SeaWorld finds themselves in deep water

One of the major conversations PR professionals are having in relations to communication initiatives is the idea of being present at the conversation table when handling a crisis.

Responses to crisis are a main indicator of how the public will continue to view a certain organization.

If an organization owns up to its wrongdoings, then the public may lose trust, but are likely to see the organization as admirable. Denying accusations altogether tends to dig a company into a hole that no amount of positive publicity can get them out of.

One organization in particular that has faced some extremely negative feedback after recent events is SeaWorld. In 2010 an orca trainer was killed during a training session, which sparked major media coverage.

Following the death of Dawn Brancheau, countless reports and investigations were launched into SeaWorld’s training and safety protocol.

Dawn Brancheau with orca Shamu before fatal training accident, from ABC News
Dawn Brancheau with orca Shamu before fatal training accident, from ABC News

The major trigger for the SeaWorld publicity crisis was the release of the documentary ‘Blackfish’ which provides viewers with accounts from former trainers on their experiences with the organization accompanied by video footage of the whales used in the popularized shows.

'Blackfish' documentary media image found on Google Images
‘Blackfish’ documentary media image found on Google Images

The depiction of mistreatment of the animals along with negative testimonials from former employees and trainers who worked closely with those who experienced extreme harm due to a lack of safety guidelines sparked major controversy regarding the organization.

SeaWorld’s response was less than adequate. The choice to launch a social media campaign including “69 reasons why you should not believe ‘Blackfish’” pointed out a lack of integrity within the organization while relying on denial alone.

Detailed video evidence as well as negative claims from those who worked extremely close to the source requires pretty detailed feedback from SeaWorld, not simply a top ten list for why they should still be trusted.

Not only did they provide a weak counterargument to such serious claims, but after deciding to cancel their main attraction show they then decided to change their minds and revamp and reopen the show. The lack of stability does not help the case of SeaWorld.

Where is the counter evidence? Why should we believe SeaWorld? They surely gave us no concrete reason to believe so.

Addressing this case points out just how vital the basics of public relations are: establishing a simple framework for what to communicate and sticking through it with every message that is released.

Key messages have been emphasized to us time and time again. Whether it is through a news conference or in objectives for a campaign, the overarching goals for what is to be accomplished is meant to be the guiding word for all that are involved.

When an initial message is sent out in a crisis and then completely turned into something else, the organization looks untrustworthy and inconsistent. Trying to turn a crisis around and into the light requires dedication to the cause, and that is something SeaWorld has not shown.

The media often portrays public relations professionals as dishonest, manipulative, and ingenuine.

If there is anything I have learned through my time studying public relations it would be that I hope I am able to work and lead a career of integrity and respect.

Being faced with crisis, much like SeaWorld has been for the past five years, can turn an organization on their head and they are left facing a fork in the road: own up and correct your actions or hide and sweep it under the rug.

Formulating concrete and honest key messages and maintaining that message throughout a crisis or campaign is one of the most basic yet important pieces of information we have gathered throughout our courses.

SeaWorld was faced with a crisis. They were faced with a tough decision and because they chose to avoid the accusations and push forward as if there was nothing to address left them with even more to analyze and discuss.

Public relations is about strategy and choosing the wrong one could leave you up the creek without a paddle. If I were SeaWorld, I think I would recognize that it was time to acknowledge the past and right the wrongs. Then, and only then, with they be able to recover and move forward.