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Volume 52016www.csscjournal.orgISSN 2167-1974A Whale of a Problem:A Strategic Communication Analysis ofSeaWorld Entertainment’s Multi-Year Blackfish CrisisStefani DuhonKelli EllisonMatthew W. RagasDePaul UniversityAbstractThe release of the controversial documentary Blackfish and its airings on CNN in thefall of 2013 sparked a widespread backlash against SeaWorld that thrust the themepark operator into a multi-year crisis. Blackfish places emphasis on the tragic deathof SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau by Tilikum, a killer whale. This case studycovers the evolution and shift in SeaWorld’s communication strategy and tactics,from a defensive, advocacy posture immediately before and for several months afterthe release of Blackfish, to a blend of advocacy and accommodation backed bytangible business actions after the fallout persisted and intensified. This case isunique in that it focuses on a well-known brand in a multi-year crisis in which a keyaspect of its business model—keeping and raising killer whales in captivity—is beingcalled into question by stakeholders, including media-savvy animal rights activists,and some customers, business partners and government regulators. Strategiccommunication implications and takeaways from this case are provided.Keywords: SeaWorld; Blackfish; CNN; crisis communication; corporate communication;corporate social responsibility; social media; activists and activismIntroductionSeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. has spent the past few years dealing with awhale of a problem. For decades, the theme park operator’s star attractionat its SeaWorld amusement parks has been its choreographed, stadiumTo cite this articleDuhon, S., Ellison, K., & Ragas, M. W. (2016). A whale of a problem: A strategic communication analysis ofSeaWorld Entertainment’s multi-year Blackfish crisis. Case Studies in Strategic Communication, 5, 3-37. Availableonline: 16/08/v5art2.pdf

Duhon, Ellison & RagasA Whale of a Problemstyle Shamu water shows featuring orca whales, better known as killerwhales. The company is so connected with the whales that its old logofeatured the distinctive image of a big black and white whale jumping inthe air. As recently as the initial public offering (IPO) of SeaWorldEntertainment shares in April 2013, SeaWorld senior executives rang theopening bell at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) with a large model ofa jumping killer whale behind them (Morton, 2013). An enormous bannerwith an image of the distinctive black and white marine mammal evenhung outside the exterior of the NYSE building on Wall Street tocommemorate the occasion (“SeaWorld Entertainment IPO,” 2013).Animal welfare activist groups like People for the Ethical Treatment ofAnimals (PETA) have long criticized the practices of zoos, theme parksand circus operators, arguing that animal captivity adversely affects thewell-being of animals (Davis, 2015; “Ringling Bros. Says,” 2015). Thetragic death in February 2010 of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau byTilikum, a SeaWorld orca, generated new discussions about animalwelfare in captivity and SeaWorld safety practices. The 2013 release of theanti-SeaWorld documentary Blackfish brought the death of Brancheau andthe Tilikum story to a much broader audience (Eberi, 2013). Thebroadcasts of Blackfish by CNN in fall 2013 attracted large viewingaudiences, serving as the triggering events for a tsunami of backlashagainst SeaWorld by the news media, activist groups and the company’svarious stakeholders, including consumers, investors, business partnersand government regulators.Several years after Blackfish first premiered, SeaWorld as an organizationis still trying to pick up the pieces and rebuild its battered reputation withthe public and its stakeholders. Amid the swirl of controversy hangingover it, attendance at SeaWorld’s parks have declined, the company’sfinancial performance has weakened, some sponsors and entertainershave cancelled their partnerships, and the SeaWorld C-suite has beenshaken up (“SeaWorld Credit Rating,” 2014). Throughout this tumultuousperiod, SeaWorld has vehemently defended its treatment of its killerwhales, the safety of its trainers, and its commitment to killer whaleresearch and conservation (SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc., 2015a, 2015b,2015c, 2015d, 2015e, 2015f, 2015g).Case Studies in Strategic Communication, 5 20164

