Last week, Karl Taro Greenfeld managed an unusual feat: he was allowed inside SeaWorld’s corporate offices to interview SeaWorld’s leadership and report a Businessweek story called “Saving SeaWorld,” about SeaWorld’s efforts to survive and bounce back from the surprisingly powerful and accelerating #BlackfishEffect (seriously, I think it is fair to say that no one involved with the production fully anticipated the impact that resulted).
Since this is the first real access SeaWorld has given a big-time news organization since Blackfish started cratering SeaWorld’s image, its corporate relationships, and its stock price, it is worth taking a close look at what Greenfeld reported.
First up, Greenfeld gets SeaWorld CEO Jim Atchison to comment on SeaWorld’s PR strategy:
“There is no recipe to follow. There’s very little intuitive about it,” says Atchison. “Do I wish we would have taken a more aggressive action earlier? On an emotional level I do, because I was offended by it personally. … One of the things we had to measure early on was, how do we engage in it? We don’t want to aid the marketing of the film by engaging too openly, too aggressively, too early. We didn’t want to turn it into the film SeaWorld doesn’t want you to see. And the film didn’t really gain any kind of notable momentum until CNN started airing it. Repeatedly.”
I have to admit that I am sympathetic to SeaWorld on this point. SeaWorld had a long history of keeping its head down when bad things happen at its parks, and the bad news always blew away over time and allowed SeaWorld to get back to business. It is completely understandable that SeaWorld did not want to make a big deal out of Blackfish before Blackfish was, indeed, a big deal. Why help the public take notice of a film that will harm your business?
And Atchison is correct, I think, that the CNN airings are what blew Blackfish up into a public phenomenon (an important lesson to all film-makers who want their work to have impact). Following Sundance, and through the film’s theatrical run, there was just not that much public awareness about Blackfish. I have never been in the loop on the theatrical numbers, but I don’t think Blackfish was packing the movie houses. It wasn’t until Blackfish hit cable television, on CNN in late October (along with a pretty good CNN-designed social media plan) that lots and lots of people saw Blackfish and started telling others about it.