A case study of the effect the documentary Blackfish had on SeaWorld and the aftermath, for an Issues and Crisis Communication class.
On January 19th 2013, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary Blackfish premiered at the Sundance film festival. Blackfish is a film that was made after the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, when Cowperthwaite questioned the housing of Orca’s (or ‘killer whales’) in captivity. The film paints a dismal picture of life for Orca’s at one of the largest animal based theme parks; SeaWorld. Among others, the film claims poor living quarters as the pools are considerably smaller than an orca in the wild would have, and that by denying the animals their natural instincts and orders, they are slowly driven to psychological trauma and violence.
SeaWorld was approached by Cowperthwaite multiple times for interviews but never responded. Because of that, the film is fairly one sided, utilising interviews from trainers and marine animal experts to paint a damning picture of life in the park. In its Sundance premiere, Blackfish was received well overall but wasn’t a trending topic until after its wider release after being picked up by CNN and Magnolia Pictures.
One of SeaWorld’s first responses to the film came six months after its initial debut, through promotional agency 42West. In the days leading up to Blackfish’s LA and New York premiere, SeaWorld sent a letter to roughly fifty film critics who were, presumably, about to review the film. The letter highlighted what the company considered the most serious falsehoods of the film and claimed to provide them with the facts. This was met by a rebuttal from Cowperthwaite, which defended the film’s representations.
Since the wider release of the film, it has since been screened on CNN, which pulled in over 470,000 viewers, and subsequently was released on Netflix. In the months following, the film went viral on social media, from celebrities tweeting about how the film changed their mindset to high school kids trying to raise awareness. The ‘Blackfish effect’ has continued on even over two years later. In 2015 SeaWorld reported a loss of $37.4 million from the year before (AP, 2015), and over the past two years stock has fallen over 50%(Jay, 2015). Partnerships have been severed, such as the one previously held with Southwest Airlines (Kumar, 2015), and scheduled performers like The Bare Naked Ladies have chosen to distance themselves from the brand after being approached by activists.
SeaWorld did well in choosing to create a strategic crisis plan to deal with this matter. The plan included informational advertising (that primarily did not involve orcas), social media campaigns like #AskSeaWorld, the development of the $10 million ‘Blue World Project’ in which they will create tanks twice the size of the existing ones, and donating $10 million to the preservation and study of wild orcas. Creating this structured plan, utilising the same language across all of the tools in use and having a timeline and clear goals in place should provide the necessary environment to help bring back public favour.
However, in not acting sooner, SeaWorld let what could have been an easily managed issue turn into a crisis. By not commenting on the questions in the film before it was released, the narrative was driven by the filmmakers, not the company. In losing control of the narrative, they lost control of how they were perceived in this crisis, and have not been able to regain that control. Legislation has been filed in California to ban the use of orcas in performances, and will be re-introduced in 2016 after an extensive study of orcas in captivity is conducted. (Perry, 2015) The life cycle of an issue is clear, and this issue was allowed to live out its life and metamorphose into a beautiful crisis. (Jaques, 2014) By waiting until right before Blackfish was about to be viewed by even more people, then drawing extra attention to it, SeaWorld missed out on what could have been six months of public image management and pre-emptive damage control. Instead, their Twitter campaigns have been met with aggressive accusations, they stand accused of having employees pose as activists and are having to spend millions of dollars to play catch up. Had they been better prepared for the film to become accessible to the public, it may not have been such a blow to the company.
The underlying issue in this case is whether or not orcas should be kept in captivity, and at its core, is about their wellbeing. Had SeaWorld anticipated that issue, and the extent to which the public would sympathise with these animals after the Sundance premiere, they may have been able to steer public opinion in a way that was more favourable to them. Initially, I understand that the company was likely following the lead of those who had been in the situation before them. Typically, when companies find themselves the subject of a film’s accusations, they make no comment and wait for the firestorm to die down. This is particularly true for documentaries, which often have smaller audiences and less ‘reach’. However in abandoning that strategy and reaching out to critics, and by publicly attacking the film, they may have fuelled the fire themselves. The so-called Blackfish effect has lead to the end of many people’s careers, what could be the end of their company, and possibly the industry of having captive orcas itself.
