SeaWorld Crisis Management: The Textbook Case of What NOT To Do

In today’s world a crisis plays out as much on social media, as it does through traditional media.  Brands and companies need a strategy for both.  Yet many never fully consider the social media aspect.  The ongoing crisis for SeaWorld is a case in point.  They have mishandled both their traditional and social media response with no end to the crisis in sight.

SeaWorld’s crisis began with the airing of the film, Blackfish on CNN.  Blackfish exposed practices at the aquatic park, including an exposé about whales in captivity and the orca-related death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010.  SeaWorld’s response to the film was to lash out at it before it actually aired by sending a critique to film critics.  Company executives had also refused to be interviewed for the film.  This was a wrong way to deal with the brewing crisis as it created more attention for the film. 

Next began the online protests in reaction to what the film depicted with Facebook pages being established calling for a boycott of the sea park until SeaWorld changed its policies.  Posters on SeaWorld’s Facebook page who expressed concern or disapproval of SeaWorld’s policies saw their posts deleted.  SeaWorld wouldn’t even address their concerns.  Rather as part of their crisis communications response they began highlighting the good work they have done for animal rescues (which was never disputed).  Consumers who saw their posts deleted were outraged causing further social media commentary of the story.  Social media allows corporations and brands to directly engage consumers during a crisis.  Allowing consumers to voice their opinion as long as it is civil allows consumers to be engaged and often helps level off anger.  Explaining a company’s position on social media is critical.  Ignoring the crisis and the consumer comments or in this case deleting them, keeps the flames going, as SeaWorld found out.

Consumers began contacting musical acts that were scheduled to perform SeaWorld’s “Bands, Brew & BBQ” series, one of the park’s biggest events.  Social media petitions began with one getting over 12,000 members urging the acts to cancel.  The musicians took notice.  Barenaked Ladies, Heart, Willie Nelson and others cancelled their scheduled appearances.  Singer Joan Jett asked the park to stop using her song “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” during its “Shamu Rocks”.  SeaWorld’s response was to criticize the musical acts, attack the people using social media to protest their policies and state that park attendance was being affected.  Yet they refused to engage consumers or deal with the issues raised in Blackfish through traditional media.

Next a California school class cancelled a field trip to SeaWorld because of concerns over the issues raised in Blackfish.  SeaWorld responded by saying this was an isolated incident and disparaging the class.  Students from across the country took to YouTube calling for SeaWorld to change its policies and again SeaWorld remained silent.

The latest blow has been an online poll that the Orlando Business Journal posted an online poll asking if reader’s if their opinion of SeaWorld had been affected by the controversy.  Fifty-four percent of voters who voted no, were traced back to a SeaWorld ip address (note don’t try to rig a newspaper poll and use your ip address, the paper may become suspicious).  The result more bad press and ongoing social media controversy.

SeaWorld is becoming the textbook case of what not to do in a crisis.  Social media as much as traditional media drives narratives.  Ignoring the consumer and not engaging them on social media doesn’t make the crisis go away, rather it keeps it alive.  Now more than ever, when developing a crisis communications plan, the social media element must be incorporated into the plan.


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