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.
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.
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.