SeaWorld’s Change of Heart: Is It Too Little Too Late?

On March 17, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment Inc. announced its decision to end its captive orca breeding program and phase out its “theatrical” orca shows. In recent years, SeaWorld has been at the heart of heated controversy following a series of violent scandals, brought to light by the 2013 documentary, “Blackfish.” The documentary sparked both traditional and social media buzz and catalyzed a dialogue surrounding the ethicality of animal captivity and performance. Three years later, SeaWorld has finally succumbed to societal pressure (in the form of plummeting ticket sales and falling stock prices) to overhaul its best-selling act in favor of a more organic and educational orca experience. But is this decision too little too late, and can the brand survive without its cash cow?

Long Story Short…

In the wake of “Blackfish,” SeaWorld launched its “truth campaign” in an attempt to salvage its reputation and reassure the public of its commitment to the well-being of its animals. According to SeaWorld, the focus of this campaign was to address the wealth of “misinformation” surrounding the brand post-“Blackfish.” The campaign’s primary focus was its veterinary staff, its rescue efforts, and its non-whale species. Unfortunately, the campaign’s limited successes were overshadowed by its failed social media campaign, #AskSeaWorld, which invited more nasty criticism than sincere questions. In addition to its ongoing PR nightmare, SeaWorld has also faced substantial legislative and regulatory hurdles within the past two years: in early 2015, SeaWorld San Diego proposed plans to expand its orca habitat in an attempt to appease animal-rights activists while still continuing its orca shows. Later that year, the California Coastal Commission approved the project under one condition: the park would have to cease its captive orca breeding program. Then, in November, California Congressman Adam Schiff proposed the Orca Responsibility and Care Advancement Act, a bill designed to end orca shows and illegalize captive breeding and capture of wild orcas. This series of complications has positioned the brand between a rock and a hard place, forcing it to do the unthinkable: bow to the mounting pressure and give up its orcas.

Now What?

So, what happens when SeaWorld has to give up the animal upon which its brand is built? Fortunately, SeaWorld bought itself some time, so it won’t have to completely reinvent its brand overnight: the orca show phase-out will take several years, and the company has pledged to care for its whales for the rest of their natural lives, which could be decades. That being said, the verbiage used by CEO Joel Manby in his op-ed and various interviews since provides some insight into what we can expect of the “new” SeaWorld. In response to the announcement, Manby has discussed the overarching issues of animal endangerment and extinction, writing that “in this impending crisis, the real enemies of wildlife are poaching, pollution, unsustainable human development and man-made disasters such as oil spills — not zoos and aquariums.” Manby also announced SeaWorld’s partnership with its former adversary, the Humane Society––a move that is nothing short of strategic. Together, SeaWorld and the Humane Society intend to “work against commercial whaling and seal hunts, shark finning and ocean pollution.” Manby’s heavy emphasis on SeaWorld’s commitment to wildlife education and conservation efforts suggests that its brand will begin diversifying in response to what he calls society’s “attitudinal change.” Moving forward, we can expect SeaWorld to promote itself as an animal advocacy, rescue, and protection organization instead of as an amusement park.

Trends & Timeliness

SeaWorld’s “Blackfish” ordeal has taught the brand a lesson about the importance of trends and timeliness. Its first mistake was ignoring trends. In the 1970s, we knew little to nothing about orcas, so a combination of fear, awe, and curiosity attracted people to the parks; by the 1990s, Shamu was a household name, and Americans flocked to the parks for a seat in the “splash zone;” but by the 2010s, society had become disillusioned with the idea of animal captivity and performance, calling for reform of circuses and theme parks alike. SeaWorld’s belated recognition and acceptance of the animal advocacy movement has critics conflicted––is the move too little too late, or better late than never? You be the judge.

SeaWorld was, however, cognizant of the importance of timeliness in crisis communication. Legislation and regulations were ready to order an end to orca captivity; SeaWorld recognized that it had lost all the battles but could still win the war if it could find a way to regain control of the message––and that’s exactly what it did. Instead of waiting to be forced into major reform, SeaWorld beat them to the punch, allowing the brand to announce its changes on its own terms, in its own way. This proactive move is a welcome change from SeaWorld’s swell of reactive PR in recent years.

The Future
SeaWorld’s announcement, in conjunction with Ringling Brothers’ 2015 decision to end its elephant shows, provides the pleasant reassurance that our dollars really do matter. When societal issues like commercial corruption seem overwhelming and impossible to tackle, it’s nice to know that we, the consumers, really do have the power to affect change. Where and how we choose to spend our money reflect what we value as a society. This effect reaches beyond the amusement park industry; we see our dollars speaking volumes through the Made in America movement, the organic and local foods movements, and many more. So when you see the need for change in the world, just remember that you, the consumer, have the ability to make deliberate choices each and every day to show support and opposition of certain causes. Whether you agree with SeaWorld’s decision or not, the fact that consumers were able to force the hand of a multibillion-dollar company is a testament to the power of the people (and also capitalism).

“This is a guest post by Molly White who is currently apprenticing at See.Spark.Go.”