Two years after the release of Blackfish, a documentary that skewered SeaWorld over its treatment of killer whales, the theme park company is still dealing with declining attendance, negative headlines, celebrity criticism, and pervasive social media trolling. In response, SeaWorld is doubling down on its message and marketing efforts with a multifaceted campaign designed to shift the focus from the whales it holds in captivity.
Blackfish, which initially screened at Sundance in 2013, focused on the killing of orca trainer Dawn Brancheau by a whale named Tilikum. It used that incident as a prism through which to critique the park’s historical treatment of orcas and the consequences of keeping these animals—which swim an average of 75 miles a day in the wild—in tanks. After airing on CNN later that year, the film sparked widespread outrage that spilled over onto social media. Even if you hadn’t heard of Blackfish, you likely saw your friends talking about whales on Facebook. Two years later, people are still tweeting negatively about SeaWorld with active hashtags like #DontGoToSeaWorld and #ThanksButNoTanks.
For SeaWorld, the PR nightmare is much more deep-rooted than the Tilikum tragedy, since the questions raised by Blackfish and animal-rights activists challenge the very premise of what the company does: keep orcas in captivity. Last year in particular was rough for SeaWorld. After seeing its revenue grow every year since 2010, it reported a 5.65% decline that year. Attendance at its San Diego park dropped 12%, the steepest decline among the top 20 theme parks in North America. In July, Southwest Airlines and SeaWorld ended their 26-year partnership. By the end of the year, CEO Jim Atchison had shown himself the door. As of Tuesday, the company’s stock was down 37% year over year.
“For SeaWorld, it’s crucial that they turn this around,” says Barton Crockett, an analyst at investment bank FBR who covers SeaWorld. “The way this business works is that there’s tons of fixed costs. They can’t absorb some decline in revenue that stretches on into perpetuity because what they offer isn’t resonating like it should. Things need to resonate.”
It’s with exactly this goal in mind that SeaWorld is now taking a more aggressive approach to reputation management. The company started by cleaning house: In mid-December 2014, SeaWorld laid off 311 employees, many of whom worked in the marketing department, according to a former employee. The groundwork for a fresh media offensive was laid as spring approached. Brand experts say they have an uphill battle.
“They have an opportunity but a pretty big challenge as well,” says Josh Feldmeth, CEO of brand consultancy Interbrand North America. “They’ve got that opportunity to get back to that amazing experience that they offer guests–these creatures are so remarkable. But the challenge is, there’s a little bit of poison in the well. People have doubts.”
Whether the PR gambit proves successful hinges on whether SeaWorld can successfully market itself as an animal-friendly company while still holding orcas in captivity. If it can’t, the question becomes: Will SeaWorld consider—and would consumers ultimately prefer—a SeaWorld without whales?
By March of this year—under the leadership of new CEO Joel Manby, an experienced theme-park industry veteran—SeaWorld’s marketing and PR push was in full swing. The cross-media campaign is designed to paint a more humane picture of SeaWorld and deflect some of the more egregious charges leveled by Blackfish and critics like PETA. These efforts, which take the form of a reputation campaign alongside more traditional advertising and PR, combine the efforts of SeaWorld’s recently restructured internal marketing staff and outside consultants like the entertainment-PR wizards at 42West in New York City. The company won’t officially comment on the outside consultants they’ve hired to help with this effort, other than to acknowledge that they’ve worked with multiple partners.
In addition to new television commercials and quarter-page print advertorials highlighting SeaWorld’s animals and the company’s veterinary care, SeaWorld has ramped up what it calls its online “truth campaign.” Initially, the campaign focused primarily on social media, where so much of the vitriol about SeaWorld was boiling over after Blackfish. This year, it launched a dedicated website called Ask SeaWorld, which offers detailed information about how SeaWorld cares for its animals and other rebuttals to charges against the company’s practices.
“There is a lot of misinformation out there,” says Jill Kermes, senior corporate affairs officer at SeaWorld. “What we wanted with this campaign was to start that conversation with consumers and give them a place to go to get the facts about SeaWorld, about our animals, about our world-class animal care, and let them make up their own minds. We’re constantly thinking of new ways to engage and new ways to tell our story.”
Kermes, along with SeaWorld head of marketing Pete Frey and VP of communications Fred Jacobs, have their work cut out for them as negative headlines continue to proliferate. In May, SeaWorld was sued for the fourth time this year over its treatment of its animals.
Much of SeaWorld’s new campaign focuses on its its veterinary staff, animals rescued from harrowing circumstances, and non-whale species. One significant component is its “Meet the Animals” television ad campaign. One such spot—which, like most of the new ads, does not feature the orcas—makes a playful introduction to Leon, a 9-year-old sea lion that lives at SeaWorld.
“We’ve got incredible animals,” says Frey. “We’re not your typical theme park experience, and we provide these up-close, very unique, one-of-a-kind animal interactions. For us, the most important intellectual property that we do have as a company is the animals themselves.”
SeaWorld has also ramped up its publicity push around various animal rescue and rehabilitation efforts. Earlier this month, SeaWorld staff responded when a semi truck transporting four sharks to a Florida aquarium (unaffiliated with SeaWorld) had one of its tires blow out. One shark died in the accident, but and taken to its Orlando park for veterinary care. A few weeks earlier, SeaWorld was involved in the rescue and care of animals affected by the May 19th oil spill in Santa Barbara. While the company says these efforts have “nothing to do with our reputation campaign” (nor is this the first time SeaWorld has been involved in animal rescue operations), its PR department is undoubtedly eager to see more headlines like these.
