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SeaWorld emails show execs knew 'Blackfish' bad for business before telling investors

Lori Weisberg and Gabrielle Russon, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in News & Features

In her email, Caracciolo cautioned, "Please do not distribute outside directors/managers as should keep confidential we are keeping a list of this."

In another email, Donnie Mills, the former park president of the Orlando parks wrote, "The impact of our detractors has found its way to caterings. To date we have 6 cancellations."

In that correspondence, Mills noted that those canceling cited "BF (Blackfish) or activists' commentary."

"Frustrating ..." wrote Jim Atchison, SeaWorld's former chief executive officer.

The company's first quarter earnings for 2014, though, never referenced "Blackfish" and instead blamed disappointing park attendance on a shift on when Easter fell and seasonal closures of some parks.

In addition to the email disclosures about SeaWorld's efforts to address fallout from "Blackfish," the company also tried to flood an Orlando Sentinel online poll related to the movie. "Let's keep flooding it. Have also heard if you click 'no,' (then) click on 'vote' multiple times, it will count multiples votes. Like a hundred or so," wrote Nick Gollattscheck, a former company spokesman, in an email on Christmas Eve 2013. "Happy holidays and keep voting. Ho ho vote."

In hindsight, SeaWorld leadership probably should have been more forthcoming early on about the so-called "Blackfish" effect, said analyst Bob Boyd of Pacific Asset Management. If nothing else, the emails are more evidence of the difficulties SeaWorld will continue to have in resurrecting its beleaguered brand, he said.

"Their original strategy was to ignore the issue and hopefully it would go away," Boyd said. "The current management team, through the changes they've made like ending the breeding of orcas, has made a strong attempt to address those issues but what we've seen with SeaWorld performance this year, this issue is simply not going away."

The release of the emails comes amid continuing bad news about SeaWorld's financial performance. In its latest earnings release this week, SeaWorld Entertainment reported that attendance and revenues declined sharply during the third quarter, which encompasses much of the important summer season.

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Companywide, attendance in July, August and September declined nearly 9 percent, with 732,000 fewer people visiting SeaWorld's 12 theme parks compared with the same quarter a year earlier.

SeaWorld executives have said that the San Diego park in particular had been affected by "public perception" issues that the company is trying to combat with a new advertising campaign intended to highlight SeaWorld's animal rescue and ocean conservation efforts.

Plaintiffs in the SeaWorld investor suit had tried to get even more documents publicly released but U.S. District Judge Michael Anello denied the request, arguing that some of the correspondence contained "internal business materials including SeaWorld's legislative strategies, SeaWorld's planning of annual events and analyses of competitors' events" that should not be made public.

In a separate action on Thursday, Anello issued a tentative ruling granting class certification for the lawsuit. A formal court hearing has been set for Monday on the matter.

(Russon writes for The Orlando Sentinel.)

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