SeaWorld still struggling to overcome ‘Blackfish’ image problem


By Sarah Smith |

Following the release of the documentary “Blackfish” in 2013, SeaWorld Entertainment has had a tough year.

The company said attendance at its three parks was down 4.1 percent for 2013 — a drop of 1 million visitors from 2012 — and their stock has declined nearly 25 percent in the last year.

Blackfish, which was released last summer, focused on the health of orcas in captivity. While the company attributes its attendance decline to pricing strategies that increased revenue but reduced “low yielding and free attendance” numbers, the documentary continues to stir up trouble for SeaWorld as they try to improve their brand’s image.

In response, SeaWorld, which operates parks in Orlando, San Antonio and San Diego, created a “Truth About Blackfish” site that called the film propaganda and addressed numerous concerns brought up by the movie.

Bindi Irwin, the daughter of the late Australian wildlife expert Steve Irwin, became a SeaWorld youth ambassador, which she announced in an interview with Good Morning America in early March. Many criticized Irwin’s advocacy of SeaWorld, including the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Eric Hoffman, associate professor of public relations at Flagler College, Ph.D, also thought Irwin’s sponsorship of the company was an interesting move.

“They are trying to use her father’s reputation as someone who cared about animals and use that association positively,” Hoffman said.

While he agrees this type of business partnership often helps companies, Hoffman is not sure it will work for SeaWorld.

“She’s so young and this is such a poignant issue. It may ultimately backfire,” Hoffman said.

Taylor Gordon, a freshman at Flagler College, believes SeaWorld’s efforts are in vain.

“I think they can try all they want, but it isn’t going to change the negative stigma now placed on SeaWorld. People like me who care enough about the cause will boycott SeaWorld and they will continue to lose business,” Gordon said.

Not everyone agrees with Gordon’s sentiments. SeaWorld is still making a profit from thousands people who purchase single day tickets from their website, which range from $65 to $84.

The company reported that it experienced record revenue in 2013, up 3 percent over 2012. In addition, some viewers of “Blackfish” believe the film was unfair to the company.

Jonathan Tate, a student at Flagler College, sympathizes with SeaWorld.

“I think the documentary gives a little bit of a jaded vision. You are dealing with wild animals who are carnivores by nature,” Tate said about the film’s focus on the death of a SeaWorld trainer by one of the orcas.

But the trouble continues for the marine park. In California, Richard Bloom, a Santa Monica assemblyman, has proposed a ban on the use of orcas for performance-based entertainment, according to CNN.

Bloom aims to incite change in the animal entertainment industry, saying that holding orcas captive for entertainment is unacceptable.

If the proposed Orca Welfare and Safety Act were to pass, SeaWorld’s San Diego park would be forced to shut down shows centered on killer whales.

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