It may come as no surprise to those following the Blackfish/SeaWorld issue that shares in the amusement park fell by 33 per cent after it reported weak earnings and lacklustre attendance for the year.
Blackfish was a 2013 film documenting fatal attacks by performing killer whales. Highly critical of attractions that keep these animals captive, it focussed on Tilikum, an orca at SeaWorld Park in Orlando, which had been involved in the deaths of three people. The film resulted in a growing tide of negative public opinion, evidenced through social media, cancelled events and on-site protests.
Keeping orcas in captivity generates a huge amount of impassioned opinion from both sides of the debate, as all animal rights issues do. Whether the park can, or from an ethical standpoint should, recover from this, only time will tell.
From a crisis communications perspective, SeaWorld’s response has been intriguing and gives an insight into the power of emotions during a crisis.
Initially it was silent. Best guess is that SeaWorld was used to fielding criticism from those who objected to its activities and naively or most likely arrogantly thought, ‘What damage can a documentary made for under $100,000 do?’
Not assuming the worst is crisis communications error number one. Better to be prepared than play catch up. The sheer scale and weight of response, such as school trips being stopped at the behest of distraught children and high-profile music acts cancelling performances at the site, seems to have taken it by surprise.
Subsequently, and with the interest in Blackfish still high (21m Americans tuned in to its TV premiere later in the year) SeaWorld went onto the front foot and began a PR offensive to counteract the film’s claims.
But it was here it made further errors. On its own website, it set out what it believed were factual inaccuracies in the documentary. Whilst the principle of correcting erroneous information during a crisis is sound, it made a major misstep in its use of language.
They claimed the film ‘manipulates viewers emotionally’ and contained ‘the dubious reflections of scientists’ and ‘falsehoods and misleading techniques’. SeaWorld ended up sounding angry and, worst of all, gave the impression that customers had been easily duped into believing propaganda.
So, with this latest news showing that Blackfish may have in some way been responsible for falling attendances, is there anything SeaWorld can do to revive its ailing position? From a reputation management perspective, whatever decision it takes with regards to the future of its orca programme, it needs to step carefully.
No organisation, no matter how big or well regarded, is immune to criticism. SeaWorld was a staple part of the tradition of American amusement parks and perhaps, for this reason, it began to consider itself invincible. It needs to take time to truly reconnect with its audience, showing with passion that it is an organisation that believes in what it does but also recognises that others may not share this view. And when those views are voiced, SeaWorld must respond in an open, mature and constructive manner. It is only then that it may began to rebuild some of its reputation lost along the way.
Alex Johnson is a consultant at Insignia Communications. You can follow her on Twitter @Alex_Insignia.