For months, people have wondered if Blackfish — the amazing, award-winning, depressing-as-hell documentary about chronic mistreatment of orca whales at SeaWorld's amusement parks — would have an effect on SeaWorld's bottom line. At first, SeaWorld's PR machine adopted the say-nothing strategy, figuring the controversy would blow over. Then it began an aggressive campaign to discredit the film, with slogans like "The Truth About Blackfish," while insisting to investors — the people who really matter, that is — that all was fine. "We can see no noticeable impact on our business,” CEO Jim Atchison said in March. Incredibly, Atchison even hinted that Blackfish had been good for SeaWorld: “The movie in some ways has actually made perhaps more interest in marine mammal parks and actually even about us."
Today, SeaWorld changed course, and admitted, finally, that the backlash is taking a toll after all.
SeaWorld's stock is plummeting more than 20 percent today, after quarterly earnings that showed shrinking revenue and lowered guidance for next quarter. In today's press release, SeaWorld admitted for the first time that Blackfish may be hurting attendance, blaming people skipping their parks owing to "recent media attention surrounding proposed legislation in the state of California."
That legislation, the "Orca Welfare Safety Act," has been tabled while further studies are conducted. So SeaWorld isn't in immediate danger of losing its money-minting orca shows just yet. But the backlash shows no signs of subsiding. And if SeaWorld refuses to reform its practices and end orca shows, it could find itself in the shoes once occupied by industries like Big Tobacco — which remained enormously profitable even as its public image was being attacked, then woke up years later to find that, actually, all those anti-smoking ad campaigns had made a mark.
SeaWorld has shown it can play defense in the face of a PR crisis. Now the question is whether it's taking seriously the long-term threat of a generation of kids thinking it's more concerned about its profits than the welfare of its whales.