A few days ago the news came out that 36 year old killer whale Tilikum has finally passed away. A blessing in disguise in my opinion, but that’s a whole other story. Tilikum had been kept in captivity almost all his life and is infamous for killing three people during this time. I genuinely could go on for days about how wrong and cruel I think SeaWorld is, however that would just be me having a massive rant, and that’s hardly PR related is it. But I thought I would have a look at how the shiny, perfect exterior of SeaWorld crumbled and how PR played a part in that.
I regret to say I do remember visiting SeaWorld as a child and I thought it was amazing. My whole family were sucked into the ideal that it was a fantastic, caring place for animals and that we were lucky to be able to be a tiny part of that. How we were wrong.
The documentary Blackfish (2013), which informs viewers of the abuse orcas have received due to SeaWorld and the lies they have consequently told, was the beginning of a huge PR nightmare for SeaWorld which is still ongoing. It caused huge controversy and gave light to the truth about SeaWorld. Since the release, there a been a large decline in attendance at SeaWorld parks, as well as their stock value plummeting.
Of course, with such appalling information coming out, it was hard for SeaWorld to defend itself, but you would have thought they would have had some sort of crisis plan in place. Especially after the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, surely someone would’ve thought about how to act in case something like that happened again? Apparently not.
Firstly, SeaWorld declined to be interviewed for the documentary in the first place. Apparently this was because “they doubted the material would be used in good faith”. I don’t really see how this would be possible, unless they had something to hide. Surprisingly, they did.
In a previous post, I explained how important it is to tell the truth and if you don’t, you probably will get caught out. SeaWorld definitely did. For example, almost all of the orcas in SeaWorld have collapsed dorsal fins. Blackfish shows us hidden camera footage of numerous SeaWorld guides saying how this is completely normal and happens frequently in the wild too. It does not. Less than 1% of wild orcas experience collapsed dorsal fins. It is believed this happens due to their lack of space and inability to swim as fast as they would in the ocean. However by lying about this and numerous other things such as orcas having the same lifespan in captivity as they do in the wild (spoiler: they don’t!), SeaWorld created more mistrust and if possible, tarnished their reputation even more.
They also went on to ignore the public, you know, the people who give them money. After a long time of simply ignoring Blackfish completely, they then started to refute the claims and send out their own information, without listening to anything their public had to say. When they then began to write their concerns on SeaWord’s Facebook page, they were warned that any negative comments would be removed. They went as far as then disabling the entire comments section in an attempt to ignore the public.
In 2015 SeaWorld then went onto attempt two-way symmetrical communication through launching a social media campaign with the hashtag #AskSeaWorld. However, this was hijacked by animal rights activists – and probably anyone who knew the truth about SeaWorld – who used the opportunity to express their anger towards the company. Whoever thought this was a good idea and that they wouldn’t receive a huge backlash from this must have been mad. They also decided it was a good idea to totally freak out and reply to these people by creating another hashtag #BewareOfTrolls. They also called them out for being “so 2014”.
When they finally waded through the abuse and started to answer genuine questions, they repeated the same answers multiple times. Not the best idea if they were wanting to appear more friendly and honest.
I won’t lie, I am very happy at the increasing decline of SeaWorld, but from a PR point of view they did not help themselves. With more and more awful truths being revealed about SeaWorld though, I wonder if any PR campaign could save them.