News broke this afternoon that SeaWorld CEO Jim Atchison will be stepping down from his role in January of 2015 and that company Chairman David D’Alessandro will take his place until a replacement can be found. Alongside this, the company announced layoffs as part of is $50 million cost savings plan for 2015.
Advocates are ecstatic and rightfully so. Atchison tried to remain stoic in the face of intense public pressure and him stepping down is an admission on the part of SeaWorld that internally they could no longer try and wear that brave face and ride out the storm. The announcement came after market close, and day after the SeaWorld stock hit a new all time low of 15.57. It is conceivable that their stock will find a new basement tomorrow and everything is an uphill climb for SeaWorld at this point. Street ratings still has the stock (SEAS) rated at a D, encouraging people to sell because of, “…a few notable weaknesses, which we believe should have a greater impact than any strengths, and could make it more difficult for investors to achieve positive results compared to most of the stocks we cover.”
Buried in this announcement and the celebratory mood was the announcement that two new individuals would be joining the SeaWorld Board – former Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher and former co-CEO of Ogilvy North William Gray. These two new appointments are substantive because they both signal weaknesses that SeaWorld is acknowledging and they both show SeaWorld’s hand moving forward. When the celebratory mood dies down, it will be important to know just who these two individuals are.
William (Bill) Gray retired as co-CEO of Ogilvy North in 2009. Ogilvy North is a media communications agency and that is the speciality that “Bill” brings to the table for SeaWorld. A Harvard Grad, Bill started at Ogilvy North in 1978. You can find his public linked in here. Bill also has a personal wordpress here. Set his experience up against his forrays into social media, twitter here, tumblr here, it is pretty clear that Bill is not poised to lead SeaWorld into the digital age. Why add him to the board then? Bill has industry ties. Lots of em. Much like the Marineland media influence buy of John Beattie in 2013 (Former Press Aide to Premier Dalton McGuinty, Producer at Global and CTV) Bill and John represent the ability to pick up the phone and have direct access to high level media contacts. They will not win any kind of social media battle, will probably be poor at spin, but they know people and have relationships with people that no tech savvy media communication start up would know. As SeaWorld, and the captive marine mammal industry as a whole, continues to lose the PR war that access is extremely important.
The second appointment is, in my opinion, more substantive. Ellen Tauscher is a former 13 year Democratic Congresswoman from California who started out as an investment banker who made it on Wall Street. Tauscher has held important roles within the Democractic Party including top level fundraising, arms control, and with the State Department. Ellen’s top level positions have been set against her progressive voting record – seen by some as “hardcore liberal” that fought for Gay Marriage and defended pro choice positions. Tauscher is known for holding down a Democratic seat in an otherwise Republican area and goes down as a skilled moderate capable of matching progressive positions with serious political office. She resigned from the House in 2009, but stayed on with the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control until 2012. Diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2010, Tauscher’s political schedule has lessened, however she is still politically involved in many of the same portfolios she’s work on over her political career.
Taushcer’s role in the board will go a long way to shore up Democratic party support and it is most likely centred on kicking out any symbolic moves for legislation banning or regulating SeaWorld’s business. Many of those bills, and support for them, have come from the Democratic Party/centre/centre left so this is a wise move by SeaWorld to target someone with the political clout capable of reigning in and solidifying the party position around SeaWorld’s interests. I’d encourage people to look to response to Richard Bloom’s (D-Santa Monica) bill to Ban Orca shows as a test of this. There will be significant pressure applied at all levels ensuring that political positions align at the local, regional, state and federal level.
Outside of this influence within the Democratic Party, Tauscher still has a solid support base among centre/centre left progressives. These areas where SeaWorld is failing and where their largest opposition is being mobilized from. I am expecting Tauscher’s appointment to the board to be followed by a public rebranding which attempts to draw on these bases and lessen opposition. This will be hard to do without acknowledging substantive issues, however, this is a politician who managed to get elected and re-elected on progressive platforms by otherwise hostile voters. SeaWorld San Diego can certainly use this experience from a 13 year Congresswoman of their district, as can the entire SeaWorld brand.
Last but certainly not least, Tauscher extensive experience with Wall Street and the Stock Exchange will go a long way to trying to shore up investor confidence in the long term viability of SeaWorld. She will be looked to to stop the bleeding. That a class action centred around automatic payments would have any effect on a stock price, let alone the effect it had yesterday, is unacceptable. Tauscher will help try and smooth out those sharp drops. Her law background as well may be signalling that SeaWorld is moving towards litigation to stop the mass exodus of corporate partners who feel their brand is just too toxic to work with. We will have to wait and see.
So, where does this leave us? SeaWorld just made a major play within the Democratic Party and also made a move to shore up top level media relations. It will get harder to get mainstream/national news coverage, even symbolic legislation will be less likely as option, and SeaWorld’s influence on Wall Street/within Stock Exchange circles just increased. They wouldn’t drop their CEO and make this rather embarrassing move unless they felt confident with the plans they have laid moving forward. Social media will still be a foreign and ungovernable terrain for SeaWorld, but outside of that advocates will have to find new ways to substantively maintain pressure and remain effective as new barriers are placed in their path. SeaWorld is building coalitions to protect themselves, advocates should be looking to do the same.