AP, (2015). SeaWorld Struggles to Recover from ‘Blackfish’ Black Eye. NBCNews. [online] Available at: http://www.nbcnews.com/business/business-news/seaworld-struggles-recover-blackfish-black-eye-n405091 [Accessed 15 Aug. 2015].
Baran, M. (2014). SeaWorld campaign designed to ease killer whale dispute. Travel Weekly. [online] Available at: http://www.travelweekly.com/North-America-Travel/SeaWorld-campaign-designed-to-ease-killer-whale-dispute/ [Accessed 18 Aug. 2015].
Blackfish, (2015). Filmmakers. [online] Available at: http://www.blackfishmovie.com/filmmakers/ [Accessed 18 Aug. 2015].
Brammer, Rebekah. Activism and antagonism: The ‘Blackfish’ effect [online]. Screen Education, No. 76, Mar 2015: 72-79. Availability: <http://search.informit.com.au.ezproxy.lib.rmit.edu.au/documentSummary;dn=096112996165527;res=IELAPA> ISSN: 1449-857X. [cited 18 Aug 15].
Cieply, M. (2013). SeaWorld’s Unusual Retort to a Critical Documentary. The New York Times. [online] Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/19/business/media/seaworlds-unusual-retort-to-a-critical-documentary.html?_r=3& [Accessed 18 Aug. 2015].
Ebiri, B. (2013). SeaWorld Fights Back at the Critical Documentary ‘Blackfish’. Bloomberg Business. [online] Available at: http://www.bloomberg.com/bw/articles/2013-07-19/seaworld-fights-back-at-the-critical-documentary-blackfish [Accessed 17 Aug. 2015].
Jacques, A. (2015). Making waves: SeaWorld’s Diane Centeno talks branding. PRSA.com. [online] Available at: http://www.prsa.org/Intelligence/Tactics/Articles/view/9907/1054/Making_waves_SeaWorld_s_Diane_Centeno_talks_brandi#.Vdm2v86Ynwx [Accessed 18 Aug. 2015].
Jaques, T. (2014). Issue and crisis management. Oxford University Press. Australia
Jay, M. (2015). SeaWorld says park attendance fell 2 percent in 2nd quarter, but backs its annual forecast. US News. [online] Available at: http://www.usnews.com/news/business/articles/2015/08/06/seaworld-attendance-keeps-falling-but-shares-inch-higher [Accessed 12 Aug. 2015].
Kumar, S. (2015). Southwest Air, SeaWorld End Partnership. The Wall Street Journal. [online] Available at: http://www.wsj.com/articles/southwest-air-seaworld-end-partnership-1406851911 [Accessed 18 Aug. 2015].
Osegi, A. (2014). SeaWorld vs. Blackfish: A Crisis PR War Rages on Social Media. Kunocreative.com. [online] Available at: http://www.kunocreative.com/blog/bid/89208/SeaWorld-vs-Blackfish-A-Crisis-PR-War-Rages-on-Social-Media [Accessed 18 Aug. 2015].
Perry, T. (2015). Bill to ban orca shows at SeaWorld will not be reintroduced this year. The Los Angeles Times.
Renninger, B. (2015). SeaWorld Unleashes 8 Assertions About ‘Blackfish’ and Filmmakers Respond. IndieWire. [online] Available at: http://www.indiewire.com/article/seaworld-unleashes-8-assertions-about-blackfish-and-filmmakers-respond [Accessed 18 Aug. 2015].
SeaWorld Cares, (2015). Truth About Blackfish. [online] Available at: http://seaworldcares.com/the-facts/truth-about-blackfish/ [Accessed 18 Aug. 2015].
Smart PR or marketing misfire? SeaWorld defends against film. (2013). Advertising Age, 84(27), 5. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1412336356?accountid=13552
Taube, A. (2014). SeaWorld Tried To Sway A Poll About ‘Blackfish,’ The Documentary It Doesn’t Want You To See. Business Insider Australia. [online] Available at: http://www.businessinsider.com.au/seaworld-tries-to-sway-blackfish-poll-2014-1 [Accessed 19 Aug. 2015].
Titlow, J. (2015). SEAWORLD IS SPENDING $10 MILLION TO MAKE YOU FORGET ABOUT “BLACKFISH”. Fast Company. [online] Available at: http://www.fastcompany.com/3046342/seaworld-is-spending-10-million-to-make-you-forget-about-blackfish [Accessed 18 Aug. 2015].