SeaWorld Steals a Page from the Scientology Playbook

by on April 2, 2015 · 8 comments

in California, Culture, Economy, Environment, Media, Ocean Beach, Organizing, Politics, San Diego

Pink Protest Poster

… And Meanwhile Easter Sunday SeaWorld Protest Gains Momentum

By Doug Porter

A book tour by a former SeaWorld trainer critical of the company’s treatment of Orcas has led to the theme park releasing a five year old cell phone video depicting the author using racial slurs during a drunken conversation.

Critics of SeaWorld are saying this action is just another example of a sub rosa campaign by a company seeking to defend itself against charges that it mistreats the animals it keeps in captivity. The company saw one million fewer customers in 2014 as compared to the previous year.

While the latest move by SeaWorld had led La Jolla’s Warwick’s bookstore to cancel a signing event for “Beneath the Surface” author John Hargrove, it appears to have energized protesters organizing an Easter Sunday demonstration at the company’s Mission Bay location.

The thinking behind the release of the damning video is reminiscent of the tactics utilized by the Church of Scientology revealed this past weekend in a blockbuster HBO documentary by Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney, “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, Critics of the cultish group are subjected to ad hominem attacks in an attempt to discourage them from going public, according to that account.

The Pushback Over Blackfish

SeaWorld’s problems began two years ago with the release of Blackfish at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. The documentary gained a wide audience following its broadcast on CNN in November of that year.

orca-graphic-500pxFrom Buzzfeed:

CNN’s first airing of Blackfish on Oct. 24 swept every major demographic under the age of 55 watching TV that night. It also played in theaters across the country beginning in July. And since the film was released on Netflix on Dec. 13, it has been reviewed by nearly 600,000 users, earning a perfect five-star rating and making it one of Netflix’s most popular programs.

Now, Blackfish has been shortlisted for an Oscar nomination.

That’s a lot of media attention, which has required a lot of public relations pushback.

In addition to the normal rash of press releases (including this open letter published in several major newspapers) and photo opportunities, SeaWorld has allegedly worked to game the system in a more underhanded way.

On Dec. 31, The Orlando Business Journal polled its readers, asking whether “CNN’s Blackfish documentary changed [their] perception of SeaWorld?” On Thursday, the returns were quite unusual, with 99% of respondents claiming that the film had done nothing to alter their opinion of the park. The newspaper investigated, and found that a single IP address was responsible for delivering 54% of the votes. The IP, it turned out, belonged to and SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment.

Since then two dozen companies have either ended or diminished their relationships and a host of top name entertainers have announced they are refusing to play at facilities run by the entertainment company.

A Two Pronged Campaign

sw twitIn recent weeks the company has engaged in a two-pronged campaign. SeaWorld been pushing ads and social media efforts including the website “SeaWorld Cares,” including a “You Ask, We Answer” feature with SeaWorld veterinarians and trainers answering questions about killer whales, dolphins and other animals in its care. The company is also inviting the public to pose queries on Twitter.

It has also decided to characterize all its critics as being associated with the animal rights group PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), an effort likely to have influenced a recent UT-San Diego editorial.

We’re glad to hear SeaWorld is fighting back against PETA with an advertising campaign that provides a more accurate view of how it operates.

The SeaWorld Cares campaign hasn’t quite worked out the way the company hoped it would. A UT story described the reaction on twitter as a “shark tank full of vitriol and criticism.”

Alan Griswald at Slate:

I emailed SeaWorld to ask who at the company had dreamt up the #AskSeaWorld part of the new campaign; so far, no one’s responded. Meanwhile, the company’s PR team is clearly having a tough time. “We are trying to answer your questions but we have a few thousand trolls and bots to weed through,” SeaWorld’s main account tweeted, with a somewhat-disturbing GIF of a baby attached. Before that: “Jacking hashtags is so 2014. #bewareoftrolls” with a decidedly creepy GIF of a masked man frantically typing at a laptop, and “No time for bots and bullies.”

