A Whale of a Problem: A Strategic Communication Analysis of SeaWorld Entertainment’s Multi-Year Blackfish Crisis


  • Stefani Duhon DePaul University
  • Kelli Ellison DePaul University
  • Matthew W. Ragas DePaul University


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.