By Jonathan Mackall
In Spring 2015, SeaWorld launched a social media campaign entitled “#AskSeaWorld” in an effort to help improve their brand image. Since the release of 2013’s Blackfish, a documentary about SeaWorld’s unethical practices, their brand has been in decline. Thus, #AskSeaWorld was meant to be a chance for the company to explain itself in plain terms to social media-goers. Unfortunately, due to their horrible mismanagement of the campaign, it only served to further damage their brand.
When the campaign first launched through Twitter, the hashtag was immediately inundated with people critical of SeaWorld’s practices. People tweeted at them by the thousand questioning their treatment of animals (specifically killer whales in many cases). In what could have been a constructive moment for the brand, SeaWorld’s PR team chose to attack those who asked too critical of questions, rather than actually fielding anything of substance. In fact, they didn’t even put in the effort to respond to their detractors directly- they posted their dismissive comments basically as blanket statements directed at the very people engaging with their campaign.
Referring to dissenters as “trolls” who were “jacking (their) hashtag”, SeaWorld attempted to shame these people by posting memes about them. Thusly, instead of actually answering any questions that really needed to be addressed, SeaWorld dismissed them- a move that caused enough public outcry and backlash that it got picked up by CNN. Alongside this, an organic hashtag even bubbled up around the controversy- #AnswertheQ – which referred to SeaWorld’s belligerence in responding to people in their campaign.
This campaign exemplifies something beyond a social fail- it was just a plain disaster. SeaWorld’s intent was simply to answer people’s questions relating to their treatment of animals in order to gain some direly needed good press, as Blackfish’s scathing portrait of the company’s treatment of captive killer whales had hurt attendance in recent years. And, rather than answer the questions about ethics that needed to be answered, they simply sabotaged their own campaign by both acknowledging and dismissing the questions.
In the months following the campaign, SeaWorld has only continued to spiral the drain. While attendance has been steadily on the decline, profits have plunged downwards 84% as of this year amidst the company’s 10 million dollar marketing campaign to improve their image. Furthermore, they’re dumping millions of dollars dollars into a new exhibit involving its killer whales, in spite of the fact that they’ve also announced an end to the orca exhibits by 2017. While this social media faux pas hurt SeaWorld’s public image, it’s impossible to know whether it has tangibly impacted the company’s profits.
I don’t think the campaign itself was a bad idea, it just needed to be managed far better. If I were in charge, I would have attempted to train this (apparently extremely well funded) PR team to handle backlash professionally and with tact. Furthermore, if I were SeaWorld, I would have really only launched this campaign if the company was actually ready and able to answer the tough questions (which they obviously weren’t). SeaWorld is at a moment in its lifespan that’s sink or swim- and this social fail is very telling of which direction they’re headed.
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