Blogger: Sarah Hansen (Space Coast Chapter)
Dillin Keynote Address: Rescue, Rehab & Release: Communicating a Purpose-Driven Brand in Controversy
Presented by: Jill Kermes, Chief Corporate Affairs Officer, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment
In a moving Dillan Keynote Address Communicating a Purpose-Driven Brand in Controversy, Jill Kermes shared the challenges SeaWorld faced after the film Blackfish aired on CNN, what changes the company made following the controversy and why communication matters more than anything.
Jill was thrown into the Blackfish controversy immediately upon accepting her position as Chief Corporate Affairs Officer at the well-known facility. The passion Jill has for SeaWorld and its animals was evident as she told the crowd three facts about the organization that many people may not know:
- Largest rescuer of animals in the U.S.
- Conducts and publishes animal research studies.
Funds animal conservation projects on every continent.
Not surprisingly, the press hasn’t covered these facts recently. In fact, the negative exposure SeaWorld experienced in the past years has overshadowed the company’s mission.
Changing Public Attitudes: SeaWorld initially taught the general public about Orcas, which led to Orcas becoming a beloved animal.
“SeaWorld created a movement and needed to keep up with the changed mindsets,”
Since, millennials were becoming the mainstream generation, their opinion of SeaWorld had a major effect. According to research:
- 78% want to learn something new when they travel.
90% will likely switch brands (even with the same price/quality) if it supports a cause.
92% of millennial moms want to buy a product that supports a cause.
65% households have a pet.
Negative Campaigning Against Our Brand: During the controversy, advertising against SeaWorld became reflective of negative political campaigns. The film Blackfish was created by animal activists who had been against them for years. Despite being riddled with errors, it resonated with the general public and they began to see opinions change. Getting it on Netflix was a smart move, since it reached a broader customer marketplace. As a result, they began seeing a lot of the negativity on social channels.
“Corporate brands cannot defend their brand by running a negative campaign against the activists.”
Social media, advertising and PR were not enough: At first, SeaWorld focused on unscripted, organic videos and blogs to respond to the negative exposure. They wanted their voice to be heard and to spread a positive story. However, this wasn’t making much of a difference. They also faced the issue of many blogs being published to major media outlets (i.e. Huffington Post) without being asked to comment.
Finally in 2015, they moved to paid media, because they wanted to make sure opinion leaders had the details of their message. Data began to show they were moving the needle on public opinion, but when the ads went down, so did the positive support.
Solution: Creating & Telling Your Own Story.
In the wise words of Don Draper from Mad Men, “If you don’t like what’s being said, then change the conversation.”
SeaWorld realized that they needed to listen to the public and make major changes.
“It was at this point,” Jill expressed emotionally, “that we announced we would not breed Orca Whales at SeaWorld anymore.”
They also announced they would change theatrical performances to a more engaging and informative documentary-style experience with the Orcas. In the same breath, they announced they were partnering with the Humane Society to focus on important issues including commercial whaling and the drastic loss of sharks in our oceans.
Being Heard: and moving public opinion. Once the barrier of Orcas was removed, people began changing their minds in a positive way about SeaWorld. In studies they conducted following the announcement, they found that 81% of millennials and 87% of California elites were favorable to SeaWorld. From there, their reputation continued to improve.
Why communication matters more than ever:
Communications both internally and externally is vital to an organization. Jill clarified that it’s dialogue vs. monologue. In other words, we need to humanize communications coming from a company. It needs be a two-way street!
What can you do?
Listen to the survey research and react to the public. In SeaWorld’s situation, they had to understand how the public attitudes were changing and then make adjustments to let them know they were listening.
In order to understand public opinion and tell our company stories, professional communicators should have a seat and be consulted along the way of decision making. And sometimes, we need to respond with actions not just slogans.
Jill Kermes has a background in political and corporate litigations communications and crisis management. She served as Jeb Bush’s communications director during his time as governor, and worked in the D.C. offices of Ketchum and Public Strategies (now Hill & Knowlton Strategies). She was vice president of brand and corporate communications for Volkswagen of America, as well as the primary spokesperson for Bridgestone during the company’s high-profile tire recall. She is from Safety Harbor, Florida, and graduated from American University.