On 15th July, Richard Branson announced in a blog that Virgin Media will no longer sell tickets to see captive cetaceans. The blog stated: “For all of us at Virgin, the announcement marks the most significant milestone yet on a five-year journey to drive positive change in the tourism industry.”
Virgin Media began withdrawing from its associations with sea mammal shows in July 2014 – but this latest announced marks the final severance with Seaworld and similar attractions. Instead, Virgin has pledged to support whale and dolphin sanctuaries, and to partner with the World Cetacean Alliance to build links with responsible wildlife watching boat operators.
“Ultimately,” the blog said, “Virgin Holidays plans to offer customers a world class, wild whale and dolphin tour portfolio meeting the highest ethical standards for the animals while creating a richer animal encounter experience for customers.”
Seaworld said in response: “SeaWorld said: “Virgin’s own corporate mission is having a measurable purpose that positively impacts communities and the environment. SeaWorld is the epitome of that mission.”
The withdrawal of Virgin is only the latest in a long series of blows for Seaworld. Thomas Cook axed their trips to the marine parks in July 2018 following widespread animal welfare concerns. But Seaworld’s financial and PR woes go deeper than the loss of individual partnerships. Fundamentally, Seaworld has never recovered from the explosive release of Blackfish.
Blackfish is a notorious documentary, which first played in cinemas in July 2013 before later airing on CNN and Netflix, included testimonial accounts from several Seaworld trainers about alleged animal abuse at the water parks. Even further, Blackfish recounts an orca named Tilikum’s involvement in the death of three people – and how the circumstances surrounding those deaths were covered up.
Seaworld’s reputation took an immediate dive following the viral popularity of Blackfish. The company has been on PR high alert ever since – occasionally managing a spike in approval, as with the appointment of Joel Manby as CEO in April 2015 – but seems to inevitably trip itself up and land in regular PR disasters.
For example, public opinion of Seaworld plummeted again in July 2015 when PETA exposed one of its campaigners as a Seaworld spy. Paul McComb, a Seaworld employee who joined the animal rights group under the name Thomas Jones, was revealed to have joined PETA in order to report back on anti-Seaworld campaigns and to encourage other PETA members to commit illegal acts.
Seaworld CEO Joel Manby denied knowledge of Paul MacComb’s actions and claimed they were contrary to Seaworld’ principles.
Many of Seaworld’s rating bumps have come from its association with Sesame Street. In May 2018, Seaworld first announced a collaboration with the popular children’s show via the installation of Sesame Street Land in Seaworld Orlando. It has not proved enough, however, to restore Seaworld’s public opinion ratings to their pre-Blackfish level.
Seaworld’s truest problem is that the company continues to operate on antiquated cultural values. Yes, there are still plenty of excited tourists coming through the doors. But numbers have been on a steady decline and moves like Virgin’s withdrawal will certainly not help matters. Consumer are losing patience with overt corporate corruption and greed – only companies which can prove their worth and their values in the context of political instability, resource scarcity and a climate emergency have a truly sustainable business model for the coming decades.
It stands to reason – the process of companies proving their values will include vetting suppliers and business partnerships. ‘Old world’ firms like Seaworld, which stand by an outdated perception of business that puts profit above all else, will find themselves increasingly left out in the cold.