Social Media Risks: Restoring trust when your brand mascot is a killer (whale)

by cv harquail on March 2, 2010

The challenge of being authentic on social media can be scary.

Many organizations are afraid of being ‘on’ social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, where they (or their representatives) are accessible and active in real time. They worry that participating in real time on social media platforms will expose them as unthinking, out of touch or inauthentic.

Organizations worry how to find and translate their ‘corporate voice’ into an interactive human presence.


When organizations take their first steps onto these social media platforms, they consider their various strategies, and how they could be represented by Brandividuals, celebrity CEOs, tweeting teams, or even their corporate brand mascots.

Brand Mascots on Twitter

Compared to the human alternatives, corporate mascots can look quite appealing. Many organizations already have brand mascots that represent their important products and/or their organization. These characters already have name recognition, brand equity, and the ability to trigger an emotional connection with their customer community.

Moreover, these corporate mascots can ‘speak’ in a way that reflects the desired image of the brand, since there is no actual person or thing that it (also) needs to represent. As fake as we know they are, corporate mascots can create a very authentic organizational voice.

And, an added benefit is that these corporate characters and brand mascots never do anything embarrassing (like insider trading, or infidelity, or sock puppetry) that might besmirch the corporate brand. Thus, we have the Andrex Puppy, Travelocity’s RoamingGnome, and’s meerkat Alexsandr Orlove (pictured at left).

And then we have @Shamu.

You know @Shamu. He’s “the killer whale” who represents SeaWorld on Twitter.

Up until the tragic death of trainer Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld, @Shamu was the beguiling voice of SeaWorld on Twitter. Charming, funny, and popular, @Shamu voiced the fun side of SeaWorld, the promise of entertainment, wonder, and awe.

Who anticipated that any of SeaWorld’s orcas (all called Shamu) might actually kill a human being? And who had a plan for how to respond? Nobody.

So, it’s instructive to watch how SeaWorld is using social media to respond to a tragedy that they did not predict.

1. First (as you might expect) SeaWorld suspended @Shamu’s twitter account.

2. SeaWorld explained why they suspended the account.

SeaWorld didn’t just quiet @Shamu; they shared their reasoning and offered alternative information options. From Sea World’s blog:

About a year ago SeaWorld launched a Twitter account giving voice to Shamu. In part because of his worldwide celebrity and in part because of his ability to find humor in the world around him, @Shamu has gained a significant following on Twitter. Many of his most loyal followers have noted his absence from Twitter since the tragic events of Wednesday, February 24 at SeaWorld Orlando.

At this difficult time, @Shamu will not be active on Twitter, as users who follow@Shamu have come to expect posts that are light-hearted and perhaps a bit quirky. SeaWorld’s other accounts, including @SeaWorld_Parks, will remain active and regular updates will be communicated through Twitter and other social networking platforms.

We will continue to provide information in this space on our review of this incident and the changes to our procedures that may progress from it. We thank you for the thousands of messages of support during this extraordinarily difficult time.

In their explanation, SeaWorld acknowledged (however subtly) the disparity between @Shamu ‘the character’ and the reality of how a live orca at Sea World actually behaved.

In this blog post (above) as well as on Facebook, you can hear an authentic human voice from Sea World.

3. While they temporarily closed the @Shamu account, SeaWorld is keeping their Facebook page open. Stakeholders still have active access to the organization.

As Beth Kassab, Business Columnist at the Orlando Sentinal writes in her comprehensive account of the situation:

Promising to answer critics so directly may seem like a nightmare to many companies, but SeaWorld is seizing on the opportunity to try to shape the conversation about its business.

4. SeaWorld is using social media to respond to negative as well as supportive comments about the tragedy. And, they are continuing to discuss issues related to the orcas and the employees of SeaWorld.

To SeaWorld’s advantage, they have already been engaged with customers and critics in ongoing conversations about issues where SeaWorld and other stakeholders are at odds. You can see from their conversations on Facebook as well as from their digital profile, SeaWorld has been participating actively in conversations about whether whales should be kept in captivity and used for entertainment.

