SeaWorld navigates rough waters after tragedy

Marine biologists and other experts have long sought to convince the public that an alternate term for orca whales, “killer whales,” is a misnomer based on a discredited myth that the animals kill humans. But the term seems vividly fitting after an orca killed an experienced trainer, Dawn Brancheau, 40, in front of a live audience during a show at SeaWorld in Orlando on Wednesday, Feb. 24.

The recent tragedy casts doubt and suspicion on the safety of trainers interacting with orca whales in SeaWorld stunt shows. Photo by Carleen McGillick.

The recent tragedy casts doubt and suspicion on the safety of trainers interacting with orca whales in SeaWorld's live stunt shows. Photo by Carleen McGillick.

Unsurprisingly, the tragic incident has made news headlines across the U.S. and the world. It elicits strong emotional reactions from every segment of stakeholders. Some raise concerns about whether the violent history of the whale, Tilikum — connected with the deaths of two other people in 1991 and 1999 — should have factored into SeaWorld’s decision to allow him to participate in the shows in the first place. Others condemn SeaWorld’s latest move for Tilikum to continue to live and perform at the park as insensitive or motivated by money. Describing the incident as further evidence of the harmful impact of captivity, PETA and former game show host and animal rights activist Bob Barker even call on SeaWorld to release its marine animals and close its exhibits.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, the public relations implications for SeaWorld’s franchise of three parks and its overarching brand are numerous, important and complex, amid questions about the company’s decision making, credibility and devotion to safety. Shamu, the stage name by which all orcas are called in SeaWorld shows, is a beloved icon and integral part of SeaWorld’s image. Forming a “PR nightmare for SeaWorld,” the association of the Shamu figure with the deadly incident tarnishes SeaWorld itself because “Shamu is SeaWorld,” as an Orlando Business Journal article asserts. However, the article adds that forwardness, honesty and aggressive communication will go a long way toward repairing the image of both the Shamu icon and the SeaWorld brand.

Reverberations in the social media realm add a new dimension to this PR crisis. Deafening chatter from fans, critics and other stakeholders in the blogosphere and Twittersphere exploded following the tragedy. Reactions range from support to disgust. “SeaWorld” became a trending topic on Twitter from Feb. 24 through 26, along with “Shamu,” “Shamu Stadium” and “whales.”  At the same time, SeaWorld decided to stop posting on its playful Shamu Twitter account, instead directing users to its SeaWorld_Parks account. Much to its credit, SeaWorld has been proactive by frequently updating the latter Twitter account, its blog and its Facebook account with news, statements, tributes and responses to individuals’ comments. A key social media lesson in PR at play here is that, instead of shying away from it for fear of negative posts, entities should actively and extensively capitalize on it through open, ongoing communication. People will find a way to talk about the brand and the crisis either way, so it’s better to be able to know what people are saying and to respond directly. In an Orlando Sentinel column, business writer Beth Kassab notes there are myriad risks and rewards of using social media in the face of a crisis, calling this incident a “test” of SeaWorld’s use of communication to maintain relationships with stakeholders.

Can SeaWorld overcome the figurative "cracks" in its image and reputation following this crisis? Photo by Carleen McGillick.

Can SeaWorld overcome the figurative "cracks" in its image and reputation following this crisis? Photo by Carleen McGillick.

Ed Liston of business blog “Benziga” observes that, although the incident undermines SeaWorld’s image of creating positive experiences for vacationing families, SeaWorld must work to mitigate damage through a prompt, proactive response. SeaWorld should reassure the public and regain trust by reviewing safety protocol, conducting studies examining exactly what happened and openly disseminating that information to the media and the public. SeaWorld should also take precautions to ensure nothing like this happens again. Only then can it begin to move on from this and rebuild credibility and trust among its key publics.

So far, Sea World’s response has been swift, active and concerted. SeaWorld has vigorously used social media sites and its blog to maintain two-way communication with stakeholders. In a press conference on Friday — also streamed live on SeaWorld’s blog — Jim Atchison, the president and CEO, addressed and answered some of the currently circulating concerns and questions, reassured his audience that SeaWorld takes good care of its animals, outlined SeaWorld’s next steps and promised a comprehensive review of procedures to ensure trainers’ safety. These moves set SeaWorld on the right path toward regaining credibility and repairing its image, but the next few days and weeks will be critical in determining SeaWorld’s overall success in responding to this PR crisis. SeaWorld must continue to openly communicate and convey information, and maintain relationships with stakeholders and monitor and evaluate messages. And perhaps most importantly, SeaWorld must remain true to its word and uphold its promises to learn from its mistakes and make changes in order to achieve long-term brand recovery in perception and reputation.

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6 Responses to SeaWorld navigates rough waters after tragedy

  1. srugeris says:

    This was the third human death related to this orca whale named Tilikum since its captivity. Talk about bad buzz. Peta has a group on facebook cleverly named “Free Tilly”. Visit https://secure.peta.org/site/Advocacy?cmd=display&page=UserAction&id=2945 if you want to send an email to the company that owns Seaworld in protest to the captivity of this animal. I personally did not send an email because although this whale has killed humans since living in the tank, it would probably not be able to adjust to life in the ocean. If it was released and died soon after it would be a story of neglect. What do you guys think Seaworld should do in this situation?

    • Thank you for commenting on my blog post, Sam. I definitely agree that this is “bad buzz.”