Duhon, Ellison & RagasA Whale of a ProblemThe following case first provides background into SeaWorld’s history andthe lead up to and release of Blackfish. The case then concentrates on theevolution and shift in SeaWorld’s communication strategy and tactics,from a defensive, advocacy posture immediately before and directly afterthe release of Blackfish, to a blend of advocacy and accommodation backedby tangible business actions after the fallout persisted and intensified.This case is unique in that it focuses on a well-known brand in a multiyear crisis in which a key aspect of its business model—the very conceptof marine-mammal theme parks in which killer whales are kept incaptivity—is being called into question by stakeholders, including mediasavvy activist groups.What role can and should strategic communication play in such aprolonged crisis? How should a corporation respond when some feel thevery nature of its business is harmful and unjust? What actions hasSeaWorld taken to try and alleviate the concerns of its critics? What futureactions should it take? Will any of SeaWorld’s efforts be deemedacceptable by its critics short of ending all of its killer whale shows and nolonger keeping these animals in captivity? The conclusion section of thecase addresses these questions, while providing a range of implicationsand takeaways for discussion and reflection among current and aspiringstrategic communication professionals.BackgroundHistory of SeaWorldSeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. (NYSE: SEAS) is comprised of BuschGardens, SeaWorld, Aquatica, Discovery Cove, Adventure Island, WaterCountry USA and the Sesame Street-themed theme park Sesame Place. Thetheme park and entertainment company began in March 1959 with theopening of Busch Gardens in Tampa, Florida. A few years later, in 1964,the first SeaWorld opened in San Diego, California. SeaWorld was foundedby George Millay, Milt Shedd, Ken Norris and David DeMott and wasoriginally intended to be an underwater restaurant. The idea quicklyexpanded and eventually became a marine zoological park along the shoreof Mission Bay, California (SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc., 2015e).Case Studies in Strategic Communication, 5 20165

Duhon, Ellison & RagasA Whale of a ProblemSeaWorld’s first year in business drew more than 400,000 visitors—asurprising number when considering that the company began with only45 employees, two salt-water aquariums and a few sea lions and dolphins.Starting with a 1.5 million investment, SeaWorld has expanded to threeSeaWorld parks in the United States. These parks can be found in SanDiego, California, and San Antonio, Texas, as well as at its headquarters inOrlando, Florida. SeaWorld currently operates and maintains eleventheme parks throughout the United States with a collection ofapproximately 89,000 marine and terrestrial animals (SeaWorldEntertainment, Inc., 2015e).In 2009, private equity firm The Blackstone Group (NYSE: BX) bought thecompany from Anheuser-Busch InBev (NYSE: BUD) for 2.7 billion. InDecember of 2011, after being a private company for 55 years, Blackstonecontrolled SeaWorld filed for an IPO (Kirchfeld, 2012). The process ofgoing public and meeting ongoing public company reporting requirementsmeant that SeaWorld would be more in the spotlight not just withinvestors, but with other stakeholder groups, including activists. In April2013, SeaWorld raised 702 million in capital by offering 26 millionshares at 27 each in its IPO on the NYSE (Spears, 2013).According to SeaWorld’s fiscal year 2014 10-K filing (SeaWorldEntertainment, Inc., 2015a) with the U.S. Securities and ExchangeCommission (SEC), all parks combined generated 22.4 million visitorswith 3.6 million of these visitors being international. There was also anaverage of 25,800 employees with 4,500 full-time, 7,300 part-time and14,000 seasonal workers. In 2014, these guests helped SeaWorld generate 1.38 billion in total revenue and net income of 49.9 million (SeaWorldEntertainment, Inc., 2015a). According to Yahoo! Finance, as of early 2016,based on a stock price of approximately 19.00 per share and with 89.6million shares outstanding, SeaWorld has a market capitalization ormarket value of around 1.7 billion (“SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. (SEAS)– Key Statistics,” 2015).Corporate Social Responsibility and SustainabilitySeaWorld’s 10-K filing also outlines the company’s commitment tocorporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainable business practices inits parks, in its communities and with its stakeholders. For example,Case Studies in Strategic Communication, 5 20166

