This is a mock situational analysis written as if I were the Public Relations Director of SeaWorld after the release of the Blackfish documentary and the subsequent public backlash.
This January Blackfish by Gabriela Cowperthwaite premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The film is now set to premiere in the US (LA and NYC) on July 19th after several other festival premieres across North America. The documentary largely focuses on the 2010 death of Dawn Brancheau, the orca involved (Tillikum) and questions the general welfare of our orcas and trainers. Given the framing of the film and the negative light SeaWorld is painted in, this crisis has the potential to greatly lower visitor numbers and to permanently damage the company’s reputation, based on previous cases such as Supersize Me, a documentary that highlighted the health and nutritional values of McDonald’s food.
The overall goal is to get ahead of the effects of the premiere while making sure our stakeholders know the claims of this documentary are false without being insensitive to the deaths or injuries of our former trainers and the trainers referenced from other parks. The reputation of SeaWorld is based on our prioritisation of the welfare of our animals and marine animals across the world and our stakeholders need to know that hasn’t changed. Also, we will maintain that the safety of our qualified trainers and the extensive programs they go through before working directly with the animals is a top priority for SeaWorld.
Overall Key Message
The safety and welfare of all marine animals and the dedicated trainers, veterinarians and volunteers who work with them are SeaWorld’s utmost priority, alongside our global rescue and research efforts.
Messages for Stakeholders (Target Audiences)
- Park visitors, prioritised in order to keep ticket sales up and protect SeaWorld’s reputation
- Primary message is that the park is still the SeaWorld they love, with well cared for animals and family friendly fun
- Secondary messages is that SeaWorld is a safe place to bring their families
- Will also continue promoting SeaWorld’s marine animal research and education initiatives to this group
- Anyone who holds shares of our NYSE stock or any other financial stake in the performance of our park
- Primary message will be that SeaWorld plans to continue with its shows and events, and that plans are in place to ensure as little to no financial problems within the park from this documentary
- Secondary message will be that our animals are happy, healthy and well cared for
- SeaWorld Parks Employees
- Employees meaning anyone who works at the park or HQ, regardless of contact with animals or whether they’re employed by SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment or an outside contractor
- Primary message will be that, contrary to the implications of the documentary, their health and safety are and always have been our top priority
- Secondary message will be the prioritization of our animals and ensuring our animal care staff is top notch
- SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment Board of Directors
- SeaWorld Parks are a division of SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment and therefore will need to assure the BOD that we have a plan in place to counteract any negative press and receive their input
- The BOD is ultimately responsible for any major decisions made by SeaWorld and therefore their reputations are intertwined
- Primary message will be to focus on the health and wellbeing of our staff and animals both in operations and in marketing
- Animal welfare activists
- As the welfare of our animals was brought into question, we will need to address these claims
- Primary message will be that we put the health and wellbeing of our animals and trainers first
- Secondary message will be that we are committed to researching claims of psychological trauma in orcas (or animals) held in captivity and plan to support and implement research projects in that area
- Will also suggest looking into alternative enclosures for the orcas that promote their health and wellbeing as well as the health and wellbeing of our trainers
- Government agencies
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration ‘OSHA’ and the United States Department of Agriculture ‘USDA’ (and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, APHIS, by default)
- Will need to assure OSHA that the 2012 ruling to keep trainers out of the water with orcas has been upheld, but maintain our position that trainers can interact in the water with orcas safely
- In looking into alternative enclosures, will need to consult with the USDA, APHIS and OSHA to ensure safety measures and compliance standards are being met
- Corporate Partners
- Coca-Cola, American Express, Snickers Ice Cream, Southwest Airlines, Panama Jack, Hyundai Motor America are all official corporate partners
- Primary message will be that our relationships are still intact and valuable, that we expect by getting out in front of this premiere there should be no subsequent press for our partners
- Secondary message will be that we will continue putting the health and wellbeing of our animals and staff first
-To maintain current park visitor rates/goals, no less than 5% down
-To further educate employees of animal and park safety, also including basic media relations education
-To ensure animal welfare is prioritised at the highest level it can be
-To maintain a safe, healthy work environment for all employees, with emphasis on employees interacting with animals
-To prevent further action with OSHA similar to 2012 trials
Strategy 1: Announcement of innovative research initiatives ahead of the film’s broad release. Initiatives should centre on claims made in Blackfish, including but not limited to the orca’s mental health in captivity, family bonds, and enclosure standards. Initiatives should use outside experts and sources to avoid accusations of tampering with facts, as presented in Blackfish.
Strategy 2: Regaining control of the narrative by working with animal rights organisations looking for ways to better the lives of not just our orcas, but all animals. By positioning ourselves alongside these organisations, we further promote the fact that our animal’s wellbeing is our top priority
Strategy 3: All animal involved employees will undergo training and safety protocol refresher courses, with amendments made in accordance with OSHA’s 2012 ruling of not having trainers in the water. All employees across SeaWorld parks will receive basic media training to prepare for the event of this becoming a bigger story. SeaWorld Parks will need to present a united front, from retail employees to CEO’s.
Strategy 4: Get park visitors involved with conservation efforts. Use promotions that benefit the animals across all three parks to bring in more visitors. Involve corporate partners as much as possible to strengthen those bonds.
Strategy 5: Have responses to Blackfish claims prepared before the premiere, but do not mention the film until the wide premiere. When called upon to comment, we will have responses prepared, particularly around the mentioned deaths. Any questions asked will be answered as truthfully as possible without breaching confidentiality or placing our employees or stakeholders at risk.
- Well prepared interviews with the Chief Executive Officer Jim Atchison, Chief Zoological Officer Brad Andrews and Vice President of Veterinary Services Dr. Christopher Dold across all media channels and news outlets promoting new research initiatives in the four months leading up to the wide release
- Initiating social media campaigns alongside animal activist groups to further educate the public about marine mammals
- Creating a training packet for staff, specific to their involvement in the parks (different levels for different levels of interaction with the public or the animals). This would include safety procedures, for themselves and guests, as well as education about all of SeaWorld’s animals and how to respond to media enquiries.
- Promotions would run across all three parks that included options to donate 10% of ticket costs to a conservation organisation NOT affiliated with SeaWorld Parks. Animals who have been rescued and made recovery, but would no longer survive in the wild should be highlighted across parks and marketing.
- Until after the premiere, no mention of Blackfish should be made in any media interview to prevent bringing more attention to the documentary
After the premiere of Blackfish we will be able to measure the success of this campaign by several benchmarks. In early March we will take a broad consumer survey to get a sense of how SeaWorld is viewed by the public, and then repeat the process in August to gauge reputation damage. Social media campaign success can be measured by analytics and reach. Logging any incidents and testing staff knowledge can track staff and animal safety levels. At the end of the quarter we will compare this years numbers in ticket sales and visitor engagement compared with last years. We will also have dedicated team members monitoring news stories and drawing analytics from those pages.
Example of a case study of McDonald’s Super Size Me crisis
This article was published last week in the LA Times and headlines ‘Blackfish Has SeaWorld in Hot Water’
Hollywood Reporter Blackfish Review
Article in the Orlando Sentinel about the 2012 OSHA actions