How SeaWorld Lost the PR War and Did the Right Thing

SeaWorld, public relations, political campaigns, crisis management, Orcas, Free Willy, Keiko, animal captivity, Shamu, Joel Manby

The golden rule of public relations, political campaigns, and crisis management is “control the narrative.” It’s hard enough to create and maintain an image, but once the competition or the opposition has defined who you are and hammered that message home, it’s doubly hard to bounce back.

Just ask the folks at SeaWorld. For years, SeaWorld had done an excellent job of defining itself as synonymous with Orcas. Sure, SeaWorld had sharks and dolphins, concerts and roller coasters, but Orcas are what paid the bills. SeaWorld defined these oceanic giants not as menacing apex predators, but as kissing, cooing, dancing, huggable friends of humans. Pandas with fins.

For decades any enterprise that put animals on display for human enjoyment was the target of some degree of protest. From Ringling Brothers to the Bronx Zoo, there’s always been a chorus of disapproval regarding animal captivity. And for decades, those enterprises were able to confine those critics to a corner of the public relations landscape reserved for well-meaning “do gooders” or even “extremists.”

Then, in 1993 Hollywood demanded we Free Willy. Audiences fell in love with Willy, and with that love came the desire to free the actor playing Willy, a captive Orca named Keiko. All of this publicity began to legitimize those who had been making the case for years that perhaps we could do better by the whales.

SeaWorld was ground zero for captive Orcas and steadfastly stuck to its narrative of being a crucial breeding and scientific center for the betterment of Orcas everywhere. Didn’t the Orcas in the wild benefit from the public love affair with the captive Shamu? Even when the killer whales actually killed humans, SeaWorld persisted. Nothing to see here. Move along. Next show starting in half an hour.

The 2013 release of the documentary Blackfish sealed the fate of SeaWorld. It just didn’t know it yet. SeaWorld worked furiously to refute inaccuracies or to discredit interviewees as disgruntled former employees but the bad publicity coupled with an awakening in the general public was crippling. SeaWorld spent millions of dollars trying to regain the narrative, when what it should have been doing was rewriting its business model.

Finally someone did: new SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby. In an excellent article in New York Magazine, writer Benjamin Wallace details Manby’s journey to announcing that SeaWorld will no longer breed captive Orcas. Nor would it present the Orcas it already had in unnatural circumstances such as jumping through hoops or being ridden by humans.

According to Wallace, SeaWorld calculated that by changing its entire model—in effect acceding to its critics—it would “spend $15 million less over the next three to five years on defending its reputation, while attendance numbers were likely to increase by at least 380,000 and as much as 940,000 with commensurate gains in revenues and profits.”

It’s almost always true that doing what’s right is also what’s best for business.

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