Let’s be honest: This is all a very bad idea. The “haters gonna hate strategy” is never particularly effective when you’re a brand under fire, and while puppies might help, weird GIFs don’t do much for the cause. So maybe SeaWorld’s social and PR folks just really have no idea what they’re doing. Even so, you’d think they’d have learned from the corporate failures before them. Twitter Q&As are a terrible idea. A well-meaning hashtag gives critics an easy way to assemble and voice their complaints in a public forum. Why companies still try them is a great mystery. Maybe they’ll all finally learn from SeaWorld and give this one horrible PR trick up for good.

Here’s how SeaWorld’s release of the video was described at KPBS:

beneath-the-surfaceHargrove was scheduled to discuss his book on Wednesday’s KPBS Midday Edition, but his publicist on Tuesday afternoon canceled his appearance.

Prior to Hargrove’s cancellation on Midday, SeaWorld’s vice president of communications, Fred Jacobs, emailed the video to KPBS that he says the company received from an “internal whistleblower.”

UPDATE: Hargrove did, after all, call-in to Midday Edition. SeaWorld was offered the opportunity to have somebody on the show, but did not respond beyond the statement below. Here’s a link to the audio of the show.

“I understand that you are planning to report on John Hargrove’s book this week. As we have said all along, ‘Blackfish’ star John Hargrove, has repeatedly provided statements that are misleading, false or in conflict with statements he has made previously,” Jacobs said in the email. “As someone who might report on Mr. Hargrove and his book, ‘Beneath the Surface,’ we believe it is important that you see this video we received just this weekend from an internal whistleblower. We are offended by John’s behavior and language. The video is particularly reprehensible since John Hargrove is wearing a SeaWorld shirt. SeaWorld would have terminated Hargrove’s employment immediately had we known he engaged in this kind of behavior.”

Another way to look at this could be, as one commenter at UT-San Diego noted, “SeaWorld is trying to demonstrate that it hires racist alcoholics?”

The man at the center of this controversy, John Hargrove, spoke to the Times of San Diego prior to the disclosure of the video, saying he’d been threatened (the company has denied this allegation) if the book was published.

daily show…Hargrove, who worked at SeaWorld San Diego from 1995 to 2001, accuses the parent company of trying to silence him via legal threats starting in November and as recently as a couple of months ago — “that if we didn’t stop [with release plans], they would file an injunction to stop the book, which they never did.”

…The issue of coordinated attacks was raised by Jon Stewart last Thursday, when he told guest Hargrove: “We have never had a Twitter response aimed at us [like this],” noting how people were tweeting “Don’t trust this guy. He’s a liar.”

Stewart noted (to laughs) that the tweets were “mainly from SeaWorld Twitter handle addresses.”

(The Times of San Diego coverage of this issue is extensive and well worth a complete reading beyond these quotes.)

And then there’s this tidbit from the Orlando Sentinel:

An attorney for Hargrove, Steve Berman, said last week SeaWorld sent a “threatening letter” about the book; Berman did not give details. A lawsuit Berman’s firm filed last week against SeaWorld on behalf of consumers says that Eric Davis, editor of, sent a threatening email to Hargrove.

“Hey John, Just your friendly AwesomeOcean guy Eric here!” the email says, according to the lawsuit. “Just wanted to drop you a line and let you know that some journalist [sic] are digging DEEP into your past. They have some crazy stuff that is ready to drop when your book drops.”

Easter Sunday SeaWorld Protest Gains Momentum

The UT-San Diego story on SeaWorld’s release of the video ends by questioning whether it’s release was a good idea.

It’s unclear how much impact the Hargrove video will have on the public’s perception of SeaWorld.

In the marketing world, SeaWorld’s decision to release the Hargrove video could be either seen as a smart strategic move to dismiss its latest critic or a serious misstep that could backfire.

“This is very much hardball, it’s a very risky strategy, but their business is at stake,” said Miro Copic, a marketing professor at San Diego State. “None of this stuff is going to go away. Every earnings report they’re under a microscope, new CEO or no new CEO. They’ve made a conscious decision to be assertive because they believe that some of their foes aren’t playing fair.”

A protest set for Sunday at SeaWorld (Facebook page) has gained additional media coverage as a result of the company’s attack on Hargrove. Last year’s Easter Sunday demonstration at SeaWorld was one of their better efforts, according to activist I spoke with.

