Ever since the CNN documentary “BlackFish” was broadcast, the SeaWorld theme parks across the country have faced a growing wave of backlash, criticism, and falling numbers at the turnstiles. It’s worse in Florida than in California, but the company can’t whitewash the damage done by BlackFish. They must hit it head on … and that’s what CEO Joel Manby is trying desperately to do.
Manby inherited a mess. Year after year, the situation got progressively worse for the entertainment brand. Plummeting attendance, increasing criticism … a PR nightmare.
And that PR crisis was not going to abate as long as people kept sharing video of Tilikum killing his trainer during a live show. That, coupled with the expertly produced propaganda attack against SeaWorld known as “BlackFish” hit the company like a one-two haymaker combo delivered by Mike Tyson in his prime.
Initially, the company made it worse, by first shrugging off the backlash as baseless conspiracy-mongering, then producing antiseptic and clearly rehearsed testimonial commercials from employees who love their jobs. Of course, they do. The general public yawned, went right back to watching Tilikum kill and went back to their torches and pitchforks.
Meanwhile, big name entertainers backed out of contracts with the company. Guys like Matt Damon and Willie Nelson came after the brand with harsh criticism, uniting disparate groups of fans with only one issue to bring them together – hating SeaWorld.
SeaWorld shifted tactics, offering their version of their mission to humanely care for animals, which was taken by critics and called “torture.” Once again, the PR campaign failed. In 2014, lifetime SeaWorld employee and current CEO Jim Atchison announced his resignation.
Enter Joe Manby. Up until that point, Manby was perhaps best known as the guy who promoted a “Christian love-based” workplace metric, someone who literally wrote the book about how to turn brotherly love into meaningful leadership practice in the corporate workplace.
Manby hit the ground running, making management changes, announcing an end to the orca shows and released his plans to re-work the company’s purpose from the ground up. So far … no good. Little has changed for SeaWorld, which continues to languish in a culture that used to love it but now hates it … even if they’re not really sure why.
On top of the bad PR, the company, especially at the Orlando location, has faced challenges like tropical storms, Zika outbreaks and a host of struggling economies across the world that have kept tourists at home. Then there’s terrorism. Most tourists don’t differentiate between “Orlando” and “theme park land” which is actually further west and not really near the district where the Pulse nightclub shooting happened. But what folks don’t know has kept them away.
SeaWorld’s stock continues to fall – 34 percent this year alone – and things are not looking up. For Manby to fix the cash flow, he must fix the narrative and the perception of his parks as torture chambers instead of rescue centers. That’s where things are right now, and where they will stay unless the company can change the story.