Has SeaWorld Jumped the Shark?


heathBy Heath Fradkoff, Principal & Founder, Ward 6 Marketing

It was announced last week that SeaWorld will halt its controversial Orca performances. Both the theme park’s attendance and company’s stock price have taken a hit since public backlash against their treatment of these creatures reached a fever pitch, largely spurred by the 2013 documentary, Black Fish.

Sea World has announced that they will phase out their Orca breeding program, and the shows will end when the last of their performing Orcas moves on to that deep sea in the sky. However, is that enough to save Sea World as a brand?

To hear the reaction, one must listen no further than the music choice from Thursday’s CBS This Morning. The producers there, with an attention to detail unrivaled in most morning television, often use clever musical selections to highlight or (subtly) editorialize their segments. It’s genius work, really.

Their musical choice following Thursday’s segment with SeaWorld president and CEO Joel Manby? The Cranberries’ 1993 hit, “Linger.”

As in: “Do you have to let it linger? Do you have to, do you have to, / Do you have to let it linger?”

Those of us working in communications fields know that the most effective response to any PR crisis is a quick one. Sea World has let this crisis linger on way too long. And now, even as they’re taking very real steps to change perceptions, they still insist on dipping a toe in the pool rather than diving right in.

Why wait for the performing animals to “pass on” (their shrouded language for “die”) before ceasing Orca shows? Why keep these animals to the same rigorous and detrimental schedules while they remain in “human care” (their shrouded language for “captivity”)?

The message they’re sending the public is, “We hear you loud and clear, so we’re going to squeeze every last dollar out of these whales before doing what you’ve been asking us to do. Please love us!” And this muddles their claims of moving to a more conservational relationship with these and other sea creatures.

Handling communications crises is all about reacting swiftly. After a long delay, the company’s step-down approach may hurt more than help.

Soon enough, SeaWorld itself may be sleeping with the fishes.

About the Author: With more than 16 years of diverse communications and marketing experience, Heath Fradkoff is Founder & Principal for Ward 6 Marketing. Much of his work has been in technology and B2B practices, along with consumer media and product brands like PBS, Associated Press, About.com, Epicurious (Conde Nast), Hitachi and Mitsubishi. His written pieces on behalf of clients have appeared in Advertising Age, Fortune, Forbes, and Financial Times, as well as numerous industry trade publications. 

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