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Blackfish Paints PR in a Dark Light
By: Mike Bush
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A documentary available on Netflix (and dozens of other places) tells the story of a killer whale, currently in residence at SeaWorld, named Tilikum. The movie tells many stories, but one of the most poignant might just be about why PR has such a bad name.

Before jumping in, let me throw out a disclaimer here. Blackfish is a truly sad movie. The allegations of the way killer whales are captured and trained are pretty heart-wrenching. The idea of an animal that’s essentially being treated as a pet suddenly turning on its master may even leave you looking crooked at your dog. If the ASPCA commercials with Sarah McLachlan’s song playing in the background make you sad, this isn’t the documentary for you.

That said, this is a blog about PR, and the movie does a number on our industry. Spoiler Alert.* I’m going to give details on what happens in the movie here.

Some of the accusations of how SeaWorld “spun” different events are truly shocking. At different points, SeaWorld’s communications folks are alleged to have:
  • Somehow coerced local law enforcement into giving misleading reports to the media.
  • Neglected to let trainers know that the 12,000lb whale they were swimming around with had killed people (plural).
  • Sugarcoated (hidden) awful situations in ways that aren’t really believable.
From a team standpoint, the movie paints the Communications department as a sort of cross between Beezelbub and a competent Dr. Evil.  

There is always more than one side to every story, and in crisis communications, sometimes it’s important to make sure a different version is “out there.” But, if Blackfish is representative of how SeaWorld’s PR team handled things, it’s a truly sad reflection on the industry in which we work.
*What is the etiquette on spoiler alerts for documentaries? Everything in the movie is available in newspapers from the time things happened, so it seems odd to say “don’t read on if you’re going to see the movie”… but regardless, after spending a full month avoiding Super Bowl commercials before the big game, I’m feeling particularly sensitive to spoilers.

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About the Author
Mike Bush is a PR and Marketing freelancer with more than a dozen years of experience in the field. Find him on and connect Twitter @mikebush or at www.mikebush.nyc. 
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