Tilikum, an icon of the controversy surrounding SeaWorld—the aquatic amusement park—passed away in early January 2017. He was estimated to be around 36, according to NPR. He apparently suffered from a “persistent and complicated bacterial lung infection,” the park states. NPR reports that Tilikum was 22 feet long, weighed more than 11,000 pounds, and was born off the waters of Iceland. He performed in captivity and sired 20 calves while there. He was also the source of the biggest public relations disaster in SeaWorld history. He gradually began to be known for his aggressive behavior and was implicated, in the deaths of two people in the 90’s: a trainer who drowned and a man who was found dead in his tank. And then in 2010, he killed SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau during a show, holding her underwater until she died of drowning and blunt force trauma. There was discussion surrounding whether or not he should be put down, but because of his important role in the social group of eight whales who live at Shamu Stadium, as he was the father of some of them, it was decided he would live.
While this was all of course damaging to the SeaWorld brand, the final nail in the coffin occurred when the documentary Blackfish came out in 2013, airing on CNN. It revealed the reality of orcas living in captivity and also suggested that Tilikum’s history of violence was due to being confined in a pool for life. SeaWorld denied any form of neglect, and though critics said the documentary was poorly researched and reported, the damage was done. Millions of people were outraged by what they had seen.
PETA leapt at the opportunity, “wreaking havoc on the Internet and staging protests at parks, parades, and SeaWorld executives’ homes,” says Fortune. Celebrities like Matt Damon, Willie Nelson, and Jessica Biel joined the fight, and longtime SeaWorld corporate partners walked away. Attendance dropped significantly and politicians in California started creating legislation to cease orca breeding.
And so began the endless public relations campaigns from SeaWorld in order to try and boost its suffering brand. They attempted to combat the accusations in the form of “counterprogramming videos,” Everything PR reports, “but these interviews, largely by current SeaWorld employees felt partisan and fell flat as an attempt to stop the juggernaut of anger spurred on by online rage.” Essentially, they tried to reason and debate at a time when people were emotional and wanted reassurance. Unfortunately for SeaWorld, it was something they overlooked. Below is a tweet they posted promoting their videos. In it, a SeaWorld employee calls Blackfish false.
CEO Jim Atchison resigned in December 2014 and Joel Manby stepped up in April 2015 to pick up the pieces. In his first 16 months on the job, he reorganized managerial ranks, vowed to put an end to the park’s theatrical orca shows, and laid out his strategy to make SeaWorld a purpose-driven company. His plan was to “reposition the company as an animal-conservation, rather than an animal-entertainment, brand,” Fortune stated, since they already did a lot of animal rescue work. But SeaWorld had already poured a lot of revenue into their “SeaWorld Cares” project before, and PETA had turned the venture on its head with “SeaWorld of Hurt.” Then, it was discovered that SeaWorld employees had entered PETA in an effort to spy on the organization. Manby was forced to admit to the scandal and even called in an elite law firm to investigate in an attempt to discover who had been involved.
In order to address the comments that the tanks were inhumane, they undertook a huge project: creating tanks 50 feet deep, with fast currents that would let the whales swim against moving water. However, in order for the project to be approved, they would have to stop breeding orcas, a move that would eventually extinguish their orca program, one of their largest revenue outlets. After long debates, the park finally agreed in March 2016. Manby also worked with Richard Bloom, a California assemblyman who was proposing an anti-captivity law—which would have put an end to SeaWorld—to instead create the Orca Protection Act. It stated that orca breeding and shows in California were banned. SeaWorld championed the Act and shareholders were thrilled, sending the stock up 17% over the next two days. Manby also made the difficult decision to start phasing out its signature Shamu shows and replace them with events where trainers explain how whales behave in the wild in a “natural-looking setting.”
Of course, the issue hasn’t blown over completely, since SeaWorld’s whale shows will continue in San Diego until 2017 and for even longer in its two other marine parks. Dolphin-riding trainers and shows like “Sea Lion High” will continue on without sign of closure, and activists groups refuse to let up. Yet the positive changes made after years of constant public relations work has finally put SeaWorld in a better place than it was after the release of Blackfish. Rebranding was a heavy undertaking and is still a work in progress. Despite its rocky PR beginnings, SeaWorld might eventually climb it’s way back up to one of the world’s most loved theme parks as long as it continues this upward PR trend.