By: Erin Pogue
After the infamous “Blackfish” documentary aired on CNN in 2013, SeaWorld’s reputation for the treatment of its animals was at stake. In an attempt to diffuse people’s concerns, SeaWorld created the Ask SeaWorld campaign that quickly backfired into a Twitter-wide criticism of the company.
The plan was to address the issues that had come up after the “Blackfish” documentary and recent book release from a former SeaWorld trainer, both of which claimed unethical treatment of the animals held in SeaWorld captivity. The hashtag #AskSeaWorld was started to encourage people to ask honest questions about the company and give SeaWorld the opportunity to respond and, theoretically, put worries to rest. Selected questions would also appear on the SeaWorld Cares website, where users could go to view various concerns addressed by SeaWorld professionals.
What SeaWorld didn’t plan for was the numerous animal rights activist groups, PETA being a prominent one, using the campaign against the amusement park to directly skewer any attempts to dodge the issue. The Twitter Q&A resulted in even more attention to the alleged mistreatment of SeaWorld’s animals.
“Why are your parking lots bigger than your Orca tanks?” and, “If mother-calf bond is ‘valued’ at your parks, why have you separated 19 calves from their mothers?” are just a few examples of the unhappy animal lovers’ attacks through the #AskSeaWorld campaign. Accusations of the company placing its concern to maintain its profits over an attempt to actually improve the environment of its captive creatures quickly arose.
To make matters worse on Twitter, SeaWorld took an unprofessional stance in a couple responses to the critics. Calling out “trolls,” “bullies,” and “bots” were just a few childish terms thrown out there by the company trying to sidestep the hate Tweets. Many anti-SeaWorld users even began their own spin-off hashtags such as, #EmptyTheTanks and #AnswerTheQ, accusing them of avoiding the real problems.
While some uses of the #AskSeaWorld hashtag proved positive results, overall the attempt resulted in a social fail. The Twitter campaign served more as a forum for the critics and animal activists to point out the unfair treatment of SeaWorld’s animals rather than a diffusion of the problem.
The marketing campaign clearly could not do enough to help the company’s negative image. After spending millions of dollars on this new marketing campaign and connected website, SeaWorld did not get a return on its investment. As of 2015, the company’s stock was down 40 percent within the past year and 50 percent below its all-time high. While net income plunged 85 percent and revenue declined 3 percent, the increase in marketing costs for SeaWorld called for hundreds of layoffs to make up for the lost money. It also was not enough to stop CEO, Jim Atchison, from stepping down.
While an image problem is inevitable to occur for a major company, SeaWorld took the wrong approach in addressing this specific issue its audience had.
Animal activist groups served as the biggest issue in the hatred that SeaWorld was receiving. Trying to make the passionate critics believe anything other than what they already had in their heads was where the company went wrong. What the public wanted was change, and that was what SeaWorld was not showing them. A big accusation that came out of this campaign was that SeaWorld was more concerned about continuing to make money rather than address the issue: unethical animal environments.
If SeaWorld really wanted to help their image, they needed to become more transparent and release information about new inspections, construction, etc. of the environments to ensure proper animal care. Showing the inside of the company and how they are physically addressing any issues or concerns is what would prove to the public that, overall, SeaWorld wants to treat its animals the best way possible. Unfortunately, this was not a concept that SeaWorld could prove.
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