      It’s interesting that PETA is using social media to rally support for its cause to “Free Tilly” (everybody loves a good play on words), because SeaWorld is also using social media to try to repair its image and reputation. While social media was perhaps once considered a tool for grassroots efforts alone, it is now being effectively leveraged by large corporations and nonprofits in addition to these more anonymous grassroots campaigns.

      I also found interesting your point that the question of what to do with Tilikum poses a dilemma. If SeaWorld is to release Tilikum as PETA encourages (although it should be noted that PETA would like the marine animals moved to a natural but controlled sanctuary, not the ocean), and something bad were to happen to Tilikum because he has become so accustomed to captivity, that would further damage SeaWorld’s case. On the other hand, if SeaWorld continues to allow Tilikum to perform — as it seems to have chosen — then it runs the risk of appearing callous or driven by profits (because a trained whale to replace Tilikum will be very expensive), exacerbating its PR problems and damage to stakeholders’ perceptions of SeaWorld.

      From the perspective of a person who has been to SeaWorld and has enjoyed Shamu shows in the past, I know that if I were to go to SeaWorld in the future and attend a Shamu show, the question will always be in the back of my mind: Is that whale I’m watching perform the one responsible for the trainer’s tragic death? Or is that one? Or that one?

  2. jalbaz says:

    The other deaths related to Tilikum do not appear to be the whale’s fault. One of those deaths was a man who snuck into sea world and jumped into the whales tank. He died of hypothermia and his naked body was found on the whale, but the whale did not kill him.
    I think Seaworld has handled this situation as best as they can, taking all the appropriate measures. Unfortunately, this was a very tragic event, and animals really are just animals, which makes them unpredictable and instinctually wild, so it’s hard to really train a killer whale. I feel terrible for the trainer and her family, but everyone is going to have an opinion on the manner based on their personal beliefs if animals in general should be kept captive or not.

    • Thank you for replying to my blog post, jalbaz.

      Although the other two deaths in 1991 and 1999 connected with Tilikum may or may not have been Tilikum’s fault — convincing evidence has not been provided in either case proving that he is or is not directly responsible; no one really knows — it still creates general bad feelings and negative sentiment. Also, long before the trainer’s tragic death on Wednesday, Tilikum was known among SeaWorld’s staff as a “dangerous whale,” and only a few trainers were allowed to work with him as a safety precaution. (Check out http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2010-02-24/news/os-sidebar-tilikum-the-whale-20100224_1_seaworld-trainers-killer-whales-orca and http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2010/02/25/national/main6241753.shtml to read about how Tilikum was deemed “dangerous” and feared among SeaWorld’s staff members before this incident.) There were even rumors circulating claiming that SeaWorld “bought” Tilikum under the pretense of using him for breeding alone, not for performing. Although SeaWorld has denied this allegation, it still raises suspicion in some people’s minds.

      So should this “dangerous” reputation have been a red flag for SeaWorld that, to prevent Brancheau’s death, Tilikum should never have been allowed to perform in front of a live audience? Maybe. Maybe not. But whether or not SeaWorld made the right decision, the only judges who matter are SeaWorld’s stakeholders collectively. If they view SeaWorld as having made a bad decision — whether or not SeaWorld actually did — then the perception of SeaWorld will be negative.

      I definitely agree with you that people who feel strongly about whether animals should be trained or kept captive in general will maintain those feelings through this incident. But, a few who are genuinely on the fence could be persuaded either way by strong arguments. Another interesting question — Will PETA’s reaction to this incident be good PR, bad PR or neutral for PETA itself? It might make PETA seem either honestly concerned and caring (good PR) or extremist and even a little crazy (bad PR). Or, perhaps PETA has already established itself as responding in this manner to past events, so this incident will have no effect on people’s perception of PETA. This, like the effect of the incident on SeaWorld, will unfold over the upcoming days and weeks.

  3. cnaughton says:

    I think you bring up a great point here when you say “Shamu is Seaworld.” Shamu and its image are so far entrenched into the Sea World brand that the actions taken from this point on (and even those that were or were not taken prior to this incident) are critical to the future of the company. Not only is is bad buzz, but now Sea World faces huge decisions that will be under constant scrutiny. As unfortunate as the situation is, it’s a crisis that they should have been prepared for. And I think they acted appropriately as an organization. The company’s CEO put forth a solid press conference in reassuring the public that the proper attention was being paid to this situation. From here, I think the most important thing Sea World can do is connect with its stakeholders. They are already doing this on their blog, but in an effort to move forward, transparency is and will continue to be their greatest ally in this situation.

    • Thank you for your comment on my post, cnaughton. I agree with your points and analysis of SeaWorld’s handling of this issue. I noticed that, since Friday, the SeaWorld incident has made very few headlines, which is probably a good sign for SeaWorld at this point. This may be due to the occurrence since then of more newsworthy events, such as the devastating earthquake in Chile, but it may also be partially due to the fact that people generally accept SeaWorld’s response so far and no major drama or scandals have developed.

      I think you’re right when you say that SeaWorld has acted appropriately in the aftermath of this incident by being upfront with the press conference and promising an investigation. That goes a long way toward SeaWorld regaining trust, respect and credibility.

      If SeaWorld had reacted differently following the incident, such as trying to shift blame elsewhere, making excuses or covering up the incident, this would have further damaged the company’s reputation and image. Instead, SeaWorld was quick, proactive, careful and concerted in its response, in its communication and in deciding its next steps.

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