Often we find truth burrowed between two mountainous points of view. Whether or not SeaWorld treats its captive killer whales sufficiently well — who would argue that all animals aren’t better served living in their open natural habitat — is not our issue today.
What caterwauled into our consciousness was the amusement park company’s aggressive, proactive rebuttal of a documentary film released in Los Angeles and New York last week that argued forcefully the black and white mammals are abused.
As The New York Times reported: In an unusual pre-emptive strike on the documentary “Blackfish,” set for release on Friday in New York and Los Angeles by Magnolia Pictures, SeaWorld Entertainment startled the film world last weekend by sending a detailed critique of the movie to about 50 critics who were presumably about to review it. It was among the first steps in an aggressive public pushback against the film, which makes the case, sometimes with disturbing film, that orca whales in captivity suffer physical and mental distress because of confinement.
Certainly this is not the first time a powerful interest, faced with damaging and impactful evidence of wrongdoing in its fundamental mission, struck back. Libel and slander suits get filed. Talking heads rant. Executives go on television to rebut. But it is rare among these strategies that a company launches a pre-emptive strike and tries to document facts it says show its tormentors to be lying, slanted and duplicitous — before the attack launches.
Will SeaWorld prevail? Watch park attendance figures a year from now. But the bet here is that SeaWorld’s proactivity is a much smarter play than sitting back and letting the attackers have their say, unfiltered and weakly rebutted days or weeks later.
In all likelihood, positions on captive orcas hardened years ago and one film — or its rebuttal — won’t change many minds. Already there is a website called www.seaworldofhurt.com that lists “Ten Things You Didn’t Know About SeaWorld.”
When it comes to animal rights, there isn’t a lot of middle ground. PETA, Greenpeace and a host of other organizations do all they can to conflict with and block efforts to take animals out of their natural habitat or otherwise compromise their existence.
On the other hand, the Orland0-based owner of 10 amusement parks nationally saw attendance rise in 2011 by 5.3 percent to 23.6 million. That’s a lot of tickets sold. All those moms and dads with the kids in tow must feel they’re getting a good show and that the ethics of what they’re seeing are acceptable.
Filmmakers often use their medium to try to change perspectives and habits — they might say “educate.” Oliver Stone is a leading film advocate. Ken Burns, while more a documentarian/teacher than advocate, is another. And Michael Moore’s efforts to expose General Motors and his comments about McDonald’s as less than great corporate citizens, have made a name for himself, but probably not hurt sales at those giants.
The temptation and most frequent approach is to wait for the accusations to land and when they start to resonate try to fight back. SeaWorld didn’t wait. The strategy is admirable. Time will tell whether or not it was successful.
The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.