Agree or disagree with SeaWorld’s perspective or on their next steps, you can engage them about it.

Shamu Twitter.jpegWhat can we learn from @Shamu?

What we know about effective crisis management is that organizations that keep responding instead of going silent sustain– and can even increase– their stakeholders’ trust in them. Even though the @Shamu account went silent, SeaWorld has stayed in the conversation.

We also know that effective crisis management is not defensive, but instead takes a learning posture. As long as SeaWorld stays in an authentic conversation with stakeholders, they make it possible to sustain or rebuild the good relationships they already with their stakeholders.

What can we learn about authenticity and social media in a crisis?

It will be interesting to see what SeaWorld learns. Certainly, SeaWorld (and everyone else watching them) will learn something about how to use social media to address a crisis. Since the organization has already been actively engaged in conversations about conservation, animal rights, and so on, it’s unclear what new perspective they’ll get on these issues as they are triggered anew by this tragedy.

But while SeaWorld as an organization may not learn, say or do anything more on these issues than it already has, all of those engaging online with SeaWorld will themselves be learning… about SeaWorld’s position on these issues and on SeaWorld’s commitment to its community.

In general, corporations take a hyper-rational, calculative approach to managing risk. It’s all about prediction and prevention, which is fine. But, prediction and prevention are never 100% foolproof– after all, orcas might be called “killer whales” but that doesn’t mean you expect an orca in captivity to kill his human trainer. Yet, accidents happen, disasters occur, tragedy strikes.

Organizations need not only to prevent risk on social media, but also they need to use social media effectively to respond to risks they can not predict. Let’s keep listening for SeaWorld’s  authentic voice, as they continue to respond.


Sawatdisak Chuangprayoon June 24, 2010 at 4:52 pm

After going through a number of articles, blogs and news regarding SeaWorld’s marketing strategies to respond the tragic event on February 24 at SeaWorld Orlando, I was very impressed with SeaWorld’s social media strategies.

SeaWorld started quickly with their Twetter and Facebook accounts by answering all negative questions, and also acknowledging about killer whales, the attack and the loss of its trainer. Moreover, every action and response, SeaWorld made for their social media strategies, came with very good and understandable reasons.

Fortunately, SeaWorld have already engaged with fans and followers on their social media channels for a certain time. Hence, it gave SeaWorld very great advantages. Those fans and followers showed a deep loyalty to SeaWorld and answered questions in order to defend SeaWorld. It is just exactly one of the best things, a company can expect from being on social media, which are building customer relationships and earning brand loyalty.

From SeaWorld case, I really learned that in any crisis situation, do not ignore or hide problems. In contrast, listen to your customers in order to best acknowledge and clarify their concerns and questions.

Social media gives companies a great opportunity to do the actions!

Niko | CGmascot CG Learning & 3D mascots July 30, 2010 at 4:29 am

While I find this article very solid in topics of crisis management and social media, my interest (and key to how I found this) is corporate mascots. That’s a topic I’d like to comment on.

Your take on brand mascots is spot on. Corporations would be wise to make use of them. Very few organizations though have a sympathetic whale at their disposal or other such a special and well known animal. CEO’s personal pet chihuahua just won’t do. Also I think a single image(special animal photo bought from an image bank) won’t do – it’ll have to be an animal to photograph at many situations doing many and preferably wacky things. Or it will have to be cartoon mascot.

Cartoons mascots are proven to work as mascots, as symbols. Think Disney. Obvious benefits are that they do only what is needed, never get tired of have an off-day and of course as imaginary figures can do just about anything. The perhaps the not so obvious benefits are that they are designed for sympathy, appeal and visual impact, and are an ageless brand. I go futher into mascot design here.

Of course the corporation needs more than one image of a cartoon mascot – more like a set of images prepared for varied uses, and a way to order more when needed, animations too, and a way to have the mascot change and evolve with the company. It should be a service.
If you haven’t guessed already, that is precisely what I am offering. Now, even though this reads like a plug, my intention was to make a point and continue on one aspect of your article. I think mascot reasoning is sound and will happily discuss it futher.

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