Consider the predicament SeaWorld managers find themselves in nearly two weeks after the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau — the third human fatality linked to a killer whale synonymous with the theme park's brand.
In the short term, they have to manage the aftermath of a public tragedy and ensure the safety of their employees.
In the long term, marketing and business-ethics experts say, they need to deal with concerns of how their star performers — the orcas — are handled.
And they must do so while running a business dependent on guests paying to see shows featuring those very same animals.
"SeaWorld is branded around Shamu," Rollins College marketing and ethics professor Mark W. Johnston said. "It's one of the core elements of the SeaWorld experience. It's at the core of who SeaWorld is, I think."
The theme park's situation, he said, is "a classic ethical dilemma."
It's one a business school class might study, much the way Nike's past controversial labor practices are debated or the way Toyota's auto recall will be.
Experts say the theme park likely will have to address a range of stakeholders. Those include investors, government regulators, employees, SeaWorld's guests, its killer whales and a vocal animal rights advocacy community.
At stake is a central piece of Central Florida's tourism economy, one that draws 6 million or more visitors a year, according to SeaWorld and industry estimates.
No easy task: It could take corporate acrobatics to balance complaints that an unhappy, confined orca killed Brancheau against an old, ultra-profitable business model driven by the same killer whale.
"You think it's ethical to confine these highly intelligent animals in small little tanks? I don't think so," said actor/philanthropist Raul Julia-Levy, who wants to free another killer whale at the Miami Seaquarium. "Keeping whales in captivity just for entertainment? That's not right. . . . They [SeaWorld's management] just care about the money."
‘I want to see Shamu'
Walk around SeaWorld Orlando and you're enveloped by orcas. Images of the aquatic mammals are all over, from tail-shaped sun screens to the costumed character greeting guests and posing for pictures near the park entrance.
On a brisk day last week — little more than a week after Brancheau was killed — SeaWorld Orlando was not crowded, but a long line of guests showed up 40 minutes before a 12:30 p.m. "Believe" killer whale show.
An excited child high in the stands shouted, "I want to see Shamu."
By the time the show began, Shamu Stadium was packed; only a few seats in the close-up "soak zone" were empty.
And the business of selling orca-shaped hand puppets and stuffed animals continued down in the lower seats near the tank.
When the park's trainers appeared, the audience cheered. They applauded even louder during a brief memorial for Brancheau as an image of her doing the job she loved was displayed on the stadium's giant video screens.
Later, Brazilian tourists Gabriela Appel, 22, and her mother Rosane, 57, expressed mixed emotions about watching the show at a park Gabriela has visited five times.
"It's different. It's kind of tense, you know," Gabriela Appel said. "Now they [guests] are coming because of what happened, because people like to see tragedy."
They agreed the show was better before Brancheau's death when the trainers were in the water with the animals — better and more dangerous.
SeaWorld remains her favorite theme park, yet she thinks the orcas should be set free. But when asked what SeaWorld would be without these animals, she replied, "This is the park. They can't stop now."
‘Tragic wake-up call'
Some killer-whale advocates suggested SeaWorld use Brancheau's death as an opportunity to redefine their orca experiences. Certainly, they said the park should make orca observation less intrusive.
They've also called for the release of the orcas, saying no tanks or pens can come close to replicating their natural environment — the world's oceans.
But the survival of those animals after release is seriously debated. And the business experts interviewed for this story questioned the wisdom of completely changing SeaWorld's business model, despite the history of six-ton Tilikum, the killer whale responsible for Brancheau's death and two others.
Johnston described the SeaWorld's case as a "tragic wake-up call" for senior management, though not one born of a systematic problem or a faulty product.
"Based on what we know now, the events don't warrant them to recast the fundamental business model," said Johnston, who added that government regulatory reviews could influence the park's policy changes.
"SeaWorld has no interest in creating an unsafe working environment for employees, animals or guests," he said, adding that such an environment would simply not make good business sense.
SeaWorld executives, he said, "have no interest in creating an environment where animals are not happy and not safe. ... Yes, they are in swimming pools. There's no question. They're also in an environment where they are taken care of."
Johnston said he knew of no other SeaWorld orcas exhibiting aggressive behavior similar to Tilikum's.
SeaWorld is not ready to discuss its business plans.
"It's too soon for us to discuss business matters," SeaWorld spokesman Nick Gollattscheck in an e-mail Friday. "Right now, we're grieving the loss of a member of our team and keeping her family in our thoughts. We're reviewing the incident, figuring out what happened and what we can do to make sure it never happens again. Those are our priorities."
University of Florida professor Robert W. Emerson said he sees no easy way for SeaWorld to alter dramatically its business model in the short term. It would be like McDonald's or Wendy's abandoning hamburgers and scrapping their menus because of health concerns about beef.
"It's difficult to do that without conceding what they've done up until now has been wrong," said Emerson, a legal-studies expert. "If that's your product, it's a little hard to go too far away from it without saying there is something wrong with your product."
Converting SeaWorld from a tourist destination to educational wildlife conservatory isn't a probable long-term strategy, either, Emerson and others said. Tourists flock to the park to interact with magnificent and entertaining animals because there are few other places in the world where they can.
SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment is part of the private-equity firm Blackstone Group, which purchased the park for $2.7 billion from Busch Entertainment Corp.
"You don't get people to pay [$88 ticket] prices … just read and look at things," Emerson said. "It's clear SeaWorld, as a company, has a strong motive to muddle through this and go on with the show."
Whatever SeaWorld's plans, it should communicate a well-thought-out message to all stakeholders.
"Bad things will happen to good companies," said Michael Connor, editor and publisher of Business Ethics, an online magazine that covers ethics, governance and corporate responsibility, according to its Web site. "The real test of a good company is whether it will absorb the bad news, make appropriate changes and move on. … Good companies want to do the right thing."
Just as certain business practices can generate concerns about a firm's ethical standing, the failure to react appropriately to a major crisis can end up being detrimental to many parties if the company's long-term image is damaged.
"One more incident like this and the brand really would be in trouble," Connor said. "You don't want to cross your fingers and hope it doesn't happen again. You can't afford to do that."
Anthony Colarossi can be reached at email@example.com or 352-742-5934.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun