Emails show SeaWorld ex­ecs re­al­ized they had “SeaWorld stink” af­ter “Black­fish,” Scott Maxwell writes.

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - Scott Maxwell Sentinel Colum­nist

It was De­cem­ber of 2013, and SeaWorld was des­per­ately try­ing to con­vince the world that the doc­u­men­tary “Black­fish” wasn’t re­ally that big of a deal.

Sure, the movie with its bloody footage about cap­tive whales was mak­ing world­wide head­lines.

And yes, a string of mu­si­cians — from Wil­lie Nel­son to the Bare­naked Ladies — had can­celed gigs they’d booked at the theme park, say­ing they no longer felt com­fort­able per­form­ing there.

But SeaWorld swore ev­ery­thing was OK, that “most peo­ple” didn’t be­lieve the movie and that ev­ery­thing was still sunny in the world of cap­tive whales.

That was the pub­lic story, any­way.

Within the walls of the park, how­ever, SeaWorld ex­ecs were freak­ing out.

“God we look like id­iots,” lamented SeaWorld’s then-spokesman, Fred Ja­cobs, in a pri­vate email to co-work­ers — one re­cently re­vealed in a court case in­volv­ing in­vestors who claim the park knew its brand was dam­aged.

“This whole [bleep]ing thing [bleep]s me off,” Ja­cobs wrote. “What re­lent­less am­a­teurism we’ve shown in book­ing these [bleep]ing peo­ple and man­ag­ing the whole [bleep]ing choco­late mess.” But he wasn’t done. He said “All of this could have been eas­ily avoided” if they had just reached out to artists like Nel­son and said some­thing like:

“Wil­lie, on our best day SeaWorld is con­tro­ver­sial, but right now we’re be­ing at­tacked from all sides. We are pos­i­tively ra­dioac­tive. If you don’t want SeaWorld stink on you, we have to know now and we’ll walk away.”

Yes,the spokesman for SeaWorld — the guy who just days be­fore had said ev­ery­thing was swell — coined the phrase “SeaWorld stink.”

I’m just not sure how you mar­ket your­self out of that one ... which is why, be­sides chang­ing its core at­trac­tions away from large an­i­mals and more to­ward rides, SeaWorld may need to think big­ger.

It may be time for SeaWorld to drop SeaWorld.

See, you can laugh or wince at the in­ter­nal emails from a flus­tered pub­lic re­la­tions team.

But the re­al­ity is that SeaWorld has a near-im­pos­si­ble task — try­ing to run a whale park with­out whales. I’m just not sure that’s doable. It may be time for an en­tire re­brand­ing.

Maybe SeaWorld Or­lando needs to be­come Busch Gar­dens Or­lando. Or some other park.

But the “SeaWorld” brand is tied as closely to Shamu as Dis­ney is to Mickey Mouse. Only Mickey never killed any­one.

The park is mak­ing im­pres­sive strides to re­di­rect its mis­sion, vow­ing to end whale at­trac­tions years from now and fo­cus more on the rides and con­ser­va­tion ef­forts it does so well.

It has three of the coolest coast­ers in Or­lando and more rides on the way, in­clud­ing In­fin­ity Falls, which CEO Joel Manby de­scribes

as “the long­est, tallest of any wa­ter ride like this in the coun­try.”

But no mat­ter what SeaWorld does, it’s still SeaWorld — a park that con­tin­ues to face de­clin­ing rev­enues and at­ten­dance.

SeaWorld fans can say they don’t care about the con­cerns of large an­i­mals in cap­tiv­ity. But the num­bers show many other peo­ple do.

And no mat­ter how many in­no­va­tive things Manby and his team do — and they’re truly do­ing some — they’re also still gen­er­at­ing head­lines like this one last year from Forbes: “How SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby is Try­ing to Save the Park from It­self.”

When in­dus­try ob­servers view your en­tire brand name as a li­a­bil­ity ... well, that’s the “SeaWorld stink.”

Per­haps the most pa­thetic scene re­vealed in those in­ter­nal emails showed an­other SeaWorld exec urg­ing peers to try to rig an on­line poll on or­lan­dosen­tinel.com that asked read­ers if “Black­fish” made them “less in­clined to visit SeaWorld.”

Around 1 p.m. Dec. 24, Mar­ket­ing Di­rec­tor Nick Gol­lattscheck urged his peers to ex­ploit a hack he’d heard about in the polling sys­tem. (Some­thing worth re­mem­ber­ing when con­sid­er­ing the re­sults of on­line “polls.”)

“The Sentinel poll is still run­ning. Let’s keep flood­ing it,” he said. “Have also heard if you click ‘no,’ then click on ‘vote’ mul­ti­ple votes. Like a hun­dred or so.

“Happy hol­i­days and keep vot­ing. Ho ho vote.”

So there it was — Christ­mas Eve — and SeaWorld’s top ex­ec­u­tives were busy try­ing to click away the SeaWorld stink.

I’m just not sure there are enough clicks in the world.

I want SeaWorld to sur­vive. I think the park has taken steps to do so. But given ev­ery­thing SeaWorld ob­vi­ously al­ready knows about its brand, it’s go­ing to have to do some­thing big to leave the stink be­hind.

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