SeaWorld emails re­leased

They show ex­ec­u­tives knew ‘Black­fish’ hurt rev­enue long be­fore they told in­vestors.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS BEAT - By Lori Weis­berg and Gabrielle Rus­son lori.weis­berg@sdunion­tri­bune.com grus­son @or­lan­dosen­tinel.com

Amid mount­ing can­cel­la­tions by per­form­ers and lost busi­ness, SeaWorld ex­ec­u­tives re­vealed in in­ter­nal emails that the 2013 “Black­fish” doc­u­men­tary was af­fect­ing rev­enues — long be­fore they pub­licly ac­knowl­edged that the con­tro­versy was harm­ing the com­pany.

Grow­ing frus­tra­tion over the back­lash from the anti-cap­tiv­ity film bub­bled to the sur­face in an email about per­former Wil­lie Nel­son’s de­ci­sion to can­cel an up­com­ing con­cert at the Or­lando park in 2013.

“This whole [ex­ple­tive] thing pisses me off,” Fred Ja­cobs, who then was SeaWorld En­ter­tain­ment Inc.’s vice pres­i­dent of cor­po­rate com­mu­ni­ca­tions, wrote in a De­cem­ber 2013 email. “God we look like id­iots.”

Ja­cobs’ email was among a num­ber of com­mu­ni­ca­tions un­sealed this week as part of on­go­ing lit­i­ga­tion against SeaWorld con­cern­ing share­hold­ers’ claims that the com­pany mis­led in­vestors early on when it de­nied fall­out from “Black­fish” had any­thing to do with de­creas­ing at­ten­dance at its SeaWorld parks in Or­lando, San Diego and San An­to­nio.

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment, in the midst of a re­lated crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion into SeaWorld, was granted per­mis­sion in Septem­ber to in­ter­vene in the in­vestors law­suit.

SeaWorld de­clined to com­ment Thurs­day on the cor­re­spon­dence be­cause it is re­lated to on­go­ing lit­i­ga­tion but said that the com­pany “re­mains ever-fo­cused on our mis­sion to in­spire peo­ple to pro­tect an­i­mals and the world’s oceans.”

A num­ber of the emails un­sealed this week by the court make ref­er­ence to “Black­fish,” in­clud­ing one with the sub­ject line “Lost Black­fish rev­enue — con­fi­den­tial.” It is dated Jan. 13, 2014, seven months be­fore SeaWorld ex­ec­u­tives ad­mit­ted the doc­u­men­tary was af­fect­ing park at­ten­dance, the suit main­tains.

In an Au­gust 2014 earn­ings call with an­a­lysts, the com­pany at­trib­uted fall­ing visi­ta­tion to on­go­ing con­tro­versy sur­round­ing its killer whales, al­though it did not cite “Black­fish” specif­i­cally.” In­stead, it men­tioned pro­posed Cal­i­for­nia leg­is­la­tion seek­ing to out­law the use of trained captive or­cas in Shamu Sta­dium at San Diego’s SeaWorld.

In Jan­uary 2014, though, com­pany lead­ers con­fi­den­tially tal­lied a list of lost rev­enue from “Black­fish,” ac­cord­ing to the re­leased emails.

That tally, which was not dis­closed in court doc­u­ments, came in re­sponse to an email from Toni Carac­ci­olo, then SeaWorld’s vice pres­i­dent of global brand man­age­ment.

In her email, Carac­ci­olo cau­tioned, “Please do not dis­trib­ute out­side di­rec­tors/ man­agers as should keep con­fi­den­tial we are keep­ing a list of this.”

In an­other email, Don­nie Mills, then pres­i­dent of the com­pany’s Or­lando parks, wrote, “The im­pact of our de­trac­tors has found its way to cater­ings. To date we have 6 can­cel­la­tions.”

In that cor­re­spon­dence, Mills noted that those can­cel­ing cited “BF (Black­fish) or ac­tivists com­men­tary.”

“Frus­trat­ing …” Jim Atchi­son, SeaWorld’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, wrote at the time.

The com­pany’s firstquar­ter earn­ings for 2014, though, never ref­er­enced “Black­fish” and in­stead blamed dis­ap­point­ing park at­ten­dance on a shift on when Easter fell and sea­sonal park clo­sures.

In hind­sight, SeaWorld lead­er­ship prob­a­bly should have been more forth­com­ing early on about the so-called “Black­fish” ef­fect, said an­a­lyst Bob Boyd of Pa­cific As­set Man­age­ment. If noth­ing else, the emails are more ev­i­dence of the dif­fi­cul­ties SeaWorld will con­tinue to have in res­ur­rect­ing its be­lea­guered brand, he said.

“Their orig­i­nal strat­egy was to ig­nore the is­sue and hope­fully it would go away,” Boyd said. “The cur­rent man­age­ment team, through the changes they’ve made like end­ing the breed­ing of or­cas, has made a strong at­tempt to ad­dress those is­sues, but what we’ve seen with SeaWorld per­for­mance this year, this is­sue is sim­ply not go­ing away.”

The re­lease of the emails comes amid con­tin­u­ing bad news about SeaWorld’s fi­nan­cial per­for­mance. This week, SeaWorld En­ter­tain­ment re­ported that at­ten­dance and rev­enue de­clined sharply dur­ing the third quar­ter, which en­com­passes much of the im­por­tant sum­mer sea­son.

Com­pa­ny­wide, at­ten­dance in July, Au­gust and Septem­ber de­clined nearly 9% com­pared with last year.

Hayne Pal­mour IV San Diego Union-Tri­bune

ONE OF the SeaWorld emails un­sealed as part of a law­suit was ti­tled “Lost Black­fish rev­enue — con­fi­den­tial” and writ­ten months be­fore SeaWorld ac­knowl­edged it was hurt by the film. Above, a SeaWorld show last year.

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