A Whale of a Problem: A Strategic Communication Analysis of SeaWorld Entertainment’s Multi-Year Blackfish Crisis
Keywords:SeaWorld, Blackfish, CNN, crisis communication, corporate communication, corporate social responsibility, social media, activists and activism
The release of the controversial documentary Blackfish and its airings on CNN in the fall of 2013 sparked a widespread backlash against SeaWorld that thrust the theme park operator into a multi-year crisis. Blackfish places emphasis on the tragic death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau by Tilikum, a killer whale. This case study covers the evolution and shift in SeaWorld’s communication strategy and tactics, from a defensive, advocacy posture immediately before and for several months after the release of Blackfish, to a blend of advocacy and accommodation backed by tangible business actions after the fallout persisted and intensified. This case is unique in that it focuses on a well-known brand in a multi-year crisis in which a key aspect of its business model—keeping and raising killer whales in captivity—is being called into question by stakeholders, including media-savvy animal rights activists, and some customers, business partners and government regulators. Strategic communication implications and takeaways from this case are provided.