Sink or Swim? How has SeaWorld fared in the “Blackfish” maelstrom of bad PR?


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Blackfish,” Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s independent documentary that took the country by storm, premiered in January at the Sundance FilmFestival. Since its debut, the movie has received the sort of exposure that most filmmakers – both independent and mainstream – can only dream about.

For those of you who have been living under a rock, the plot of the film unfolds around the psychological damage inflicted on captive killer whales at SeaWorld and how that treatment led to fatalities among their trainers.

The film has been touted by some as “the best film of 2013,” while the media has laid siege to the SeaWorld Corporation.

Of course, this is nothing new for SeaWorld. The company has a history of bad publicity, beginning in 1993 with the release of “Free Willy,” continuing with periodic instances of animal attacks on trainers, and culminating in the brutal slaying of one of SeaWorld’s senior trainers by an orca.
Once “Blackfish” began playing in theaters around the world and then aired on CNN in October 2013, there was no stopping the slings and arrows directed at SeaWorld. Animal rights activists amped up their protests and the press took notice. Even celebrities like Alec Baldwin and Jason Biggs took up the cause and made active strides against SeaWorld.  Additionally, upon seeing the film, several major musical acts such as Willie Nelson, Bare Naked Ladies, REO Speedwagon, Heart, and Martina McBride chose to cancel their upcoming concerts at the theme park.

The stigma has become so negative, in fact, that Disney/Pixar opted to rewrite the end of “Finding Dory,” the highly anticipated sequel to the beloved “Finding Nemo.” The updated ending made clear that the animals taken to the marine theme park in the final scene have the option to leave.

Instead of lying low and waiting for the buzz to die down, SeaWorld began an aggressive preemptive campaign to counteract the bad PR. The company hired communications firm 42West and proactively rebutted all claims made in the film. One week before Sundance, SeaWorld began their counter campaign by sending a detailed, point-by-point critique of “Blackfish” to the top critics in the industry. They made high-level executives and animal caretakers available for interviews and began additional advertising and web promotions. This is the official statement that SeaWorld released questioning the validity of the film:

‘Blackfish’ is billed as a documentary, but instead of a fair and balanced treatment of a complex subject, the film is inaccurate and misleading. And regrettably, it exploits a tragedy that remains a source of deep pain for Dawn Brancheau’s family, friends and colleagues.

Specifically, SeaWorld has been trying to appeal more and more to their core audience – children. For the first time, the company has purchased spaces for floats in two of the most celebrated parades in the country, including the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the upcoming 2014 Parade of Roses.

Has this strategy been successful? Has SeaWorld accomplished what it set out to do in this campaign?

Many would argue that fighting back so hard and so publicly has simply added fuel to the fire, exposing an even broader audience to the issue. Most corporations would try to keep a low profile in a situation like this – as did McDonald’s when “Super Size Me” was stirring up anti fast food sentiment. By being so aggressive in their counter-campaign, is it possible that SeaWorld’s actions have created even more interest in the controversy?

President of Magnolia Films, Eamonn Bowles commented on the attention to the film generated by SeaWorld’s campaign: “From [our] marketing standpoint, this is turning into the gift that keeps on giving. Frankly, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

In the end, many have argued that even if SeaWorld’s objections regarding the veracity of the film prove to be true, the company’s reputation will have already been irrevocably damaged.

Media coverage has highlighted extensive protests and boycotts of the SeaWorld brand. The average individual following this story would assume that SeaWorld will go the way of dog fights and become a part of a regrettable era that future generations will look back upon aghast at the travesties committed in the name of entertainment.

And yet … perhaps SeaWorld’s counter-campaign has worked after all.

“I scratch my head if there’s any notable impact from this film at all,” said SeaWorld CEO Jim Atchison, “Ironically, our attendance has improved since the movie came out.”

Additionally, the company has been able to raise prices on admissions, food and merchandise in the parks. By offering additional attractions to entice guests, the total revenue per capita grew from $56.80 to $60.74. According to Atchison, October – the month the documentary debuted on CNN – was the company’s best-performing month. Overall third quarter profits reportedly increased by 30% over the same period in 2012, and SeaWorld’s stock is up 22% from its IPO price in April 2013.

As a PR professional, it is encouraging to see a well-executed campaign and strategic management counteract what I would perceive to be a devastating blow to corporate reputation.

Perhaps the “Blackfish” effect will resound beyond the 2013 fiscal results, but at the moment it looks like SeaWorld’s counter publicity campaign has triumphed.

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