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How Harry Potter and Harry Styles gave SeaWorld bad press – and the firm’s plans to cope

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Credit Suisse analysts said it had begun to look like the aquatic theme park’s brand was beginning to turn a corner after the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which had arguably started the company’s downfall. It detailed claims that its abuse of orca whales had provoked violent behaviour, and contributed to the deaths of three people.  

Whatever traction it had gained since the release of the documentary, Credit Suisse said, was lost at the end of 2014 due to competition. Disney had opened a Harry Potter-themed park, and gained far more visitors than was expected. According to experts, customers are less inclined to return after a company has shown that it lacks moral values.

During an earnings call, former CEO Jim Atchison had attributed the falling attendance at SeaWorld to “competitive pressures in the US.” When asked directly about the Harry Potter park, Atchison admitted the opening had hurt SeaWorld.

According to Credit Suisse: “We believe two events were the main contributors to the recent negative commentary and bad press. Namely, 1) allegations that a SeaWorld employee acted as an undercover member of activist group PETA and 2) One Direction singer Harry Styles urging all of his fans to boycott SeaWorld during a concert in San Diego.”

“Does anybody like dolphins?” Styles had asked fans. He followed the question up by telling them: “Don’t go to SeaWorld.” This resulted in a Twitter storm, which included Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams.

The analysts said they planned on asking SeaWorld’s management how they intended to restore the company’s brand. They said they would be “looking for colour around the recent setbacks following negative headlines and any nuggets around turnaround strategy”.

SeaWorld CEO, Joel Manby – who joined four months ago – intends to launch a brand-rehabilitation campaign in November after reports showed an 84 per cent collapse in profits in August. The company will launch TV and print ads featuring veterinarians and researchers discussing the company’s treatment of the whales, it said in a press release. It will also set up a website called AskSeaWorld.com, which it said would try to set the record straight on the negative information that has been publicised about SeaWorld.

Manby said: “We realise we have much work ahead of us to recover more of our attendance base, increase revenue and improve our performance as returning to historical performance levels will take time and investment. On the reputation side, early feedback on our campaign has been positive. However, we recognise that fully resolving our brand challenges will require sustained focus and commitment to correct misinformation.

David Kirby, author of the book Death at SeaWorld, which chronicled the 2010 death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, suggested that SeaWorld will struggle on for many years.

He said: “Once public perception starts shifting about a company it’s very hard to turn that shift around. I think they have a challenge ahead of them. I don’t think any amount of advertising can turn that around completely.”

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