Woods, Chelsea L. (2018). “Are your tanks filled with orca tears?”: Crisis frames and message convergence in SeaWorld’s tanked Twitter campaign. Corporate Reputation Review, 21(1), 9–21. doi:10.1057/s41299-017-0039-y
The death of a whale trainer at its Orlando park in 2010 and the subsequent 2013 documentary Blackfish incited a host of problems for SeaWorld, from dwindling attendance and stock prices to growing anti-zoo sentiment led by groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). In March 2015, SeaWorld answered with a $10 million reputation campaign, including a digital component that encouraged individuals ask questions or share concerns by tweeting @SeaWorld or using #AskSeaWorld. The entertainment company proclaimed it wanted to combat misperceptions about its treatment of animals, establish transparency, and hold a conversation with publics about its practices. The approach backfired when animal rights activists hijacked #AskSeaWorld, successfully steering the conversation into a value-laden discussion of SeaWorld’s practices that gained national media attention. This study examines how SeaWorld, PETA, and the media framed the campaign and the extent to which each party’s message aligned or differed. The findings illustrate the difficulties that organizations face when publicly responding to contested issues, particularly on social media.
To examine how SeaWorld, PETA, and the media portrayed the event, this case study analyzed data from multiple sources. Organizational documents pertaining to the #AskSeaWorld campaign were retrieved from SeaWorld (n = 7) and PETA’s (n = 4) websites. Media coverage was culled from Google News (n = 66) and Access World News (n = 13). Ten Facebook posts and 378 tweets from SeaWorld, as well as five Facebook posts and 81 tweets from PETA, were also included. The timeframe for data collection began the day SeaWorld introduced the hashtag (March 23, 2015) and ended the last day it was mentioned by SeaWorld or PETA (April 28, 2015). An interview was also conducted with a PETA spokesperson.
- During the campaign, SeaWorld focused on justifying its activities by dispelling activists’ accusations about its standards of animal care and bolstering its credibility by emphasizing its conservation work. PETA continued to accuse SeaWorld of animal mistreatment and emphasized the company’s ongoing public relations and financial struggles.
- SeaWorld asserted that “trolls” obstructed its conversation with publics by spamming the social media campaign. PETA claimed that SeaWorld failed to recognize that public opinion shifted against the company, and several activists claimed that SeaWorld blocked them on social media.
- PETA’s spokesperson explained activists commandeered the hashtag without prompting from the activist organization, although PETA later amplified efforts by encouraging its supporters to ask questions while using #AskSeaWorld, along with #SeaWorldSucks and #EmptyTheTanks.
- Many of the media reports favored PETA’s perspective; news articles often criticized SeaWorld’s decision to use the “ask me anything” approach, questioned the sincerity of the company’s desire hold an online conversation, raised questions about the values of zoo-like organizations, and deemed the campaign a public relations fiasco.
- SeaWorld’s campaign generated little media attention before animal rights activists hijacked the hashtag. The company’s attempt to publicly resolve an issue inadvertently heightened its own reputational struggles by drawing negative attention.
Implications for Practice
This case study depicts how activists can use social media to scan for issues and capitalize on opportunities to publicly challenge organizational policies and reputations. Practitioners should cautiously devise issue response strategies and be aware of public opinion regarding an issue before addressing it on social media. Likewise, practitioners should consider the risks inherent in an online question-and-answer session as this strategy offers critics a platform from which they can voice their criticisms. When dealing with activists, practitioners may be better served to engage in discussions offline rather than in a public forum. Finally, should practitioners choose to hold an online conversation, they must remain dedicated to engaging in dialogue, even with those who may disagree, or risk appearing disingenuous.
The article is available at https://rdcu.be/NYv0