ORLANDO, FLA. – “Have questions about killer whale care? Tweet us!” SeaWorld called out to the Twitterverse last week.
Be careful what you ask for.
Critics flooded Twitter with the hashtag AskSeaWorld from Friday through Monday.
“Can you explain why 62 orcas have died?”
“Why don’t u follow Ringling Bros & EmptyTheTanks? It’s the only thing that’ll save you now” — referring to Ringling’s recent announcement it will retire its performing elephants.
And from PETA: “If you were in a bathtub for 30 years, don’t you think you’d get a little psychotic?”
Both PETA and SeaWorld said they expected such a response.
“We understand that digital harassment is now a central part of the animal-rights playbook,” SeaWorld spokesman Fred Jacobs said in an e-mail. “For us it is simply a matter of separating legitimate questions from ones that were clearly intended to overwhelm the process and intimidate those who genuinely were curious about something.”
Seventy percent of questions came “from PETA and other animal rights groups or bots,” he said.
SeaWorld’s invitation to ask questions is part of an overall marketing campaign launched last week to help repair its image after the 2013 anti-captivity documentary “Blackfish.”
Jacobs said other parts of the campaign — including print ads and video — were well-received.
Last week, SeaWorld went on the defensive against the thousands of tweets.
“No time for bots and bullies. We want to answer your questions. askseaworld notrollzone,” it said in one tweet.
It’s not the first time a company’s attempts at a social media campaign have attracted critics. In 2012, for example, McDonald’s tried a McDStories campaign. The hashtag was quickly hijacked by people who complained about the chain, and animal-welfare groups used it to tell stories of animal byproducts in the menu.
“I think for a company that is under fire, as I would say SeaWorld is right now, that’s not a smart move,” said Denise Lee Yohn, author of “What Great Brands Do.” “You’re inviting people to take over the conversation, where you really need to shape and influence the narrative as much as possible.”
When launching a social-media campaign, “you have to keep in mind it’s a two-way street, a two-way conversation,” said former SeaWorld chief marketing officer Joe Couceiro, now with the Chicago Zoological Society. “When you open it up a little too much, it frankly opens the door for others who are going to take advantage of it.”