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SeaWorld faces public relations challenge in wake of trainer's orca death

February 26, 2010 | 12:22 pm

Chuck Tompkins, right, corporate curator Zoological Operations at all SeaWorld Parks, talks to the media Thursday

MIAMI — After decades of cultivating a corporate image around one of the ocean's greatest predators, SeaWorld managers must reassure visitors that a killer whale's fatal mauling of its trainer doesn't mean the parks aren't safe.

Veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau, 40, was killed Wednesday by the killer whale Tilikum in front of a horrified audience at the close of the lunchtime show. SeaWorld has halted Shamu shows at the Orlando theme park and at sister parks in San Antonio and San Diego while it reviews the death.

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 Co., 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 news conference. Orlando SeaWorld President Dan Brown did not immediately correct a sheriff's department 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.

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."

-- Associated Press

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Photo: Chuck Tompkins, right, corporate curator of zoological operations for SeaWorld, talks to the media on Thursday. Credit: Red Huber / McClatchy Tribune News Service

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