In Wake Of Blackfish Backlash, SeaWorld Takes A Plunge

By | November 14, 2014

The verdict is out on the impact of “Blackfish,” the 2013 documentary that put SeaWorld’s treatment of orca whales in the line of fire: SeaWorld reported another disappointing quarter this week, with its profit falling 28 percent and its stock price down more than 50 percent from its 2013 April IPO following the news. We’ve been waiting to seehow SeaWorld’s unconventional, public refutation would play out…and now we know. Customers and investors have spoken by closing their wallets.

While SeaWorld attempted to counter the flood of harsh criticism from animal rights activists, lawmakers, celebrities, and media, its response was not well received. The amount of coverage about SeaWorld’s reputational and financial fails only increased, and the entire counter-campaign has become a spectacle and learning lesson for corporations and communications counselors.

With a complaint to the Labor Department, an open letter to movie critics claiming that the film was misleading and false, and its “truth about Blackfish” website that frames the documentary as propaganda, SeaWorld has boldly played the defensive since the film’s debut at a time when companies would usually be holding their breaths. As I stated in another post, there’s a time to speak and there’s a time to remain silent. In this instance, staying under the radar would’ve been a better approach.

But SeaWorld is starting to acknowledge the reality of the controversy’s stifling ramifications:

1)      On August 13, following second quarter earnings, SeaWorld said in a statement, “Attendance in the quarter was impacted by demand pressures related to recent media attention surrounding proposed legislation in the state of California.” Referring to a June amendment in a farm appropriation bill that calls for updating federal regulations about keeping orcas and other cetaceans in captivity, the legislation is a direct outcome of the exposure Blackfish provided to the public.

2)      Two days later, the company announced the opening of Blue World Project, a new orca environment that will nearly double the size of the current facility when it’s completed in 2018, as well as over 10 million dollars in funding for research and conservation projects. Despite the company’s sizeable investment in improving the whales’ living environment, consumers, activists, investors, and even partnering companies aren’t buying it. Notably, Virgin America cut SeaWorld from its rewards program, Southwest Airlines terminated its 26-year-old promotional marketing partnership with SeaWorld, and Alaska Air stopped selling tickets to SeaWorld’s theme parks through its website.

3)      On this week’s third quarter earnings conference call, Chief Financial Officer James Heaney echoed an indicative sentiment when he discussed the factors that contributed to declining profits, recognizing negative media attention, and said the company is introducing numerous initiatives to address public perceptions and raise brand awareness. And while SeaWorld CEO James Atchison said the company has adjusted its attraction and marketing efforts to overcome current challenges, it’s doubtful that they’ll have the power to completely transform public opinion.

As pressures mount for updated regulations and SeaWorld opponents continue to hold adverse perceptions of the brand, SeaWorld will need to hum a different tune in order to prevent a colossal blow to its reputation and long-term growth.

My advice? Tread carefully before the growing criticisms put a plug in SeaWorld’s blowhole.

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