Bindi Irwin, daughter of deceased conservationist and entertainer Steve Irwin, announced this week on Good Morning America that she will be partnering with SeaWorld promoting seaworldkids.com and an initiative called “Generation Nature.” She claimed she is “thrilled to be empowering kids.”
Of all the strategies that SeaWorld has so far employed to deflect criticism of their practices this is one that anti-captivity advocates should pause and reflect on. Aside from PR campaigns claiming “truths” which are easily debunked, attacking the character of those voicing public opposition to their tactics, or relying on paid advertorial content – this move is the first intentional move that SeaWorld has made to not address criticism head on but instead to frame the issue themselves. With Bindi, they have set the playing field.
In that, SeaWorld knew that Bindi would face serious criticism for partnering with them. Many anti-captivity advocates have bought into the mythology that surrounds her father and are unaware or unwilling to confront that the family has always had strong ties with and partnered with the for profit captive animal industry. That “shock” is rallying anti-captivity advocates, but will have no effect on the Irwin family “base” of supporters which have always known and accepted this.
SeaWorld also knew that Bindi would be a great “wedge” image and brand for them as Sea Shepherd – considered the most militant anti-whaling/anti-captivity organization in the world – has a boat named after Bindi’s father. Paul Watson has already posted commentary on his personal page and on the Sea Shepherd website calling on advocates to refocus attention – “But we need to keep our focus on SeaWorld and this movement does not need to be refocused on a 15-year-old girl who simply wants to educate children about wildlife conservation.”
Watson references her age numerous times in his points and in doing so illustrates one of the most important branding points for SeaWorld – Bindi is a young female. As SeaWorld is facing serious criticism they have tried to paint opposition as “extremists” who engage in “cyber harassment” and “bullying.” They know, and want, anti captivity advocates to express outrage at Bindi’s partnership with them as they know that Bindi – a young advocate with a positive and squeaky clean public image – will help them with this framing. All of the press headlines that already surround the conflict illustrates the framing – “slammed” “backlash” “takes heat” “under fire” “blasted.” The issue is no longer about SeaWorld, but now about Bindi. As Bindi has a better public image and brand than SeaWorld this takes focus away from SeaWorld and positions it on a battlefield where – through Bindi – they are better positioned. Unsurprisingly, advocates are splitting on the issue while the general public is reaching a consensus that Bindi should not be “attacked” – even if SeaWorld and captivity is wrong.
The strategy itself should illustrate to activists how effective their messaging and framing is on terms that SeaWorld does not want to address – the death of Dawn Brancheau, Tilikum, wild capture, for profit captivity, “Blackfish,” etc. SeaWorld would not open up new ground if they were not painfully aware that on those terms they simply cannot win. Bindi should be a recognition to reframe back on those terms and a realization to not fight on terms or framing which SeaWorld sets. Some animal advocacy organizations – including PeTA – have sent their own press releases and tried to leverage press out of this issue. This is a horrible press strategy that only aids the framing SeaWorld is looking for. Similarly, there are a wealth of nasty and brutal comments on social media which SeaWorld can now cherry pick from to illustrate the framing they are looking for. Again, all of that only aids SeaWorld.
Framing is important and advocates who are against animal captivity (myself included) should not let their passion cloud their judgement. SeaWorld – through Bindi Irwin – is trying to shift the public discourse from – “Do you think placing wild animals in tanks is unethical?” to “Do you think it’s wrong for animal advocates to attack Bindi Irwin?” In one of those situations we hold a strong position, in the other we do not. We need to keep fighting on our terms if we are going to ensure any kind of change.
@dylanxpowell / email@example.com