Documentary filmmakers often struggle to get their work noticed beyond the film festival and art house theater crowd and can find it especially difficult to compete against the release of summer blockbusters. However, for the folks behind Blackfish, an examination of Orcas in captivity and the tragic death of a SeaWorld trainer in 2010, it is Christmas in July. That is because SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment has taken the highly unusual step of launching a comprehensive and proactive PR campaign against the documentary. This has included sending a point by point rebuttal to a number of the films assertions to film critics prior to its opening and making SeaWorld’s general counsel, chief veterinarian and lead orca trainer available for media interviews. The filmmakers have responded to each of SeaWorld’s charges further adding more fuel to the fire and further raising the interest of the media/social media.
Corporations are often reticent to take on documentarians aggressively and publicly and many, from McDonald’s to the gas industry, have determined that is better to stay below the radar, play behind the scenes or adopt a purely reactive stance rather. They no doubt fear providing more publicity to the film and driving bigger audiences and greater media/social media coverage. As corporate communications practitioners, we after frequently confronted with how to respond to attacks on our clients and must balance the need to protect reputations with igniting further controversy and perpetuating a story that could just fade away quietly on its own. In the digital age, where viral is just around the corner, this is an even more complex decision. Here, SeaWorld hired a PR firm schooled in the film industry and chose to fight and do it in a fashion that was sure to get attention for its substance as well as its tactics.
It is a bold move that will be closely watched by corporations, the film industry and public relations professionals. Reputations and the trust of consumers are precious commodities and companies, especially those with such a public face as SeaWorld, need to move quickly when these are in jeopardy. But they also need work with legal, marketing and communications experts to carefully analyze the situation and determine what fights are worth fighting and how to fight them. Sometimes, staying quiet and not responding is the best course of action, but it is often the most challenging. For SeaWorld, I am sure it was a tough decision, but one must also wonder how its commitment to investors factored in, with its stock up more than 33 percent since its April IPO. We will be staying tuned to see how this all plays out.