Last weekend I watched Blackfish, an investigative documentary on the treatment of captive orca whales in SeaWorld amusement parks. Family members and friends told me of how shocking the film was, so my natural inclination was to watch it and form my own opinion. In other words, I knew what I was getting ready to watch—a sad and highly controversial film.
I’ll spare the details of the film so you can form your own opinion, but know that halfway through I felt the need to share my experience on social media. I turned to Twitter and proceeded to tweet: “Watching Blackfish… #SMH,” (SMH=shaking my head). What happened next surprised me and inspired this blog. Early the next morning, I checked my Twitter feed only to see a sponsored advertisement from SeaWorld explaining the strong bond between mother orcas and their calves, something Blackfish explicitly reveals to its viewers as a fact SeaWorld chooses to ignore.
I was shocked when I saw this advertisement. My feelings about the film were still fresh in my mind, and to see SeaWorld’s social presence pushed into my feed so quickly ignited a curiosity I couldn’t ignore. I do not follow SeaWorld on any social network, nor have I ever mentioned SeaWorld online prior to this incident. I asked myself, was it a coincidence I saw this sponsored content the morning after I tweeted about Blackfish? The answer: highly unlikely.
Responsive PR through Social Media
Apparently, SeaWorld is actively targeting the keyword Blackfish to combat the negative image the film has propagated. In many ways, SeaWorld is facing a public relations crisis. Today’s social networks, where information is easily found and shared, is the source of the problem.
After initially seeing the sponsored tweet, I took a moment to investigate what kind of community engagement SeaWorlds social network’s were attracting, especially on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. I came across a flood of negative public commentary in response to anything SeaWorld published to its channels. Social engagement ranged from die-hard animal activist to average users who, like me, recently watched Blackfish and chose to express their opinion. SeaWorld’s Public Relations is in trouble. Check out some these embedded social posts and the public reaction they’ve garnered in their respective comments:
Make sure you get all the facts about our killer whales here: http://t.co/QeKE1BI4Pj
— SeaWorld (@SeaWorld) February 16, 2014
The issue doesn’t stop on social. A Q&A posted by CNN in October 2013 interviews SeaWorld’s VP of Communications in an effort to respond to Blackfish allegations. The article offers a crafted response promoting transparency on behalf of SeaWorld, but continue to scroll down and readers will find a heated, in-depth discussion consisting of 1047 comments, most of which are anti-SeaWorld.
If I had not seen Blackfish, I would have interpreted the sponsored tweet as genuine and informative. But because I saw the movie, and then investigated the controversy further, I recognize a portion of SeaWorld’s social content since the virality of Blackfish as a defensive PR strategy to maintain the brand they’ve worked hard to secure for decades: that SeaWorld is family-friendly, zoologically responsible facility.
When the Blackfish issue started to chip away the SeaWorld brand, the company published a variety of videos and press releases (http://seaworld.com/truth/) to inform the public that what the film presented as “facts” were false. The organization claims the film is propaganda and that the interviews and incidents featured in the film are misleading, edited and exaggerated.
With this “truth” content, anyone who expresses disdain toward SeaWorld in relation to Blackfish is messaged, targeted or directed toward this page. It’s almost like a content war, where both sides offer useful, but contradicting information. That’s where transparency, trust and brand loyalty surface to play an influential role, as advocates and activists scramble to defend or attack the SeaWorld name.
Perhaps SeaWorld should never have recognized Blackfish in the first place. Ignore a problem and, in time, it will go away, right? Wrong. Today’s PR strategy is immediate, running 24/7 to address individual customer complaints or to fight off trolls with an insidous agenda. Due to the transparency of the social web, instantaneous recognition and, in SeaWorld’s case, defense of a problem is a necessity. However, one could argue the more SeaWorld posts about how Blackfish is wrong, the more fuel it adds to the fire.
In today’s connected world, a community or even an individual who is passionate about an idea can have a far-reaching voice. Those who feel strongly about Blackfish, either for or against it, have used social media as a tool to express their opinions and to share outside resources beyond the film and SeaWorld’s communication department. As the issue boils down, it will be interesting to monitor SeaWorld’s social postings to see how the organization approaches future obstacles.
Ironically, SeaWorld announced record attendance and revenue for the 4Q of 2013, indicating profitability from something that presumably threatened the future of the company.
How do you think SeaWorld is handling the situation? Let me hear it!