Successes and Messes: From animosity to agreement

SeaWorld and the Humane Society partner on orca stewardship

By on / Conflict Resolution

Sometimes in negotiation, your most unlikely counterpart may turn out to be your most promising one. That’s what executive Joel Manby came to realize after becoming CEO of embattled theme-park operator SeaWorld in the spring of 2015.

Stormy seas

For more than two decades, the Humane Society of the United States and other activist groups had condemned SeaWorld for breeding killer whales, known as orcas, to use as entertainment at its parks in Orlando, Florida; San Antonio; and San Diego, saying SeaWorld’s orcas were neglected and stressed.

Upon release of the 2013 documentary Blackfish, the public began to listen. The film focuses on Tilikum, a captured SeaWorld orca that has been involved in the deaths of three individuals, including two trainers.

In the wake of the negative publicity, SeaWorld’s park attendance and profits began falling, and lawmakers started introducing legislation aimed at phasing out orca captivity.
Upon taking the helm of SeaWorld, Manby at first resisted the idea of ending the orca shows, the centerpiece of the company’s brand, he told the blog brandchannel this past March.

Then Manby began to understand that concerns over SeaWorld’s treatment of its animals had gone mainstream. “Our research showed it would be a losing battle” to continue the orca program, Manby told brandchannel.

Initial contact

As he explored ways to phase out SeaWorld’s orca entertainment, Manby considered reaching out to SeaWorld’s longtime adversary, the Humane Society. Collaborating on a new direction for SeaWorld with the nation’s leading authority on the treatment of animals could go a long way toward restoring the company’s public image.
John Campbell, a recently retired conservative Republican congressman from California, reached out to Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society, on Manby’s behalf. “He called me and said Joel is a really good guy, and I think you would really like him a lot,” Pacelle told the online magazine TakePart. “And I think that company has to change, and you need to spend some time with him and see if you can get somewhere.”

In a face-to-face meeting, Manby told Pacelle that he was proud of SeaWorld’s animal-rescue work, according to Pacelle. “I said that was fine, but all your orca activities are stepping on the rest of your work,” Pacelle said. “No one can see that because your company is so defined by the treatment of your orcas.”

A changed mission

The discussion led to a negotiation and, ultimately, a partnership. On March 17, SeaWorld and the Humane Society issued a joint statement announcing that SeaWorld would stop breeding captive killer whales this year and end all of its iconic “Shamu” theatrical orca shows by 2019. The company said that instead of its theatrical shows, visitors would view the animals in more naturalistic pools and learn about marine-life conservation.

In a Los Angeles Times op-ed, Manby explained that SeaWorld’s 28 orcas, unequipped to survive in the wild after years of captivity, would receive top-quality care as SeaWorld’s last generation of killer whales. The company vowed to invest $50 million over five years in its marine animal rescue and rehabilitation program and said it would be partnering with the Humane Society to combat commercial whaling, seal hunting, shark finning, and ocean pollution worldwide.

“We love animals, and a lot of people don’t realize that,” Manby said, speaking of SeaWorld in a joint National Public Radio interview with Pacelle. “And Wayne’s organization does, too. And we need to move together on where we agree. Let’s dialogue and have something productive happen, not monologue and fight.”

3 benefits of partnering with critics

1. Educated, targeted advice. Our critics are often the best source of information and opinions about where we’ve gone wrong and how we might do better. Seek out their advice with an open mind.
2. An end to conflict. Ending conflict and negative publicity can be motivation enough to partner with an adversary. Work together to develop plans that address each side’s needs.
3. A powerful signal. When you gain an endorsement from your fiercest critic, you send the message to interested observers that your position has credibility and legitimacy.

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