SeaWorld announced a massive new public relations campaign this week to try and rebuild its battered image and finances in the wake of a flood of negative media about it, sparking speculation about its long term prospects and its future with killer whales.
The company will launch TV and print ads that will run in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere featuring veterinarians and researchers discussing the company's treatment of the whales, it said in a press release. It will also set up a website called AskSeaWorld.com, which it says will try to set the record straight on the negative information that has been publicized about SeaWorld.
SeaWorld spokeswoman Jill Kermes told the Orlando Sentinel that the ad campaign was created to take "the claims that have been leveled against us head on."
The company has been overwhelmed by negative press in recent years as former orca trainers spoke out against the company's practices first in the documentary Blackfish and in a new book released this week called Beneath the Surface, by former trainer John Hargrove. Both the movie and the book claim that the whales suffer serious health problems in captivity, are more aggressive because of their captivity, and are poorly treated by SeaWorld.
It also battled two highly-publicized lawsuits over its treatment of animals, one brought by PETA and another by shareholders, and was the focus of proposed legislation in California that sought to ban the captivity of orcas.
SeaWorld told VICE News the timing of their announcement had nothing to do with the release of Hargrove's book.
"Despite the false claims from John Hargrove and other extreme animal rights activists like PETA, we provide the highest standards of care as noted by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and are highly regulated by the federal government," spokeswoman Aimee Jeansonne-Becka told VICE News. "Our whales are healthy and thriving, as evidenced by independent research that shows that our whales have a survival rate equal to those in the wild. Anyone doing their research will find that not only does the book contain statements that are either purposefully misleading or demonstratively false; much of the content is contrary to Hargrove's own previous statements."
But they have admitted the bad publicity has affected the company's bottom line. SeaWorld's stock price fell 35 percent and attendance dropped 4.5 percent last year, which the company said on its website was partially caused by negative media attention stemming from the proposed California legislation.
John Gerner, a consultant to entertainment and theme park companies and the director of Leisure Business Advisors, said he thought the campaign may be effective in convincing some visitors to attend the park again, and said the company's long-term prospects remain strong.
"I think they're doing the right thing, reaching out to the public and trying to speak directly to the public about what's going on," he said. "They're talking to people who want to feel good about coming to SeaWorld, who want to feel that the whales are well taken care of, are happy, and are better off at SeaWorld than in the wild, just like we feel about our pets."
Gerner noted that attendance and donations to zoos has surged in recent years, showing that the public is not opposed to holding animals in captivity, though there are differences in perception between for-profit companies and non-profits that run most zoos.
The drop in attendance and sudden public relations push signal that the company is in trouble, but not yet ready to give up, according to Gerner and David Kirby, author of the book Death at SeaWorld, which chronicled the 2010 death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau,
"This isn't the death of SeaWorld. SeaWorld will struggle on for many years I'm sure, but it's a sign of how much trouble they're in and that they realize it," Kirby said.
Kirby told VICE News he thought the TV ads may be effective in reaching an audience that is "on the fence" about whether to return to SeaWorld or not, but in the longer term SeaWorld won't be able to rebound completely. The company has plans to expand to Russia, Asia, and the Middle East, he said. If American opposition to captive whales grows strong enough, the company could just move the whales overseas, he said.
"Once public perception starts shifting about a company it's very hard to turn that shift around. I think they have a challenge ahead of them," he said. "I don't think any amount of advertising can turn that around completely."
Gerner predicted SeaWorld would have to adapt its business model after all of the negative media, possibly by giving up its killer whales and moving more toward a traditional theme park model.
Both Kirby and Gerner noted the emotional intensity of the rhetoric between SeaWorld and its opponents.
"I think most animal rights controversies involve deep emotions, people on both sides I think truly care about the orcas and are invested in them emotionally," Kirby said. "For the former trainers it's emotional because they have a certain sense of guilt for having participated, and I think SeaWorld is fighting for its corporate longevity and well being which anyone in that position is going to get heated about."
Gerner said activists need to tone down the rhetoric and animosity.
"It's gotten really emotional, which makes for great media and press but it doesn't help solve the problem," he told VICE News, "and it's not going to be solved by one side completely beating the other."
Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen
Image via Flickr