Starting in 2013, SeaWorld faced a public relations disaster with the release of the documentary titled Blackfish that accused the company of mistreatment of its orcas. SeaWorld attempted to respond and rebuild its credibility, but activist group ‘People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ (PETA) doubled down on the corporation through its rhetorical shock tactics, deepening the organization’s woes. The PETA/SeaWorld controversy does more than provide another example of poor corporate public relations decision-making made in light of an activist group’s savvy use of digital technology. We argue that the case helps explain how digital technologies fundamentally change activism, whereby activists can use rhetorical fracturing, or quickly using digital media to puncture a target’s narrative, to create messages that challenge an opponent’s legitimacy to cultivate public opinion, thereby pressuring corporate policy change. Recent activism scholarship points out how digital media transforms organizational-activist relationships in profound ways, but this essay contributes to a gap in public relations scholarship by showing how strategic, message-level digital activism helps contribute to broad societal change. Indeed, given that SeaWorld’s stock was down nearly 40 percent in 2015 and ‘is about 50% below its all-time high’, its profits were down 84 percent in 2015, and attendance has fallen more than 7 percent at its parks, the case illustrates how digital activist campaigns help reshape societal understanding of a controversial issue such as using animals for entertainment.
Public Relations Inquiry
Stokes, A. Q.,
(2018). PETA, Rhetorical Fracture, and the Power of Digital Activism. Public Relations Inquiry, 7(2), 149-170.
Available at: https://aquila.usm.edu/fac_pubs/15141