By Ashley Manz, Account Executive, R&J Public Relations
By now, we’ve all heard about the documentary Blackfish (if you haven’t, I strongly encourage you to watch it on Netflix). The movie opens with a shocking 911 call out of SeaWorld, “One of the whales ate a trainer.” The rest of the film follows suit showing heartbreaking footage of whales, trainers and tragedy, following the life of the “Shamu,” a former show whale actually named Tilikum.
What unfolded after the movie was released isn’t surprising: performing artists from the Barenaked Ladies to Willie Nelson have cancelled their upcoming SeaWorld concerts, animal rights activists have protested and boycotted outside the gates, and some even tried to destroy the SeaWorld float in the Rose Bowl parade. And while it raised some interesting points, the debate over whales –and other mammals — in captivity is an old one and the documentary was really nothing more than a criticism of SeaWorld.
For SeaWorld, the film launched a full blown public relations crisis. Personal beliefs aside, SeaWorld failed to respond appropriately to the documentary for the following reasons:
- Lack of response: After I watched the film, I went on the web to see what kind of statement was release on behalf of SeaWorld. To my surprise, most requests for SeaWorld’s “side of the story” have been declined and rejected. There was no immediate apology or statement issued and SeaWorld dismissed the movie as “animal activist propaganda.” Ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away.
- Hiding public responses: I’ve seen multiple reports of people who have gone on to SeaWorld’s social media sites to express their thoughts on the film only to have their comments deleted. Even worse, many of these reports show that the user is banned from the page afterward. Deleting and blocking these comments will only push people to respond with greater anger.
- Claiming harassment: After nine artists cancelled their performances at SeaWorld, a spokesperson claimed that it was “digital harassment” and that they were “disappointed a small group of misinformed individuals” are denying fans great concerts. SeaWorld didn’t immediately let the artists out of their contracts. Most of the artists have gone on to say that the cancellation of the concerts is a direct response to the film.
- Covering up: After the film was released, the Orlando Business Journal posted a poll asking “Has CNN’s ‘Blackfish’ documentary changed your perception of SeaWorld?” The next day, 99 percent of the responses said “no.” Upon closer examination, though, the outlet discovered that 54 percent of the 328 votes casted came from a single IP address: SeaWorld.com. SeaWorld first claimed they had nothing to do with the response and that it was simply from the great passion its employees have for the park. The publication issued a new poll and the results flip-flopped.
- Clouded truth and no transparency: Overall, SeaWorld has taken a defensive position, challenging the film’s creators to debates over facts, lying to reporters and covering up reports. The organization launched a section on its website called, “Truth About Blackfish.” And while that could have been a step in the right direction, corporate executives continue to blame the film for not reporting both sides, and the cancellation of concerts as the only reason the film continues to be in the news. Financial reports show a drop in attendance, yet executives are blaming the drop only on bad weather. There is no consistent message or information out of SeaWorld.
And the fight continues. In the wake of the most recent trainer’s death, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration banned trainers from swimming with killer whales during shows as part of its ruling that SeaWorld violated safety standards. SeaWorld is appealing, and this will only bring more media attention to the organization.
Unfortunately for SeaWorld, Blackfish has blackened the company’s reputation. SeaWorld can’t remain in defense and denial mode; while they can hope that some people haven’t heard of Blackfish yet, everyone has heard of Willie Nelson.