Is it too late for SeaWorld’s sinking reputation?

Four lessons learned for effective crisis communication that can apply to FinTech companies

 By Mary Cox  crisis communication

A few weeks ago, the Huffington Post’s co-founder, Kenneth Lerer, posted an article titled “The End of SeaWorld,” outlining the reasons why the company is “finished,” as he put it. SeaWorld’s stock took a serious hit last month and park attendance is down 4.3 percent over the first six months of the year. This can likely be attributed to the park’s badly damaged brand that began sinking just under a year ago. Lerer even categorized the brand as “toxic” and representing “the torture of whales.”

Unfortunately, the financial industry is no stranger to a good old-fashioned crisis, nor is it immune to a suffering reputation – as we saw during the height of The Great Recession. So it’s worth taking a deep-dive look at how SeaWorld’s reputation changed so quickly, as well as the lessons learned.

Originally debuting in January 2013 at Sundance, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary Blackfish, which details the 2010 death of a SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau by a killer whale named Tilikum, has gained incredible attention – particularly since its airing on CNN last October with over 21 million viewers. The documentary quickly found its way to Netflix, and in just one month, it was viewed by nearly 600,000 users, making it one of Netflix’s most popular programs. Less than a year later, SeaWorld is in need of significant damage control and reputation management. The problem is that it might be too late, and here’s why:

1.    Defensiveness Equals Guilt (at least that’s how it can be perceived)

Instead of focusing on ways to tell positive stories that would potentially overshadow the negative ones, SeaWorld fired back at Blackfish filmmakers by aggressively defending itself against the documentary’s severe accusations. In fact, the family park built a web page specifically geared to pointing out how Blackfish was full of “falsehoods and misleading techniques.”

False or not, SeaWorld failed to realize the documentary’s potential for building an emotional connection with the public – so much so that it has jeopardized the park’s future. SeaWorld may have been better off by distancing itself from the documentary rather than engaging in online warfare. With many crises, response and action may be necessary, but careful consideration for how those responses are conveyed is critical. In hindsight, “soft” responses -- addressing any misconceptions or inaccuracies by overwhelming the public with positive news that told a different story – may have worked better.

2.    Never Ignore Bad Press

After ignoring the documentary’s growing attention and maintaining over the last year that its business had not been damaged by the film, SeaWorld is now taking action in a more positive way. The day following the Huffington Post article, SeaWorld San Diego announced plans to double the size of its orca environment. The organization is also contributing $10 million to research and establishing an independent advisory committee of scientists to oversee its new program. Similar projects will follow in SeaWorld’s Orlando, Fla. and San Antonio, Texas parks, according to SeaWorld representatives. Unfortunately, the response has been viewed by some as being too little, too late.

SeaWorld should have acted much faster. The film made some very serious claims that the park needed to take seriously to help avoid the disaster that unfolded. Rather than sitting on the controversy for months, SeaWorld needed to act soon after the CNN airing.

3.    Don’t Underestimate the Power of Emotion  

There is no denying the emotion in Blackfish – and SeaWorld knew that. In fact, the organization publicly criticized the use of “emotionally manipulative” footage of killer whales being captured in the wild on its “Truth about Blackfish” site, yet it ignored how that emotion would shape public perception.

Emotion is a primary driver for all decision making and a critical element of successful branding. In fact, it has become so important that many organizations are adopting a concept called Emotional Marketing. The wisest PR practitioners, marketers and brand specialists are tapping into emotional connection to foster life-long customers. In the same vein – and in SeaWorld’s case – this emotion can also drive away customers. SeaWorld should have focused more on this emotion and implemented a more emotionally-sensitive campaign with carefully crafted messaging. Manipulative or not, the film made so much of an impression on the public that SeaWorld’s stock plummeted.

4.    Never Wage War on Social Media

 While the saying “never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel” holds true, it is equally important today to keep your fights off social media. SeaWorld’s fourth PR mishandling was that it took its battleground to Twitter and Facebook, posting anti-Blackfish rants that urged followers to “not be misled by activist hype,” to hear about “the lies in Blackfish,” or to help “spread the truth.” SeaWorld also frequently responded to individuals who criticized the organization, which did nothing more than spark even more angered comments.

Looking ahead, SeaWorld’s recovery will be even more difficult because it opted to aggressively defend itself within the social media community. In today’s online world, what you say has the potential to live on forever. SeaWorld will now be faced with that.

How much longer SeaWorld will suffer from its PR mistakes is unknown. While the once-beloved family park has pushed forward in what seems to be the right direction, its brand has suffered serious damage. On the up side, these are valuable lessons to learn from that can help other organizations – particularly in the financial industry in a time of increased regulatory scrutiny and upticks in data breaches and fraudulent activity.



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