Long-time SeaWorld CEO, Jim Atchison, announced that January 15, 2015 will be his last day on the job. The company celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2014 and continues to operate 11 theme parks across the United States—but it’s been a rough two years.
Third quarter earnings dropped by 28 percent from the previous year, park attendance suffered, their stock plummeted, and layoffs have already begun as the company seeks to cut spending by $50 million by 2015.
Crashing public opinion is a major factor in this downfall—and the backlash from the 2013 documentary, Blackfish, is taking the brunt of credit. The film examines the consequences of captivity on Orca whales and the tragic death of trainer Dawn Brancheau; SeaWorld is the clear antagonist.
The documentary’s jarring footage of mothers and calves forcefully separated, guilt-ridden trainers turned dedicated activists, and responses from SeaWorld representatives that appear to be callous corporate cover-ups has sparked a surge of protests against the company.
Atchison stepping down as CEO signifies a significant shift for SeaWorld. But is it a big enough change to reclaim the public’s trust?
SeaWorld’s certainly banking on it. Analysts predict that the company will seek a new CEO better equipped to handle the company’s “public-relations problems.” This is not altogether surprising, considering the past two years won’t get SeaWorld any PR awards.
SeaWorld waited six months after Blackfish premiered at Sundance to respond, and when they did, it wasn’t pretty. By bashing the film for inaccuracies and manipulation, calling Blackfish “propaganda” created by “animal rights activists whose agenda the film’s many falsehoods were designed to advance,” SeaWorld effectively threw gasoline on the fire. The company also announced an upgrade to killer whale tanks and pledged to give $10 million to research and programs for oceanic health, but these acts were seen as too little, too late.
The director of the film, Gabriela Cowperthwait, said, “I do appreciate the fact that SeaWorld is willing to admit that something is wrong, for the first time…But the problem is, instead of changing their business model, they’re doubling down.”
Interestingly, Cowperthwait’s words seem to amplify SeaWorld’s own message. In a statement regarding Atchison’s departure, chairman of the board and interim CEO, David F. D’Alessandro, said the board shows “ongoing support for our long-term strategy.”
Even if Blackfish does push a biased agenda, the damage is done and the road to rebuilding is long. And a PR-friendly CEO may not be enough. In fact, Edelman reports that only one in four General Public respondents trust business leaders to correct issues and even fewer—one in five— to tell the truth and make ethical and moral decisions. Battling negative press and incensed public opinion takes more than a new face in the corner office; it takes a public and genuine shift in corporate strategy and policy.
In September of 2013, the president of Barilla, the Italian pasta company, said he wouldn’t use same-sex couples in advertising because he preferred “traditional” families. Of course, there was a public apology. Of course, there was a reassurance of respect. Of course, this wasn’t enough. Fast-forward 10 months, and Barilla has been awarded perfect scores by the Human Rights Campaign in eight categories evaluating employers on creating LGBT-friendly workplaces.
Or, take the responses of Apple and Facebook to the negative publicity against the entire technology industry. Sexism in tech has been a huge topic in 2014, specifically regarding corporate policies that discriminate, even if unintentionally, against women and inhibit the opportunity to rise as high or higher than their male counterparts. In response, Facebook and Apple said they’d pay for their female employees to freeze their eggs, so women don’t have to choose between advancing their careers or starting a family.
Neither of these examples are perfect solutions to big problems. But they signify a dedication to change, not just a strategic PR move. SeaWorld’s future CEO may recognize the difference, and in the meantime, perhaps larger tanks will be big enough to keep the bad press at bay.