Posted: April 24, 2014, 2:45 p.m.
by Myreete Wolford.
In crisis communication, a response is necessary, but a fast response is imperative. SeaWorld’s response against the bashing-documentary “Blackfish” has come far too late — a year and four months to the date, too late.
The “Blackfish” documentary was created to expose SeaWorld’s controversial treatment of captive orca and killer whales. The film played to the emotions of our childlike-selves as the camera angles and the B-roll reminded us of the moments we discovered the world of whale conservation.
The documentary, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival on January 19, 2013, and was then picked up by Magnolia Pictures and CNN Films for wider release. The film was in the midst of vast circulation when CNN aired it on October 24, 2013, but after the viewing, America became angry, to say the least.
In 2013, attendance at SeaWorld parks and Busch Gardens declined by 5 percent in the first nine months of 2013, right after the film was released. SeaWorld also announced that it suffered a $15.9 million loss in 2013 — a loss that CEO James Atchison attributed in part to high ticket prices and poor weather, not the film.
Beyond sales numbers decreasing, more than 11 concerts were canceled at the “Bands, Brew & BBQ” event at the park, legal actions were put into place regarding orca captivity, and the ending to the upcoming film “Finding Dory” was altered. A marine park was to be used at the end of the film and after seeing Blackfish, Pixar’s John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton changed the conclusion.
In the midst of all of this, SeaWorld responded with an open letter rebutting the “facts” in the film, offered a statement to the press regarding the misinformation and created a section of its website titled “Truth About Blackfish,” addressing the claims and problems with the film. In 2013, SeaWorld responded to the film in a series of full-page newspaper ads purchased in large publications in certain locations, but now that the film has reached millions, SeaWorld was in need of some PR help.
The amusement park turned to 42 West, an entertainment public relations firm, to create “The Truth is in Our Parks and People,” a YouTube series in response of the film. The short videos rolled out from January on, reaching just more than 19,000 – which is simply not enough.
As of April 19, 2013, one year and four months to the day of release, the firm and park have finally released another large push to regain positive perception, or as O’Dwyer PR called it, “an unusually aggressive response to ‘Blackfish.’” This push includes ad placements, TV spots and sponsored social posts. Its past efforts have obviously missed the mark.
Where the newest video testimonials from current and former SeaWorld trainers call the documentary “a lie,” the intense passion and transparency of SeaWorld NOW have come a little too late. Even the “Blackfish” Director Cowperthwaite argued against multiple claims on SeaWorld’s website in March 2014, and challenged SeaWorld officials to a public debate.
To me, SeaWorld’s transparency, willingness to inform and its responses to the “Blackfish” movie controversy are refreshing, and seeing the passion of the trainers gives me hope for the brand. Although the park has a long way to go to regain the concept that it is truly using captivity to engross young minds, but we all can agree that we need a resource to continue the research of orca and whale conservation.
Maybe in another year and four months, SeaWorld will see the true issue, control the facts and use this ocean of controversy for the greater good of the aquatic heroes we will love forever.