Crisis Management: Dealing with a Whale of a Problem

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Posted At: March 24, 2010 2:09 PM
by Caroline Beard

For decades, SeaWorld has built its brand around Shamu, changing the aquatic mammal’s image from killer whale to lovable orca. Then last month, SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by one of the whales during a show, and the Internet has been churning with questions about the safety of the creatures and the stability of the Sea World brand in the wake of this tragedy.

How safe are killer whales?

According to National Geographic, the whales are “one of the world’s most powerful predators.” Nancy Black, a marine biologist with Monterey Bay Whale Watch, agreed in an interview with the Associated Press: “I’ve seen them toss seals 20 feet in the air with their flukes.”

Black also said, “They have never killed a human in the wild. I would think the killer whale didn’t do it intentionally but more as a play thing. They’re so powerful.” The name “killer” actually comes from the whales’ fierce hunting skills in the wild; it has nothing to do with their interactions with humans.

The whale involved in this incident was Tilikum, a 12,000-pound giant with a rap sheet; as it turns out, this particular whale had killed before. In 1991, when he was in captivity at Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia, Tilikum and two other whales caused a park worker to drown. Then in 1999, after he was transferred to SeaWorld Orlando, Tilikum may have been involved in the drowning of a 27-year-old man who sneaked into the park to swim after hours.

The whale’s history has spawned a slew of online accusations, many calling him a“serial killer whale”, and some even likening the whale to a Taliban terrorist.

How has SeaWorld used communication in the wake of this crisis?

Despite the backlash from the media and bloggers, SeaWorld has seemingly managed to stay afloat. In the initial press conference, the park’s spokesperson said Brancheau “drowned in an incident with one of our killer whales,” but a few hours later, the company released the rest of the details, revealing that the whale had grabbed the trainer by her ponytail and dragged her underwater.

SeaWorld also suspended the @Shamu Twitter handle, explaining that it would be inappropriate to continue posting tweets from a person pretending to be a whale:

In an interview with the Orlando Sentinel, Fred Jacobs, a spokesperson for SeaWorld, said Shamu might not return to Twitter.

“We may never talk as Shamu again. This is something we never anticipated when we gave a voice to Shamu in the first place.”

Sultana Ali, of Massey Communications in Orlando, Fla., agreed with SeaWorld’s handling of its Twitter account in a recent blog post: “As a PR professional, I completely agree with SeaWorld’s decision to, at least temporarily, suspend the account that mimics their world famous whale and instead focus on their overall theme parks.”

Steve Farnsworth, chief digital strategist for Jolt Social Media in Silicon Valley, Calif., also approved of this decision.

“Their immediate response was good. A few hours later, the CEO announced that there would be an investigation. SeaWorld then streamed a press conference live from their blog. They also suspended the Shamu Twitter account and directed people to their corporate account, which was a smart move.”

In the days since the tragedy, SeaWorld maintained an open line of communication on its blog and Facebook fan page. According to Jacobs in the Orlando Sentinel interview, SeaWorld will only censor comments on either page if they are profane or include statements that would be disrespectful or offensive to Brancheau’s family.

“If you were to get on Facebook right now and ask a question about the morality of keeping whales in captivity, we’ll get back to you,” Jacobs said.

While some animal rights activists have posted negative statements about SeaWorld and the park’s business practices, SeaWorld fans have been equally vocal, posting messages in support of the park and relating happy memories and positive experiences.

Farnsworth said, “Historically SeaWorld has this relationship they’ve been building with social media. What happened with this crisis was that a lot of people who have opinions about keeping animals in captivity have come out, and SeaWorld’s relationship with fans comes into play at this point. The fans came to SeaWorld’s defense; the majority of their comments are positive.”

Raquel Fuentes, an account executive at Denver-based MGA Communications, discussed SeaWorld’s social media presence in a recent blog post, crediting the brand’s quick reaction time to its past cultivation of a social media presence.

“Because SeaWorld and Shamu already had an online community in place, they were able to react quickly to the crisis and share decisions made by management with the public,” Fuentes said.

The final word: Will the SeaWorld brand sink or float?

Although the initial repercussions of the SeaWorld tragedy cast a negative light on the brand, many professionals agree that SeaWorld dealt with the crisis effectively and will survive without significant, lasting damage to its reputation.

Ali said, “While I’m not privy to its crisis communications plan for when an event such as this happens, SeaWorld has done a brilliant job with its social media efforts and is doing its best to respond to tragedy by scaling back appropriately. I suspect their brand will recover as a result.”

In light of SeaWorld’s social media response, Fuentes agreed, adding that other brands should look at the SeaWorld model.

She said, “Large companies and organizations, such as Toyota, could (and should) learn a lesson from SeaWorld… SeaWorld understands the value of social media and the relationships that can be built through it, and uses those to their advantage, especially during a crisis.”

Kelley Joyce, vice president of Global Corporate Practice at Waggener Edstrom Worldwide in New York, N.Y., discussed the evolution of the SeaWorld story in a recent blog post. She said, “As the story has developed, the opinions of the public and SeaWorld officials have become more frank and realistic than the initial emotional reaction,” and cited the differences between SeaWorld’s spokesperson’s initial statements and the details that later arose.

Emphasizing the importance of truth in corporate communication, Joyce said, “In the end, the most authentic and effective story is the one grounded in reality. Stick to your story or you’ll end up in the deep end.”

Richie Escovedo, director of media and communications for Mansfield ISD, commented on SeaWorld’s open, truthful approach, especially in live-streaming the press conference from the SeaWorld blog:

“I thought this was a brilliant move since it wouldn’t go through a media outlet’s filter or editorial split-screen. They weren’t going to prevent the media from running their stories, nor were they going to stop the angry public from spewing opinions. I believe SeaWorld demonstrated new textbook examples of how to position, explain and share subsequent information during a crisis across communication channels including social media,” Escovedo said.

Steve Farnsworth of Jolt Social Media summed up SeaWorld’s management of this crisis:

“Building and solidifying the brand loyalty prior to crisis is invaluable, acknowledging something immediately and taking it to your public, listening and responding to what people are saying—all of that is important. In crisis communication, what SeaWorld’s done is a pretty good model.”


How do you think SeaWorld managed this crisis? Do you think SeaWorld will sink or float?

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