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SeaWorld's bizarre PR draws more attention to 'Blackfish'

Rule #1 of public relations is if you don’t like what people are saying you should change the conversation. In a strange twist on that strategy SeaWorld Entertainment (SEAS) can’t seem to shut up about a film that’s sharply critical of the company and its practices.

The film, Blackfish, is the story of the tragic death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau who was attacked by an orca whale named Tilikum. Blackfish openly objects to keeping orcas in captivity and features interviews with former SeaWorld trainers. Blackfish also explores the capture of whales in the 1970s and the emotional connections within whale pods and features clips of violent incidents at SeaWorld and unaffiliated parks.

On Thursday SeaWorld delivered a complaint to the Labor Department claiming that an investigator examining the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau had inappropriate ties to animal rights activists and may have leaked confidential information to the makers of Blackfish. The complaint put SeaWorld and the documentary on the front page of the N.Y. Times business section; exactly where the company doesn’t want it to be.

The charges are SeaWorld’s latest salvo in a PR campaign designed to discredit Blackfish as “propaganda” that intentionally manipulates viewers’ emotions. Among the points SeaWorlds makes on its anti-Blackfish website is that the film plays a recording on which an EMT suggests “that Tilikum swallowed Ms. Brancheau’s arm during the incident. This is false.”

Horrible, tragic and deeply disturbing point taken.

The odd thing is that SeaWorld actually seems to be recovering from the controversy on its own. In January the company said park attendance during the 4th quarter rose, reversing a negative trend in the first nine months of the year. The gains came despite Blackfish being seen by more than 21 million people when it was aired on CNN in October.

In terms of PR, SeaWorld’s campaign seems designed to maximize the damage Blackfish can do to the company’s reputation. Now that SeaWorld is public it should follow the example set by fellow theme park and entertainment company Disney (DIS). Plagued for decades by an endless series of bizarre accusations and rumors Disney guards its reputation with the dual strategy of legal aggression and public silence. It’s one reason Disney comes in at #13 on Forbes magazine’s ranking of the most valuable corporate brands. Despite raising prices Disney’s parks were part of strong year of attendance across the industry for almost everywhere except SeaWorld.

Reputation, along with the hit movie Frozen also helps explain why Disney shares have gained more than 45% over the last year while shares of SeaWorld are just about flat since the end of its first day of trading last April.

The tides of history may be working against SeaWorld as people become more aware of the complex social structures and mental capacity of mammals. SeaWorld would be better off extending its brand beyond the use of orcas than it is defending keeping them in captivity. Beyond that and as hard as it may be, when it comes to shareholders the best move for SeaWorld is to take a cue from Frozen and simply "Let it Go."

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