In March, SeaWorld launched a Twitter campaign called #AskSeaWorld which, as one might predict, led to a barrage of critical tweets. While the strategy was regarded by many as a social media fail, Kermes says this reaction was expected.
“If you invite everyone—and that includes people who don’t like you—to engage with you on Twitter, you have to be prepared for what happens next,” Kermes says. “In addition to legitimate questions from people, you’re going to have people who are going to use the forum to criticize you or frame a question in really critical, harsh language. That’s part of the bargain.”
Months later, a search for the #AskSeaWorld hashtag on Twitter surfaces some pretty nasty stuff. “About once a month, there’s an organized tweet storm against us from a very small but vocal group of activists,” says Kermes. “In some ways, Twitter becomes a bit of an echo chamber.”
SeaWorld’s social media presence continues to be a magnet for trolls. Virtually every photo posted to the company’s Instagram account, regardless of its subject, sparks an all-out flame war between SeaWorld critics and sympathizers. Rather than jump into those debates, the company prefers to let those conversations play out while they focus on fine-tuning their own messaging on other channels. SeaWorld’s marketing and PR efforts in the last few months have shifted from social media to more one-way channels like television and print.
But that isn’t to say that SeaWorld has abandoned the social conversation entirely. SeaWorld’s communications team uses the Ask SeaWorld pages to offer more thorough, nuanced responses to critics than the short-form social web typically allows, a tactic they say arms the company’s defenders with a searchable archive of “shareable content” designed to counter critics. “Our fans are really excited to have this information and to have this data that they can share with their network and help us get the facts out,” says Kermes. SeaWorld declined to share metrics from the Ask SeaWorld site’s analytics, but Jacobs says they’re “encouraged by the results so far.”
At times, SeaWorld’s public relations efforts have veered into ethically questionable territory. In late March, just as former trainer John Hargrove—the primary and most reputable on-screen source in Blackfish—was promoting his new anti-SeaWorld book, Beneath the Surface, the company sent media outlets a five-year-old video of Hargrove going on a drunken tirade and using racial epithets. The video, which was reportedly acquired by a “whistleblower” on staff at SeaWorld, does nothing to refute the contents of Hargrove’s book, but takes very methodical aim at his character.
A Google search for Hargrove’s name also surfaces a website called RealJohnHargrove.com, a heavily search-optimized site dedicated to challenging Hargrove’s claims and reputation. The site is run by an organization called Awesome Ocean, which has received funding from SeaWorld, according to the Orlando Sentinel. SeaWorld’s PR department confirmed to Fast Company that it provided “startup money” to Awesome Ocean, but says that it remains editorially independent. Animal-rights blog The Dodo reports that Awesome Ocean editor Eric M. Davis is also the owner of an Orlando-based search marketing agency called Purple Moon Media, which lists SeaWorld among its clients.
And just last week, a SeaWorld employee was put on leave after being accused of posing as an animal-rights activist for three years, purportedly to gather intelligence on activist plans. No formal connection to SeaWorld management has been proven, and the company has condemned the alleged infiltration.
For SeaWorld, these are still the early days of trying to improve its public image—and there are some indications that it’s beginning to work. In early May, the company’s first-quarter results showed a 5.6% increase in attendance year over year, thanks in part to the use of promotional discounts, though there were still fewer guests than in 2013. Those extra feet in the door helped fuel a 1% increase in quarterly revenue, although it still reported a financial loss. The true test of SeaWorld’s progress will come in the third quarter of 2015. That’s typically the peak season for SeaWorld’s parks, when revenue and attendance are at their highest point of the year.
Of course, rehabbing a brand as battered as SeaWorld’s is an effort that can only get so far with messaging alone. “What they probably should do next is bring the experience to people,” says Feldmeth. “Show up at schools. Show up at other touch points, other experiences. Bring it into people’s lives in a new way. People are spending less on things and more on experiences. SeaWorld offers this amazing experience. They should show up in new ways, outside the park.”
But to animal-rights activists and those swayed by the Blackfish narrative, the issue isn’t a lack of awareness of the SeaWorld experience, it’s the SeaWorld experience itself. To them, the only way for the brand to shed its negative connotation is to fundamentally change what it does. “I think this is a great moment for SeaWorld to do some soul searching and ask the very fundamental question: What exactly are we offering to the world?” Feldmeth says.
So far, SeaWorld has balked at the idea of freeing their orcas, which they contend would put the captivity-raised animals at risk. It has announced what it’s calling the Blue World Project, a $100 million effort to double the size of its orca tanks, starting with its San Diego park, an endeavor that’s expected to be completed in 2018. There are currently no timelines or budgets in place for the expansion of SeaWorld’s orca tanks in Orlando and San Antonio. The company has also pledged to spend an additional $10 million on conservation of orcas in the wild—notably, the same amount they’re spending on this new PR push.
“Because of their association with large orcas in captivity, there’s kindling underneath their brand,” says Crockett. “There’s the potential for things to spark and erupt that you don’t really see under any other big brand out there.”
Plenty of companies and organizations, most notably zoos all over the world, keep mammals in captivity without facing vitriol this potent, Crockett points out. The only comparable example is Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, which recently decided to stop using elephants in its circuses, ending a 145-year-old tradition in a move that many once considered unthinkable.
Crockett says SeaWorld still has some financial leeway to tinker with its brand and messaging. If it can’t turn things around within the next year or so, though, the heat on its brand may become too intense to bear.
“It does demand an answer,” he says, “to the question of whether you really need to have that kindling sitting there.”