When Blackfish exploded onto the scene, some people said it was the beginning of the end for SeaWorld Adventure Parks. Others said, no way, they can ride this storm of bad publicity out until it passes. It’s possible they were both right. SeaWorld is managing to make it through, but it still may not be enough.
Shares of SeaWorld Entertainment dropped (again) in recent trading, as much at 14 percent. Then again, company profits have shot up when compared to this time last year, even as revenue fell a bit. Attendance at the company’s five parks fell by as much as 500,000 guests.
SeaWorld is trying to blame tropical storms and changing vacation patterns, but anyone with even a cursory understanding of this issue knows the problem is almost entirely PR. There’s an entire generation coming up that is diametrically split on whether or not to take their kids to SeaWorld.
In every conversation or statement about the downturn and sales numbers, there is a committed refusal to mention PETA or Blackfish or any of the fallout out from the near constant barrage of negative publicity since the movie originally aired.
Worse, even when they tried to do something to respond, they got it wrong. First came a series of lawsuits, then a PR campaign meant to address and strongly counter the allegations brought by Blackfish. Both had an undesired effect. First, the lawsuits. When SeaWorld San Diego agreed to enlarge their orca holding tanks, part of the settlement was a ban on breeding orcas in captivity. Sea World is fighting that ban … and they are losing both in court and in hearts and minds.
The PR campaign was openly mocked, ridiculed by partisans and undecideds as little more than propaganda by employees and others with a financial reason to “love” SeaWorld.
It’s true the company missed a strong opportunity to both introduce their trainers but also to connect with viewers who were emotionally traumatized by what they saw in Blackfish. After they watched the movie, it didn’t matter as much that an objective review of the film could find many flaws. People stopped being objective about the issue altogether. They were now emotionally charged up, and SeaWorld failed to account for that. They tried debate, when people really wanted reassurance and encouragement that something they loved as a kid they could still love as an adult, without any guilt.
The road ahead is murky for SeaWorld, both due to outside attacks and as well because their attempts to undo some of the damage have not panned out. There’s still time to right the ship, but that window is closing fast.