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SeaWorld faces major public relations challenge

SeaWorld's online pitch for its Dine With Shamu show: "Be part of an up-close and unforgettable adventure!"
Image: SeaWorld performance
Tillikum, a killer whale at SeaWorld amusement park, performs during the show "Believe" in Orlando, September 3.Mathieu Belanger / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

SeaWorld's online pitch for its Dine With Shamu show: "Be part of an up-close and unforgettable adventure!"

Those words have taken on unintended and ominous meaning after the death of veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau at the Orlando theme park. Brancheau, 40, was killed Wednesday at the close of the lunchtime show by the killer whale Tilikum in front of a horrified audience.

Now the company must reassure visitors the park and its sister locations in San Diego and San Antonio are still places where they can enjoy a family friendly day. Marketing and public relations experts say what the company does in coming days will be key to preserving its image.

Glenn Bunting, managing director for the Los Angeles-based crisis management firm Sitrick and Company said SeaWorld needs to respond promptly and proactively.

"They need to review every safety precaution," he said. "They need to explain how it happened, why it happened and make sure it doesn't happen again to reassure the public."

The company stumbled during its first post-attack press conference. Orlando SeaWorld President Dan Brown did not immediately correct a sheriff's spokesman who said Brancheau accidentally fell into the water, and Brown himself said only that she "drowned in an incident with one of our killer whales."

SeaWorld acknowledged two hours later that Tilikum had grabbed Brancheau by her ponytail and yanked her into the water. The park then made its head animal trainer available to the media to explain and defend its methods of training and maintaining its whales.

Larry L. Smith, president of the Institute for Crisis Management, in Louisville, Ky., defended SeaWorld's response.

"They've not overreacted. They've not gone into a stall. They're not ducking the media," he said. And, he said, they had the advantage that the attack occurred the same day the head of Toyota testified before Congress about his own company's public relations crisis and broke down crying.

Smith said the attack could actually drive up attendance of at least one demographic — teens and young adults.

"It's not going to draw families necessarily or older people who would typically visit there, but there is an age group that gets excited about the risks and the potential for drama and it may attract some of those folks," he said.

Peter Yesawich, chairman of Ypartnership, an Orlando marketing firm that specializes in travel and entertainment, said SeaWorld enjoys a reputation as a family friendly and animal friendly company, which should help it recover from the crisis. In Florida, its veterinarians have been known to respond to cases of injured marine animals in the wild.

Yesawich said SeaWorld also showed responsibility by shutting down its killer whale shows until it can assess what happened. And fatal accidents at other theme parks — such as last summer's Disney World monorail crash that killed the ride's operator — don't stop the public from attending.

"It's one of these tragic, unpredictable instances that I personally don't think is going to do any long-term damage to the SeaWorld brand," he said.

Denise DeVore, 36, a photographer from Beacon, N.Y., visited the park with her 3-year-old daughter Wednesday and said she felt it was safe for the public. DeVore said she thinks SeaWorld plays an important role in educating people about marine life.

But will she return?

She echoed several other parents who were torn, though not because of the attack.

"The question is should we have whales in captivity? These are wild animals," DeVore said, adding, "But my daughter loves those dolphins."