SeaWorld’s Effective Social Media Strategy in Handling their “Killer Whale” Crisis

In February 2010 during a performance at SeaWorld, killer whale Tilikum grabbed seasoned trainer Dawn Brancheau by the ponytail and pulled her underwater, killing her in front of a live audience.  Brancheau was loved by those who worked with her and was one of only a dozen trainers at SeaWorld allowed to work with Tilikum, the largest, most temperamental whale in the park.  The story spread like wildfire and live videos were posted on YouTube and other news channels after being sent in by audience members.

SeaWorld representatives immediately responded to the crisis by using social media with a tweet and post on Facebook, acknowledging to the public that they are aware of what happened and are responding to it.  The company knew there would be extensive media coverage on an incident like this and made sure to face the media head on rather than ducking the attention.  The head trainer at the park was made available for public questioning about the training and care of the performing whales.  SeaWorld also canceled upcoming whale shows and deactivated it’s light-hearted, related Twitter account “belonging” to Shamu, a visual icon of the park.

Both SeaWorld President Dan Brown and CEO Jim Atchison spoke with the media in post-attack press conferences, further utilizing the crisis management strategy of “transparency” discussed in Amy Neumann’s Huffington Post article “5 Steps for Crisis Management Utilizing Social Media.”  According to Neumann, it’s important to “acknowledge the hardship” and make public updates as real-time as possible in order to give people the real story and provide answers, rather than avoiding the media hoopla.

The positive reputation SeaWorld had earned throughout its years of operation came to the aid of the company when negative comments were being posted on their Facebook page in the wake of this tragedy.  Statements like “Stop making money off of exploiting animals!! Free the whales!” were not acknowledged by SeaWorld representatives but instead by loyal supporters coming to the defense of the company.  According to a SunSentinel article on the incident, this reaction was “the best of what a company can expect from social media: building customer relationships and earning brand loyalty” – two things that prove to be in a brand’s favor during crisis communication.

By: Claudia Pitarque

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