SeaWorld, located in Florida, U.S.A., is home to a 33-year-old killer whale named Tilikum. In 1991, he was responsible for the drowning of Keltie Byrne, a 20-year-old whale trainer employed at SeaWorld. Colin Baird, a fellow trainer, stated “it was an accident” and “it was not a malicious attack.”
Merely eight years later, Daniel Dukes, a homeless man living in the area, was found dead in the whale’s tank. SeaWorld’s official report states Dukes drowned, though many questions surrounding the situation remain unanswered.
In 2010, another death occurred. Dawn Brancheau, a professional whale trainer employed at SeaWorld, drowned; official reports state her hair was caught in the whale’s teeth. However, up to 50 witnesses claim they saw the 12,000 lbs whale bite her shoulder and drag her under the water. Chuck Thompson, the curator of zoological operations, stated Tilikum is “a good animal.”
After three murders, SeaWorld re-evaluated their situation and added safety changes to training procedures as well as protocols for the staff and the audience. Since Dawn’s death in February 2010, the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommended increased safety protocols, though SeaWorld refused to make the changes publically known as the documents contained trade-secrets and are propriety business records. SeaWorld was court-ordered in September 2010 to make their protocol changes public by October 2010, though they’ve still failed to do so.
In terms of public relations, SeaWorld did not handle these situations gracefully. They should have acknowledged the incidents, apologized, and made any changes they initiated public knowledge. A crucial part to good public relations is recognizing when mistakes have been made and letting the public know your plans on reversing the errors. However, SeaWorld did the opposite by covering up the murders, creating elaborate alternative scenarios, blaming the victims and releasing no information.
By doing so, SeaWorld only hurt their reputation. Blackfish, a documentary released in January 2013, exposes the truths behind the Tilikum scandal. The film ranked highest on CNN’s list, and #BlackfishonCNN was a popular trend on Twitter during its opening weekend. Since the release of the documentary, SeaWorld’s revenue has noticeable decreased. They have raised their prices, and a year-to-date report states:
Attendance for the first nine months of 2013 declined by 4.7% compared to the same period in 2012 from 19.9 million to 18.9 million guests. Attendance was impacted by new pricing and yield management strategies implemented at the beginning of 2013 that increased revenue but reduced low yielding and free attendance.
Colleen Gorman, a recent spectator of a Tilikum show, stated “I didn’t see any new protective measures […] he’s a time bomb […] he’s been linked to three deaths already, I’m afraid that if anybody comes close to him he’ll do it again.”
One theory as to why SeaWorld is keeping Tilikum is due to his high source of revenue. He has sired over 54 per cent of the whales living at SeaWorld, and will continue to do so. Fred Jacobs, head of communications for SeaWorld, states “Tilikum is a very even-tempered animal,” despite the three murders. Whether his aggressive nature is biological or environmental is unknown, though SeaWorld projects an image of being more concerned with the revenue he brings rather than the safety of their staff and tourists who come from all over the world to see the large whale.Yet another example of poor public relations strategies coming from the Tilikum scandal on behalf of Sea World is petitions to free the 12,000 lbs whale. The website freetillynow.org uses empathy, intensity, and rational thinking to connect with their audience by sympathizing for the 33-year-old whale who has been confined to a pool since the age of two. The website also uses social media websites to communicate with the public, such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Google Plus and Pinterest.