- - Monday, April 4, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Last month SeaWorld caved to pressure from animal rights extremists. It announced that it would no longer breed orca whales in captivity and will shutter its famous shows. In addition to the implications for SeaWorld and its guests, this capitulation is sure to be a public relations case study for decades to come.

SeaWorld had been attacked for decades from fringe animal liberation activists who don’t want orcas at parks or animals in zoos. It was easy to write them off as loons. But after the influential anti-SeaWorld documentary “Blackfish” came out in 2013, SeaWorld leadership realized just how far this activists’ narrative had traveled in the public’s mind.

Public opinion guru Daniel Yankelovich explains that a public opinion shift begins with little evidence, never appearing to be a threat to the status quo — until it is a threat. Few industries are willing to invest in building a wall against future threats when those threats seem no greater than a nuisance on the distant horizon.

As evidenced by the damaged companies that have followed the same strategy in response to activist pressure — refusing to invest in future public opinion, while activists do — this strategy rarely works. It’s only a matter of time before activists gain a critical mass and real harm can be done.

By the time the activist threat materializes into ballot measures, proposed legislation and widespread boycotts, companies finally break out their “crisis communications” plan. But by then, it is generally already too late. Existential threats to the brand exist far downstream from early public opinion.

In order to neutralize threats before they become serious, companies must engage early, aggressively and unapologetically. If SeaWorld had loudly and immediately responded to “Blackfish” by pointing out the factual errors and the lack of credibility of the movie, it could have undermined its impact. And frankly, the company should have been aggressively touting its animal care standards and staff veterinarians for years.

But because it didn’t engage, the company lost nearly half its value and now finds itself under continued pressure. Activist investor Greg Taxin, whose asset management firm has a 4 percent stake in SeaWorld, told the Orlando Sentinel, “We believe the company took far too long to respond effectively to the challenge of Blackfish and that the board bears responsibility for the delayed response, ineffective response for several years that has cost shareholders significant value.”

Ending orca breeding is not the end of this story. Surrender and compromise to activists will only hold them off for a limited period of time. They will be back for the rest of the SeaWorld operation. After each victory, activists simply move the goalposts and continue attacking. Like the Geico commercial says, “It’s what you do.”

Indeed, activists are already gearing up to pressure SeaWorld to end all mammal captivity with the eventual goal of ending its business model. Activists at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) have claimed this move is only a “first step.” And People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals staged a protest at SeaWorld just three days after the company’s announcement.

In the words of Mark Simmons, a former SeaWorld trainer, “This capitulation to HSUS, which I think is a PR move, has really emboldened HSUS and their ideology — not only against the zoological field but their entire animal-rights mentality . There will be calls for the end of dolphin shows and dolphin breeding and elephants [in captivity].”

And while SeaWorld may be the case study, it is simply following in the footsteps of many companies that hid from activist pressure and paid the price. Soda manufacturers now see their brands threatened after several years of falling sales because food activists have successfully demonized the product. Engaging in various local fights on soda taxes is too little, too late. And very expensive.

Small-business owners who compromised in the face of moderate minimum wage increases are now seeing their entire businesses threatened as labor activists have come back for even bigger wage hikes. In California, the ink is barely dry on the state’s new $15 mandate, and Oakland activists are already pushing for a new $20 minimum wage.

Business leaders need to take a new approach to threats in their issue space: Respond early, forcefully and totally to threats to the company or industry brand. Undermine activists’ (nonexistent) credibility and rally the public to your side. Hiding from and eventually apologizing for your position simply cedes the moral high ground to the activists. Compromise and surrender only embolden them.

Richard Berman is the president of Berman and Company, a public affairs firm in Washington, D.C.

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