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