Duhon, Ellison & RagasA Whale of a ProblemSeaWorld’s community relations and philanthropic efforts includepartnering with charities such as hospitals and organizations that servechildren with disabilities. The company also supports animal shelter andrescue groups and provides financial support, resources and hands-onvolunteer services to each group (SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc., 2015a).By offering educational outreach visits to inner city schools as well asallowing “special wish” children to visit any of its theme parks, SeaWorldbelieves that it can “inspire and educate children and guests of all agesthrough the power of entertainment” (SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc.,2015a, p. 16). The 2014 10-K also mentions SeaWorld’s free admissionprogram to active U.S. military personnel and their families.SeaWorld says that it is committed to the safety and welfare of animals inthe wild. For more than fifty years, SeaWorld has participated in rescuinganimals in crisis in the wild. These animals are taken to SeaWorld facilitieswhere they are rehabbed and released back into the wild. If the animalsare unable to return to the wild, SeaWorld provides them with lifelongcare. SeaWorld estimates that 24,000 animals have benefitted from thisprogram (SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc., 2015a). In the words ofSeaWorld: “Through our theme parks’ up-close animal encounters,educational exhibits and innovative entertainment, we strive to inspireeach guest who visits one of our parks to care for and conserve the naturalworld” (SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc., 2015a, p. 15).SeaWorld states in its 10-K that it maintains “strict safety procedures forthe protection of our employees and guests” (SeaWorld Entertainment,Inc., 2015a, p. 24). SeaWorld discloses it has revised its safety protocols,specifically the protocols used by SeaWorld trainers in showperformances, following the death of a trainer “while engaged in aninteraction with a killer whale” (SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc., 2015a, p.24).Dawn Brancheau and Tilikum TragedyOn Februarytrainer, Dawntragic death.Department’s24, 2010, 12,000-pound orca Tilikum attacked femaleBrancheau, at SeaWorld in Orlando, which resulted in herAccording to a statement issued by the U.S. LaborOccupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA):Case Studies in Strategic Communication, 5 20167

Duhon, Ellison & RagasA Whale of a Problem“Video footage shows the killer whale repeatedly striking and thrashingthe trainer, and pulling her under water even as she attempted to escape.The autopsy report describes the cause of death as drowning andtraumatic injuries” (“US Labor Department’s OSHA,” 2010, para. 3). Thisoccurrence generated worldwide media coverage, prompting SeaWorld tocancel its killer whale shows in both Orlando and San Diego. SeaWorldprogressively updated its blog regarding the incident and sent a tweetfrom the SeaWorld Shamu Twitter account, stating that they would not beactive during this difficult time (see Figure 1).Following Dawn Brancheau’s death, OSHA conducted a six-monthinvestigation. In 2012, two years after her death, SeaWorld was issuedmultiple citations for a total penalty of 75,000. According to thecomplaint, one citation was for failing to equip two of the stairways withproper stair railings on each side (Secretary of Labor v. SeaWorld, 2011).Another citation alleged violation of a general duty clause of OSHA by“exposing animal trainers to struck-by and drowning hazards whenworking with killer whales during performances” (Secretary of Labor v.SeaWorld, 2011, para. 4). A third citation was for failing to close outdoorelectrical receptacles. SeaWorld vigorously denied OSHA’s claims(Secretary of Labor v. SeaWorld, 2011, para. 4).SeaWorld continues to come under fire from government regulatorsregarding workplace safety. In May 2015, the California Division ofOccupational Safety and Health issued 26,000 worth of citations toSeaWorld’s San Diego park (“SeaWorld Cited,” 2015). According to thesecitations, SeaWorld does not sufficiently protect its killer whale trainers atFigure 1. Tweet from @Shamu account following death of DawnBrancheau (Source: @Shamu/SeaWorld).Case Studies in Strategic Communication, 5 20168

Duhon, Ellison & RagasA Whale of a Problemthis park. SeaWorld denies the charges and says they reflect amisunderstanding of orca care and trainer safety (“SeaWorld Cited,”2015).PETA and Animal Welfare Activist GroupsSeaWorld has long been a target of animal welfare activist groups, such asPETA. These groups believe that animal captivity adversely affects thewell-being and health of animals (Davis, 2015).PETA filed a lawsuit against SeaWorld in October 2011 for violating orcawhales’ constitutional rights. This was the first case of its kind and soughtto apply the Thirteenth Amendment to “nonhuman animals” (PETA, 2011,para. 1). The lawsuit claimed that five wild-captured orcas were takenfrom their natural habitats and forced to perform at SeaWorld as “slaves”(PETA, 2011, p