Reputation management, not issues management

It seems intuitive that neither industries nor consumer expectations change overnight. In any industry, impending change leaves breadcrumbs so we can find it. Innovations take time to pull through the marketplace, and if you or your business are responding only once one has become a trend, you are too late.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus and SeaWorld, in hindsight, had multiple opportunities to manage their reputations and save their businesses but instead bartered piecemeal with public issues and crisis communication, in the end only to fail.

These missteps in the animal entertainment industry give us the useful reminder that attending to five key principles can give businesses an advantage in the marketplace through reputation management.  

Could forward-thinking innovations in animal entertainment venues Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey and SeaWorld have saved ticket sales, reputations and the animals? Most likely, yes.

On Sunday, May 21 in Uniondale, New York, The Greatest Show on Earth, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, delivered its last performance. The show streamed live to its website, logging nearly 2 million views.

After 146 years in business, the circus announced in January 2017 that it would close. The organization cited declining ticket sales, but journalists and reputation management experts could see that the Achilles’ heel was an ongoing activist battle about the circus’ trained animals, which chipped away at public sentiment, specifically regarding the elephants and the delay in recognizing the change in consumer sentiment around animals used in entertainment.

In 2014, the circus won a 14-year court battle with animal rights activists over elephant acts. But, in the 14 years they battled for the right to keep the Asian elephants — first brought to the show by P.T. Barnum in 1882 — many major U.S. cities had legislated their own restrictions on animal acts.

On March 5, 2015, the production company announced that the Asian elephants would be removed from the traveling circus and relocated to the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation, and on May 1, 2016, Asian elephants performed in the circus for the last time.

And while most activist challenges to the elephants were instantly silenced, so, too, was the main draw to the circus.

We’re gonna need a smaller stage

The circus isn’t the only animal entertainment venue that has faced the need for better reputation management. Late in 2016, SeaWorld announced that it would stop breeding its captive orcas. The organization announced it would also create larger pens that better highlighted the whales in a more natural environment and agreed to phase out the shows that featured these whales performing to a crowd in an amphitheater.

Years of activist pressure focused on SeaWorld’s captive breeding program and was propelled to national attention by the 2013 film Blackfish, which chronicled the life of Tilikum, a male orca captured in the wild and raised to participate in shows while also serving as a breeding male at SeaWorld. The killer whale performed in choreographed programs for the paying crowds and was linked to three human deaths.

Memorial Day weekend 2017, SeaWorld San Diego was the first SeaWorld park to unveil the brand’s new Orca Encounter show, touting it the “world’s first live documentary.” The program leverages a refashioned performance stage where animal performers now only demonstrate behaviors and movements natural to them in the wild while a large video screen shows footage of wild whales in their natural habitat. The animals are no longer trained in or choreographed to perform anthropomorphic behaviors like splashing the crowd on command.

Despite years of activism and the rampant virality of social media organizing, and despite years of the organization planning its adjustments, it was only in the first half of 2017 that we saw dramatic shifts by these two globally recognized animal entertainment venues. Though SeaWorld quickly built new pens for their animals and more publicly discussed their release and rehabilitation program, the conversation was too little, too late.

While both organizations cite declining ticket sales, the activist pressure on both the organizations and the families who patronize them has steadily hummed alongside the venues for years, degrading their reputation.

The close of a lawsuit or the release of a documentary film do not singularly reveal a problem in these venues’ reputations. Yet waiting for these highly public moments to become a viral part of the cultural dialog forces the need to manage the issue.

Innovating is a necessary next step 

Zoos, aquariums, farms and other animal venues should have been paying attention to this dialogue for more than five years and preparing and evaluating what can keep them relevant, morally acceptable and entertaining. Virtual reality and hands-on (without danger of bodily harm) are vital in today’s experiential culture. Disney has been crafting new live entertainment experiences by leveraging the fictional environments delivered in their blockbuster movie series.

Pandora, Disney’s newest attraction in its Animal Kingdom area, is the world we were first exposed to in James Cameron’s Avatar. After more than five years of development, the experience opened in Florida in May 2017. By June 2017, The Washington Post cited four-hour wait times to enjoy the experience. Materials science, digital innovation and cutting-edge interfaces drive the experience, not live, trained animals.

Universal Studios, a part of the family theme park category like SeaWorld, the circus and Disney World, has also brought fiction to life with its Harry Potter live experience and sets.

Traversing the fictional lands of best-sellers and blockbusters and importing them into the world of live entertainment is but one innovation that drives the success of these family theme parks. And it protects the reputation of global brands like Universal and Disney.

Building reputation and rides: how to sustain family entertainment venues or animal husbandry entertainment through reputation

First, reject “business as usual” as a mantra. Ample proclamations of safety and quality animal husbandry were the first responses from these organizations when pressure mounted. This approach wastes time reinforcing the very practices under critique. If this method fails, efforts are not only wasted but also brands are faced with the need to invent or deploy a new plan, incurring new costs.

Second, brands must embrace change. Culturally, our audiences have shifted. This is not the 1920 audience that potentially saw an elephant once in their lifetime, at their sole encounter with the circus. The wide range of shareable knowledge, the speed of internet conversations and videos and our general awareness now as consumers has changed our expectations for quality and the types of behaviors and treatments we want to see as entertainment. Consumers have changed. Brands must embrace that their product must align with our new wants and needs.

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