The Day Shamu Fell Silent

Crisis communication is hard. It’s really hard. No, really. It’s hard.

Every brand has their everyday face. The face that makes you smile with quirky ad campaigns. The side that moves you when you hear a news story about the community investments they are making that transcend them beyond a simple business and closer to a model citizen. If brands are lucky (read: smart) they invest enough time in their culture and their story that when crisis strikes they have a plan. Not just a plan on how to address the “right-now” situation, but a strategy that allows them to preserve the brand they have worked so hard to build and leverage it as part of the healing process.

But what happens when you are smart, you do invest that time, you do nurture your brand advocates, you are a model citizen, but the very image of your brand is at the center of the crisis? What happens when people stop using smart, entertaining, and inspiring to describe your business and start using dangerous, horrifying, and irresponsible?

SeaWorld is in an almost impossible place this week. Not only did they lose an invaluable team member, they lost her to another invaluable team member, Tillikum, the killer whale involved in the incident yesterday, and one of the main attractions at the park. Not only does SeaWorld have to answer to their internal stakeholders, their guests, and the media, but they have to fight against activists who use sensationalized angles to insert themselves into the story as experts.

SeaWorld has moved into social media over the last year to both entertain and educate their audience. Their ability to execute a strategy before an event like this occurred allowed them to have some say in that space this week even if they still didn’t have control of what everyone else was saying. (The Twitter search is as bad as you think it is).

So what social media tool is working for SeaWorld? Their blog, which they have used to post immediate reactions as the story progresses. The blog has been active since October 2009, giving SeaWorld time to build up a following that isn’t attributed to a quick crisis communications fix. This is a great example of how blogging can establish thought leadership for a brand and build a community of brand advocates who know to go to your hub first for the real story. Not only do they get your content, they leave incredible comments supporting your work and bringing the focus back to the positive. It’s the things you don’t say, but inspire others to say that work best for you in times like these.

What could SeaWorld have done better? They should have been sharing engaging, multimedia content highlighting the park’s commitment to wildlife conservation and programs that impact local and global communities before this happened. The more we know about the brand before these incidents happen, the more likely we are to stay loyal to the story we have experienced, rather than being persuaded by detractors. Plus, social media and its ability to inspire community is just a perfect fit for CSR initiatives.

And what’s not working at all for SeaWorld? @Shamu. Literally, he’s been shut down. Well more like shut up. The Twitter account for Shamu was launched a year ago and puts a branded voice to the character. Shamu is sarcastic, funny, and acutely aware of his surroundings. His 140 character discourse on the day’s events are pick me ups for Tweetdecks everywhere, but even more important it links the park to journalists, some of their spontaneous star story-tellers. Journalists dig this angle.

So obviously when this struck journalists were going to the outlet they were used to engaging with to get Shamu’s soundbyte. Unfortunately he didn’t have one. Instead it was link to the CEO’s apology letter. A letter that completely contradicted Shamu’s way of communicating in that space.I get the reasons to silence the account, but if you are going to go that route, pull down the killer whale imagery and replace it with something else. Do something to take away that eerie feeling I get when I look at this page. Don’t just abandon the platform and assume it goes away.

Personally, I would have put Shamu on the record. If you’re going to bend enough off brand to post the CEO link then bend Shamu’s voice. Could you imagine the power a statement from that account would have? It would give SeaWorld the chance to take real ownership of the situation and dominate the story.

It’s scary, but it’s necessary. After all, they embraced the good when the Shamu voice was driving people to the platform, and now that tragedy has struck it’s time to keep leveraging that branded, integrated approach to reach your brand advocates in an authentic way that keeps them faithful and empowers them to share your story.

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