in what animal rights activist group PETA described as a “drop-in-the-bucket move”, along with various other moves that looked distinctly like crisis management.

But through all of this, one party is actually increasing its stake in SeaWorld, and it’s an unlikely one. While most investors are swiftly abandoning the fallen darling of zoological-themed entertainment parks, PETA is wading in. It claims that an increased stake would give it permission to attend SeaWorld’s annual general meeting, submit formal questions and propose future strategies: keeping its enemies close, some would say.

The human approach
In terms of dealing with a public relations crisis, James Brooke, Managing Director of Rooster PR, insists “it’s not rocket science”. He told World Finance: “People talk about it being an art form, and yes, there are nuances to it, but ultimately the overriding principles are the same. Be it an airliner crash, oil leak, tsunami, whatever it might be: you respond quickly, you have a dialogue, you have senior spokespeople on site as quickly as possible, and you gauge the use of social media correctly.”

Brooke pointed to the 1989 Kegworth air disaster as an example, which, against all odds, vastly improved public perceptions of flight operator British Midland. As soon as the incident occurred, the crisis management team was assembled and CEO at the time Michael Bishop was on his way to the crash site, briefing the media with what he knew and expressing his sincere condolences to all affected. By responding immediately and with a friendly, sympathetic and fundamentally human approach, the crash ended up doing little to damage the reputation of the airline, and sales eventually ended up rising in the aftermath.

On the other end of the spectrum is a social media campaign from DHL, following Jules Bianchi’s horrific Formula 1 crash in October 2014. An update posted on DHL’s Facebook account read: “Ghastly accident in Japan. Jules Bianchi is fighting for his life. By clicking ‘like’ on this occasion, you’ll be sending Jules your best wishes for a speedy recovery #ForzaJules.” Unsurprisingly, many of the page’s 600,000 or so followers saw straight through the poorly disguised marketing campaign, and news of it quickly spread. Such is the power of social media.

While it can be an incredibly valuable medium for communicating a positive brand message and identifying with customers, it also makes it extremely difficult to contain bad press. Instead, it acts as an enabler, allowing the negativity to spread like a disease. Torrents of abuse were directed at the delivery giant in the wake of the stunt, calling it “truly inhumane”, “cheap, pathetic and tasteless” and “ghastly”.

“These issues happen because the focus on the commercial side of the business overrides any PR and communications. Those people should be at the most senior level within businesses,” said Brooke at the time. “We’re best placed and trained to inform decision-makers about how to respond in a crisis. And while we’re gradually making our way into the boardroom, we’re not quite there yet.” Fundamentally, the issue is a lack of communication between marketing and PR departments.

It’s simply not possible to talk about exemplary spin doctors without mentioning the ultimate human face of a corporate behemoth: Richard Branson, who single-handedly manages to represent thousands of staff across a multitude of brands, has been quoted saying: “The head of PR is perhaps one of the most important people in a company, and a good chairman will have them by their side… They are critical for managing the brand and save millions in advertising; people talking about your company is much more important than anything.” As opposed to many Fortune 500 companies, where the CEO is largely kept at arm’s length from both internal operations and public statements, Branson’s name is synonymous with Virgin, and he himself is arguably as famous as the brand.

SeaWorld's share priceThe corporate drawbridge
Considering the recommended course of action by PR professionals, the absolute worst thing for a company to do following a crisis is nothing. However, this is the exact strategy that has long been adopted by Apple, most notably employed following the scandal that came to be known as ‘bendgate’ in October 2014, when the brand new iPhone 6 was discovered to be bending in users’ pockets.

That approach, in actual fact, worked very well in this case. In 2014, Apple upheld its top spot on Interbrand’s best global brand ranking for the third year running (see Fig 2), which also showed its brand value to have increased by 21 percent over the year. By refusing to pander to anyone – be that its customers or the press – Apple’s PR team effectively sparked the public’s curiosity, creating an air of mystery and intrigue. Of course, plenty see straight through the facade and take it for what it is: intentional elitism, verging on the impression that it takes its customers for granted.

Aside from a small and temporary drop in its share price at the time, no impact was detected across the board. In this circumstance, Apple is the exception as opposed to the rule – ignoring public criticism may work for the most influential corporation in the world, but that is one of very few companies capable of pulling it off. Smaller businesses with a far less loyal customer base simply cannot play hard to get with consumers and the media alike, especially in times of a crisis.

