SeaWorld is taking preemptive action against a new documentary that’s highly critical of the aquatic theme park. But the move could be seen as an overreaction that ends up backfiring on SeaWorld.
The documentary, titled “Blackfish" and directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, focuses on Tilikum, a 12,000-pound whale that has allegedly killed three people, including Tilikum’s trainer, Dawn Brancheau, in 2010.
The film argues that Tilikum, which was taken from its mother, is prone to attacking SeaWorld’s trainers. Discovery.com reports that there have been more than 70 such incidents, according to the documentary. The film accuses SeaWorld of hiding Tilikum’s history of aggression, Discovery.com said.
But SeaWorld is fighting back with an aggressive PR campaign.
A statement released by the company said: “Blackfish is billed as a documentary, but instead of a fair and balanced treatment of a complex subject, the film is inaccurate and misleading. And regrettably, it exploits a tragedy that remains a source of deep pain for Dawn Brancheau’s family, friends and colleagues.”
The company has reportedly hired communications agency 42West and distributed a detailed critique of the movie to about 50 film critics, calling it is “dishonest, deliberately misleading, and scientifically inaccurate.”
SeaWorld also claims that Cowperthwaite deliberately doctored some scenes to create what SeaWorld said is a false implication.
What’s more, SeaWorld is reportedly considering other action against the film, including informational advertising or a Web-based counter-campaign.
The controversy provides a good lesson for PR people. By taking an aggressive stance against the documentary, SeaWorld may spark the interest of people who might not otherwise see the film. And people whose curiosity is piqued by the vehemence of the response.
We also wonder if SeaWorld did a cost-benefit analysis about taking preemptive action against “Blackfish.”
Serious documentarians are notorious for making sure their films can weather any corporate storm, so SeaWorld needs to be crystal clear on its communications regarding the film. Indeed, Cowperthwaite has already issued rebuttals to SeaWorld’s claims about the veracity of the movie.
SeaWorld has been battling bad publicity ever since the movie Free Willy (1993), when the general public became more educated about whales held in captivity. Now, with people increasingly patched into environmentalism (and more cognizant of animal cruelty) the PR campaign against “Blackfish” may be going against the consumer grain.
TEXT OF SEAWORLD STATEMENT ABOUT "BLACKFISH"
Blackfish is billed as a documentary, but instead of a fair and balanced treatment of a complex subject, the film is inaccurate and misleading and, regrettably, exploits a tragedy that remains a source of deep pain for Dawn Brancheau’s family, friends and colleagues. To promote its bias that killer whales should not be maintained in a zoological setting, the film paints a distorted picture that withholds from viewers key facts about SeaWorld – among them, that SeaWorld is one of the world’s most respected zoological institutions, that SeaWorld rescues, rehabilitates and returns to the wild hundreds of wild animals every year, and that SeaWorld commits millions of dollars annually to conservation and scientific research. Perhaps most important, the film fails to mention SeaWorld's commitment to the safety of its team members and guests and to the care and welfare of its animals, as demonstrated by the company’s continual refinement and improvement to its killer whale facilities, equipment and procedures both before and after the death of Dawn Brancheau.
Follow Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1