Scott Monty - Strategic Communications & Leadership Advisor

Scott Monty - Strategic Communications & Leadership Advisor

It seems that crisis management has been a hot topic in the news lately. Sports celebrities and major automotive companies are suffering from major hits to their reputation every day in the news. And earlier today, a popular theme park made headlines: SeaWorld experienced a terrible accident when one of its killer whales from the Shamu show attacked and killed one of their most experienced trainers.

Full disclosure: I just visited the park last week and saw the show while I was on vacation, so I felt a personal twinge on hearing the news. In addition, in a when I was with a previous employer, I had an opportunity to go behind the scenes at SeaWorld and to hear about the inner operations of the park. I can understand the devastation that must be rippling across the park staff, as both the trainers and the animals are an integral part of a very unique family there. My thoughts and prayers go out to all involved.

The team at SeaWorld and its associated parks have a solid presence online; a huge portion of their ticket sales are from the web. But outside of a blogger outing through IZEAFest, I hadn't really heard much of their social media efforts. So today, when I saw "SeaWorld" and "Shamu" trending on Twitter, I knew there was probably some unfortunate news behind it.

I'd like to take a look at some of the good things that SeaWorld did in response and some areas that need attention.

The Need for Speed

When a brand is affected by a breaking crisis, the first thing I do is check Twitter. Not just for mentions of the issue, but to see how the company is responding or if it even has an account. And in this case, SeaWorld was covered, as they have an account: @SeaWorld_Parks. As of 11:30 p.m. on February 24, there are 814 followers.

You'll note that one of the most recent updates on their account is a clear statement and link to what they had to say about the crisis:

Within a few hours, the park had updated the blog with an entry "A Message from Jim Atchison, President and Chief Executive Officer, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment" that acknowledged the tragedy and put a human feel to the statement:

February 24, 2010
It is with great sadness that I report that one of our most experienced animal trainers drowned in an incident with one of our killer whales this afternoon, February 24, 2010 at our SeaWorld Orlando park.
We have initiated an investigation to determine, to the extent possible, what occurred. There are no other details to share at this point, but we will make our findings known in due course.
I must emphasize that this is an extraordinarily difficult time for the SeaWorld parks, and our team members.
Nothing is more important than the safety of our employees, guests and the animals entrusted to our care. All of our standard operating procedures will come under review as part of the investigation.
We extend our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of the trainer and will do everything possible to assist them in this difficult time.
We appreciate everyone’s understanding and will share more information as it becomes known and available.
Any time a crisis hits, it's a good idea for a company to have a hub where information can be posted quickly to address misinformation, provide clarity, and exhibit some semblance of control over the situation. In today's world, there's no time for weeks or even days of war gaming and message creation. Companies need to be prepared to act within a matter of hours, if not more quickly.

Fortunately, SeaWorld maintains a blog at SeaWorldParksBlog.com and has been actively blogging since September of 2009. So they've already established themselves in this space, rather than waiting for a crisis to hit to create a blog. By updating that blog with timely & relevant information, they were able to reassure the public, which is especially important at a time rumors and conflicting reports are floating around. And with an associated Twitter account, they can continue to share information.

In addition, SeaWorld has used its Facebook page to post the message from Mr. Atchison as well as to announce the incident:

But there's a little more going on here that deserves some consideration.

Not So Fast

While it's great that SeaWorld has a Twitter account and Facebook page (as well as a YouTube & Flickr account), there are a few things that are worth addressing. The first is that it's probably a good idea to get more interactive with the Twitter account (although I'll admit it may be too early yet, as information and relevant facts are still coming in). But clearly, with SeaWorld being a trending topic, there's a reason to at least acknowledge some of the concerns.

Next is the inevitability of animal rights activists who will come of of the woodwork to criticize SeaWorld for keeping animals in captivity. Based on my experience behind the scenes at the park, I know SeaWorld is very sensitive to such criticism and I can say that they're absolutely committed to caring for these animals and treating them humanely. Nothing could be more important to the staff there. However, when online activists really want to make a firestorm out of something, they certainly can. And the park staff should be prepared for that. As we can see, they already had to take action on Facebook:

Also, it's important to note that there's a second Twitter account associated with SeaWorld - in fact, it's actively promoted by the park on their home page: the @Shamu account. This was formerly the @RealShamu account, but they must have acquired the @Shamu name since the account was created. Here's a shot of their Twitter page:

It's not your typical account, as Shamu seems to have a bit of an attitude. One of his tweets from nearly a year ago reads:

Now, I get that they're trying to take on the persona of the whale, but seeing that you're dealing with an animal that is in close proximity to humans on a regular basis, I would think the team might want to take a little bit of the "killer" out of the killer whale.

Similarly, notice this back and forth between @Shamu and a follower, as recently as 5 days ago:

 With over 9,800 followers on the @Shamu account - more than 10 times the amount on @SeaWorld_Parks, one would think that this would be the place for updates to be taking place. However, SeaWorld has kind of painted themselves into a corner here. Because they've used a persona and because the physical manifestation of that persona (the actual whale) was involved in the incident, one of the most popular social media channels of the park is unable to be activated.

At the very least, if I were managing the account, I would consider going back and remove any references to violence in the stream, out of respect for the victim. While that may violate the tenet of keeping conversations whole on the social web, it does show a sensitivity to this very regrettable circumstance.

In short, it's important to have a crisis preparedness plan and a rapid response strategy in place, using the tools that effectively allow a company to get messages in place and respond where the conversations are happening. And as channels are being created, it's important to understand the implications of potential negative stories and how those channels might be affected. In a crisis, a popular channel that needs to be silenced is of no use to anyone.

UPDATE: Please be sure to check the comments below. They include a great back-and-forth discussion between readers, as well as a post from someone at SeaWorld's digital marketing staff that includes information on how they're handling things.