If advising SeaWorld, Brooke suggested: “They have to have a dialogue. The worst thing possible would be to pull up the corporate drawbridge. They’ve got to be seen to be sympathetic to what’s being said, and putting a plan in place for the long-term development of the park, and the welfare of the animals.”

He continued: “It’s got to be seen to be addressing all of the serious concerns in the documentary, which ultimately, only they know the truth about. So some pretty frank internal discussions need to be had, with the commercial aspect left at the door, and perhaps they should bring in external consultants who won’t just tell them what they want to hear.”

Weathering the storm
While things for SeaWorld aren’t looking great right now, and the documentary is likely to have a continuing impact as animal rights movements gain traction, full park closure is unlikely in the immediate future. A mind-boggling 400 million guests have passed through SeaWorld’s doors in its 50 years of operation, and there will always be a mass market for what it has to offer.

What’s interesting about this case is SeaWorld’s lack of resilience. As evidenced, companies are on the receiving end of bad press all the time. Granted, not all companies are the subject of a feature-length documentary, but a similar situation has happened before: the 2004 documentary Super Size Me saw filmmaker Morgan Spurlock eat only McDonald’s for an entire month, during which time he gained a significant amount of weight and developed heart palpitations and depression, among various other health deteriorations. While the film provoked a global public debate on nutrition and saw McDonald’s pull all ‘super size’ meal options from its menus just six weeks after the documentary was released, the effects weren’t really felt on the fast food giant’s bottom line. An overhaul of its menus, including the addition of salads and considerable rebranding – which the chain still insists had nothing to do with the documentary – eventually saw sales rise by 7.4 percent by the close of 2008.

Of course, there are two sides to every story, and SeaWorld was relatively quick to issue a response to the Blackfish documentary, in which it argued against almost every point and vehemently denied any truth in the accusations put forward. What would boost the company’s image, and its pockets, would be to fully communicate the good SeaWorld has done for animal conservation and rehabilitation in the past.

Interbrand's best global brand ranking 2014

Its response self-proclaims it to be a “world leader in animal rescue” and “often the first to be contacted” in times of natural or man-made disasters, having rescued more than 23,000 animals “with the goal of treating and returning them to the wild’”. If there is truth in these claims, SeaWorld executives simply must confront each individual issue head-on – perhaps in a public-forum-style debate, where, as Brooke suggests, the commercial aspect is left at the door, and each claim is fully supported with evidence.

A poll posted by the Orlando Business Journal asked ‘has CNN’s Blackfish documentary changed your perception of SeaWorld?’, and initially showed overwhelming support for the theme park, with 99 percent voting no. However, an investigation by the newspaper found that 54 percent of 328 votes had come from the same IP address, belonging to none other than With the passing of time, the results have made a complete U-turn, with 86 percent of a total 11,183 voters selecting yes.

The silver lining
A 2011 study from Stanford Graduate School of Business found that on rare occasions, bad publicity can have a positive impact on sales. It employed various examples as evidence, such as when a 300 percent increase in requests for information about the nation of Kazakhstan was reported by after the 2006 film Borat mocked it, or when a wine described as ‘redolent of stinky socks’ by a well-respected website saw its sales rise by five percent. The study shows that if a product or company was relatively unheard of before negative publicity, it can be thrust into the public eye simply as a result of that bad press, raising product awareness.

“Whereas the negative impression fades over time, increased awareness may remain, which can actually boost the chances that a product will be purchased,” said Alan Sorensen, a professor of economics and strategic management, who authored the study along with Jonah Berger and Scott Rasmussen. The same was not found for more established companies: when a rumour that McDonald’s was using worm meat in its hamburgers circulated in 2000, a 25 percent drop in sales was detected.

It’s clear that while Blackfish hasn’t prompted the immediate closure of any of SeaWorld’s 11 parks, it has successfully tapped into an existing issue at the forefront of public debate and attracted a global audience. In terms of the future, it’s not looking too rosy for the theme park operator, which faces the mighty uphill battle of turning around public sentiment surrounding a particularly hot topic.