By Jasmine Grillmeier
Unfortunately, SeaWorld discovered earlier this year that giving the microphone to the people can amplify bad PR much more than it can produce good PR during its #AskSeaWorld campaign.
The campaign urged Twitter users to participate in a Q & A with the brand using the hashtag #AskSeaWorld. The campaign included TV and print ads promoting the Twitter Q & A, and housed curated content from the campaign on a campaign-specific website.
According to Huffington Post, “SeaWorld saw ticket sales plunge after the release of the documentary [Blackfish], which investigated the death of orca trainer Dawn Brancheau and harshly criticized SeaWorld’s treatment of killer whales.” The film was initially screened at Sundance in 2013, and aired on CNN later that year. As a result of this documentary reaching a wide audience the company’s ticket sales dropped. Sales still had not improved well into the beginning of 2015, so in order to combat this decline the brand strategized that if they addressed their image issue and opened up the floor, they could defend themselves and get back on people’s good graces.
“There is a lot of misinformation out there,” says Jill Kermes, senior corporate affairs officer at SeaWorld as referenced in a Fast Company article. “What we wanted with this campaign was to start that conversation with consumers and give them a place to go to get the facts about SeaWorld, about our animals, about our world-class animal care, and let them make up their own minds.”
Despite these high hopes, the campaign quickly became subject to ridicule. Overall, there were four main reasons why the campaign failed: the release of a contradicting book, notable criticizers already known to the brand, improper handling of haters, and the brand’s history of image management.
Firstly, the campaign was poorly timed. As stated by USA Today, “This new campaign comes the same time as former Seaworld trainer John Hargrove’s book launch. The book condemns the company’s treatment of killer whales. The timing of the ad campaign and Hargrove’s book was coincidental, SeaWorld spokesman Fred Jacobs told USA TODAY Network in an e-mail.”
Secondly, the creators of the campaign didn’t seriously account for the huge organizations against them. As stated in a Voice of San Diego article, “SeaWorld later blamed PETA for spamming the campaign, noting that 70 percent of questions came from bots and animal rights groups.”
Thirdly, during the campaign SeaWorld released a series of tweets bashing the so-called trolls and bots. It did not add to the conversation, and even upset some who felt that they were accusing some legitimate criticizers.
Fourthly, if you look at the history of how SeaWorld responded after Blackfish was released, the brand did not address the issue quickly and was inconsistent in solution tactics. This campaign, in the context of their inconsistency and early ignoring of the image issue, made it seem like a desperate “saving face” tactic.
By not responding quickly after the initial release of Blackfish, the brand set itself up for failure. With the release of this campaign so late after the incident, SeaWorld is actually bringing the Blackfish back into focus. The time elapsed means the conversation around the documentary had probably died down, yet with an open Q & A they opened up the floodgates.
In addition, the campaign’s strategy wasn’t smart. The campaign’s focus, more often than not, was around SeaWorld defending themselves. This shows they are not taking responsibility, which is a no-no; taking responsibility is one of the top tips on crisis management, so SeaWorld is blatantly choosing a strategy that’s proven hardly, if ever, works. What SeaWorld should have done was create a positive campaign promoting how they are improving and making the future better for its animals as well as its customers, instead of launching a defensive campaign that’s inevitable to receive backlash.
Green, Catherine. (2015, April 1). A Brief History of SeaWorld’s ‘Blackfish’ Damage Control. Retrieved from http://www.voiceofsandiego.org/topics/news/a-brief-history-of-seaworlds-blackfish-damage-control/
Grisham, Lori. (2015, March 25). ‘Ask SeaWorld’ Draws Criticism. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2015/03/25/seaworld-killer-whales-ad-campaign/70422606/
SeaWorld. (2015). You Ask. We Answer. Retrieved from http://ask.seaworldcares.com/
Sola, Katie. (2015, March 27). #AskSeaWorld Twitter Campaign Pretty Much Goes As You’d Expect. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/03/27/seaworld-twitter-fail_n_6950902.html
Titlow, John Paul. (2015, August 4). SeaWorld is Spending $10 million to make you forget about “Blackfish”. Retrieved from http://www.fastcompany.com/3046342/seaworld-is-spending-10-million-to-make-you-forget-about-blackfish#2