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Southwest Airlines Needs to Quickly Take a Clearer Stand on the Blackfish Controversy


If you haven’t seen the documentary Blackfish, I highly encourage you to do so. It’s a look specifically at a bull orca, Tilikum, who has killed three people in 30 years of captivity, but more broadly it’s an investigation into the ethos of SeaWorld. It shows, in interviews with experts and former SeaWorld employees, how the company has ignored safety and animal-rights concerns for decades even as it has promoted itself as a place where families can learn more about these creatures in a (supposedly) safe and nurturing environment.

Maybe you think that’s animal-rights malarky — for your ad hominem attacks later, yes, I’m clearly a pinko Commie liberal, but I am far from an animal-rights activist — but you can’t deny the backlash the film has generated. (When .38 Special thinks you’re too hot to handle, your company should be in full-fledged crisis mode.)

Southwest Airlines, for example, was picketed on Wednesday because of its long-standing partnership with SeaWorld (which you primarily know from its four “specialty planes” it flies or has flown: three painted like the orca Shamu, and one painted with SeaWorld penguins). The company, which initially resisted making an official statement, blogged its official stance in the wake of this protest. It was, to quote a commenter,  “corporate-speak nonsense”:

We have a longstanding relationship with SeaWorld that is based on travel and bringing families together. We are engaged with Sea World related to the recent concerns being raised. We are in a listening and education mode with the goal of upholding our commitments as a good corporate citizen.  As a responsible member of the community, we support several organizations and events that are devoted to maintaining the natural world.

Free advice to SWA (full disclosure: whose in-flight magazine I used to edit): this is not a new issue, it extends all over the globe, and it isn’t going away. Whatever benefit you may have once had from your brand partnership will only hurt you. Better think about how to end that relationship, and quickly.