Last week, SeaWorld’s announcement that it would end all orca breeding flooded social media feeds and news sites. It also signaled a game-changing victory for the animal protection movement.
Many say strong criticism stemming from the documentary Blackfish made SeaWorld’s decision inevitable. The 2013 film spotlights Tilikum, a SeaWorld orca that killed trainer Dawn Brancheau during a live performance. It chronicles the dangers of keeping orcas in captivity, while also criticizing SeaWorld’s care of its killer whales. After the film’s release, SeaWorld reported a decline in attendance and its stock price plummeted.
In addition to ceasing its breeding program, SeaWorld announced it is phasing out its theatrical orca shows and also unveiled a new partnership with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) – previously one of SeaWorld’s critics. The partnership includes rescue and rehabilitation of stranded marine mammals and advocacy campaigns to end commercial whaling and seal hunts and fight shark-finning. SeaWorld has also committed to revamping the food policies at its parks to source sustainable seafood, crate-free pork and cage-free eggs.
In a Los Angeles Times op-ed, SeaWorld President and CEO Joel Manby acknowledged that society’s view is shifting when it comes to opinions about whether orcas belong in human care. In a strategic messaging move, Manby also noted that SeaWorld can take credit for this value shift, since people have come to love orcas because the park has allowed them to see and learn about them up close.
SeaWorld’s announcement is the latest example of how shifting attitudes about animals have pressured companies to adopt more humane business models. Last year, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced plans to phase out its performing elephants by 2018. Then in January it declared it will retire them this spring, a year-and-a-half earlier than planned. This victory came after decadeslong claims of animal mistreatment. Advocates alleged that away from the bright lights and cheering crowds, circus employees controlled the elephants with long, hooked poles known as bullhooks and chained them for up to 20 hours at a time.
What was most remarkable about this announcement is that elephants have served as the symbol of the “Greatest Show on Earth” and are integral to the circus’s brand. Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, cited that, “There’s been somewhat of a mood shift among our consumers… a lot of people aren’t comfortable with us touring with our elephants.” The decision was also a financial one. Cities from Los Angeles to Asheville, North Carolina, have passed “anti-circus” ordinances, such as banning the use of bullhooks and forbidding any shows with wild or exotic performing animals.
These defining moments in the animal protection movement point to a few important communication lessons.
- Storytelling is a powerful tool. While not all advocacy documentaries receive Blackfish-level attention, the film demonstrates how stories help audiences connect to an issue. Stories don’t have to be controversial to be effective. But they should feature a main character, plot and central point. Blackfish uses one powerful story to demonstrate the larger and more complex problem of keeping orcas in captivity.
- Opposition dynamics can change. SeaWorld and the Humane Society of the United States have been adversaries for more than two decades. But the new partnership between the organizations creates common ground that will result in meaningful change for animals. Ultimately, SeaWorld’s commitments also help advance HSUS’ campaign goals. Having a clear definition of success internally – and among campaign partners – will help gauge whether a new relationship with a longtime opponent makes strategic sense or not.
- Value shifts take a long time, but they do happen. Many advocacy campaigns are a marathon, not a sprint. Whether you’re trying to spark corporate, policy or behavior change, it is important not to lose sight of how your target audiences and decision makers currently view your issue and the values they hold. Attitude shifts can take years or even decades, and this is true for many important social change issues (marriage equality, for instance). Focusing on audiences’ values, as well as incremental victories, is crucial for any campaign.
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