SeaWorld’s Preemptive PR Strike Against Potentially Damaging Documentary May Hurt, Not Help

Rather than lying low and waiting for the storm to pass as companies profiled in unflattering documentary exposés often do, SeaWorld, advised by the communications firm 42West, has taken the opposite approach.

Before last week’s New York and Los Angeles release of the Magnolia Pictures documentary “Blackfish,” which makes the case that orca whales in captivity suffer physical and mental distress, SeaWorld Entertainment took preemptive action in an attempt to prevent potential damage to its reputation.

About a week before the film’s release, the company sent a detailed critique of the movie to about 50 critics who were presumably about to review it. Among other things, SeaWorld claims that “Blackfish” exceeded the bounds of fair use by using training film and other video shot by the company. SeaWorld also says that filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite deliberately positioned some scenes to create what SeaWorld executives claim is a false implication of wrongdoing. Additionally, by midweek last week the company was providing top executives and animal caretakers for interviews about the movie.

And SeaWorld may not even stop there — the company was reportedly also considering further action like informational advertising, a Web-based counter-campaign or perhaps a request for some sort of access to CNN, which plans to broadcast the movie on October 24th.

When asked what exactly this aggressive PR campaign was designed to defend, G. Anthony Taylor, SeaWorld’s general counsel, told The New York Times, “I don’t know if ‘reputation’ is the right word…We need to protect our people.”

But is this damage control strategy helping or hurting the company? Documentary films generally draw a fairly small audience, so controversies stemming from revelations made by such movies are often fairly contained and short-lived. But by fighting back so hard and so publicly against the film, SeaWorld’s campaign may be bringing the documentary and its potentially damaging message to a broader audience. Eamonn Bowles, Magnolia’s president, said he was not particularly unhappy with SeaWorld’s actions, as it was bringing attention to “Blackfish.”

“From a marketing standpoint, this is turning into the gift that keeps on giving,” said Mr. Bowles. “Frankly, I’ve never seen anything like it.”


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