From the Times of San Diego:

Easter SW ProtestOrganizer Ellen Ericksen, who appeared on three San Diego newscasts Tuesday night, accused SeaWorld of a “smear campaign” when it released a 5-minute video of former senior trainer Hargrove using the N-word seven times during a phone chat.

The nearly 5-year-old video was disseminated Tuesday by SeaWorld as the New York-based Hargrove was making a West Coast swing on his tour promoting “Beneath the Surface,” his week-old book critical of SeaWorld’s treatment of killer whales.

Ericksen said on Facebook late Tuesday night that “I just got off the phone with John and he truly apologizes that he will not be in San Diego. It is out of his control. Just know that he appreciates everyone’s well wishes and wants us all to continue to support him no matter where he is.”


This is an excerpt from Doug Porter’s column at our online media partner, San Diego Free Press.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

john April 2, 2015 at 10:43 am

(Noting the somewhat gloating way the parks dropping attendance figurea were mentioned)
Can the author or anyone else provide a realistic, serious scenario of how Sea World’s captive orcas will see an improved future when the stated goal of many activists, the bankruptcy of Sea World inc., is finally realized?
Ive asked this of many in other forums so anticipate several varieties of responses.
“The orcas will be released and like Willy live happily ever after.”
“We dont REALLY want to bankrupt them. Thats not our goal.”
(Presumably they want to put them on the brink to scare them into finding a conscience, abandoning their orca and dolphin and sea lion captivity prograns and the renaining exhibits will fund costly sea tank programs with all those park attendees flocking once again…to see a tank of starfish.
“Well so what if they all ended up on the menu of a Tokyo restaurant in a week. Its sea worlds fault.”


Marc Snelling April 3, 2015 at 5:24 am

I dont think the goal is to bankrupt SeaWorld it is to pressure them to change their business model. To stop captive breeding programs and stop stealing these creatures from the oceans. SeaWorld and its corporate masters are the ones motivated by profit, and because activists want to influence them, profit becomes relevant.


john April 3, 2015 at 8:25 pm

Okay thats your position but one can find no shortage of activists who state their goal is for Sea World to be GONE. Shut down, out of business.
When confronted with the short sighted nature of such an end most people with common sense, like you, back away from the idea once it hits them that the orcas will only be harmed by it.
Additionally it does not stop with orcas. Most activists oppose all their captive marine mammal programs. Once tbe dolphins, seals, and orca shows are gone, who the heck is going to pony up anything close to their current admission price?
Nobody will. Sea World as we know it will cease to exist. Yet their cutrent numbers of captive orcas are, by any experts opinion, not candidates for release into the wild.
So the conclusion is, like it or not- if anyone really cares about the orcas they have, the goal should be continued profitable operations with those profits being directed to building larger tanks and providing better care, as well as altering the nature of the exhibits away from the circus shows.
Sea World shareholders will not, BTW, be pressured to change a business model as stock prices drop. Investors dont think like that. They simply divest. Stock value tumbles and if its an expected continuing trend nobody wants it.
This could get way out of hand quick and when those orcas are being euthanized will activists be able to say they made a difference?


bodysurferbob April 2, 2015 at 11:52 am

thanks doug porter for keepin us informed about our unruly neighbor, seaworld and their shenanigans.


don'tuse the N word April 2, 2015 at 1:10 pm

“Racial slurs” doesn’t sufficiently describe what this racist said. The multiple times he laughingly uses the “N” word is despicable. So it’s worse that Seaworld disclosed this information to media outlets? That’s the impression I get by reading this article.


mr.rick April 4, 2015 at 6:53 am

It really would be tragic if Shamu could hear the racial slurs of Hargrove. Who gives a rats ass, as long as we can get these “Jerks” to stop kidnapping baby Orcas.


Marc Snelling April 4, 2015 at 11:52 am

Hargrove is just one of many saying that orcas don’t belong in captivity. SeaWorld attacking him is predictable, but beside the point.


rick callejon April 4, 2015 at 12:40 pm

sticks and stones may break one’s bones…


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