The passive museum: In a crisis, does your brand say “leadership”?


A good story can change the world. Or save your organization. Or both.

At the moment, I’m thinking about the power of documentary films. For a lot of people seeking to bring about social change, the documentary film has become the tool of choice. The form has demonstrated its ability to communicate widely, and produce results such as compelling major policy changes in government and corporations, alike. Stories told in this form are so impactful that a couple of years ago the Ford Foundation announced it would put $50 million into helping produce independent documentaries. Over the last century, foundations have made individual grants to individual organizations–a piecemeal approach to solving problems. Now foundations are trying to create tipping points that bring about meaningful change. The documentary, they feel, can do just that.

Even short documentaries are making their mark. For decades, pundits submitted opinions to newspaper op-ed sections for publication. In 2011, The New York Times decided this concept deserved updating, so they introduced Op-Docs, a forum for short documentaries covering current affairs, contemporary life and historical subjects. Since then, over 200 Op-Docs films have been posted (some earning Oscar and Emmy nominations), making the Times one of the most acclaimed and influential destinations for online documentaries (or, as it is called, unfairly but tongue-in-cheek, “short attention span cinema”).

The aquarium better known as Seaworld got a first hand lesson about the power of documentaries in 2013 with the release of Blackfish.

For years, Seaworld put on (with apologies to Ed Sullivan) “a really good show”, but not a very informative one: trainers stuck to prepared scripts presenting light-hearted, upbeat general “factoids” that didn’t say much. When a PR crisis struck–triggered in this case by the highly-public and publicized death of a trainer during an orca show–it seemed clear that SeaWorld really hadn’t communicated much of a message about its commitment to saving marine life.

When the media started asking questions about the appropriateness of live-animal shows, anti-captivity activists were ready. They had already been telling in-depth stories about their own unique research and about the effect of captivity on whales. SeaWorld, with its thin story, couldn’t compete in the information game. It quickly lost control of the discussion; activists leveraged their expertise to direct conversation and set the agenda.

It was telling that CNN’s Wolf Blitzer told an anti-captivity advocate “It is fascinating to hear an expert talk about this.” To the media–searching for leaders who would answer their questions–the unique insights presented by anti-captivity advocates made them believable. Activists made it easy to believe Seaworld was more interested marketing Shamu plush dolls; this, in turn, made their rescue operations seem like cynical PR stunts rather than opportunities to raise awareness about animals in the wild.

Just as Blitzer seemed neither to trust SeaWorld nor see it as an expert, others followed suit and the tide turned against the organization. Ultimately, the fallout from Blackfish forced Seaworld to revamp its business model. Whale shows have been discontinued. I’m not debating here whether it’s right or wrong to keep these intelligent mammals in captivity, but the impact of this documentary is a useful, cautionary story: how do you stave-off a public relations disaster if you are passive about telling people what you know? You aren’t telling your story as effectively as you think.

Sadly, the Vancouver Aquarium failed to heed the Blackfish warning; it should have known better.

For the last sixty years, it has welcomed visitors wanting to see things otherwise hidden from sight. It’s a cliché to say we know the surface of the moon better than our own ocean floors, but that is the essential value of an aquarium; it is the agency by which we understand the ocean and its occupants. People need to “see” to feel connected with marine life and care about their survival. The Vancouver Aquarium gives them that, playing an indispensable role connecting and educating millions to oceanographic science. It is also a credible and well-informed environmental activist in its own right, adding vital missing knowledge to the body of oceanographic science.

Although few aquariums match the high standards set by the Aquarium for rescue, rehabilitation and display of cetaceans, that didn’t seem to matter to politicians. On May 15, 2017, the Vancouver Aquarium learned people didn’t really appreciate what goes on there when the city’s Park Board (which controls the land on which the Aquarium operates) voted 6 to 1 in favour of immediately banning whales, dolphins and porpoises in captivity–even injured ones–at the Aquarium.

Why? The Aquarium has been just like many museums that are passive when it comes to telling their story, and that comes at a cost. Doubting science is an everyday part of culture, and research organizations haven’t been speaking sufficiently clearly, vividly and publicly to a popular audience about why their work matters. As a result, an information vacuum is created, so one-sided stories and private theories about oceans and marine life often go unchecked.

Remember Seaworld’s lesson…What happens when you don’t effectively tell your story?

Seaworld found out at least two things: first, people see part of what you do, but not all of it. Second, not getting the message out leaves the door open to people with louder voices who then command the agenda. The board’s decision wasn’t necessarily the voice of the people, rather the people in a position of authority didn’t trust the Aquarium; they chose to believe another, louder voice–the same anti-captivity activists who targeted SeaWorld.

A brand should be a form of protection, and it should mean politicians–who don’t know as much as the experts–tangle with the brand at their peril. But branding is about trust. People have to believe your messages, or they will believe someone else who is peddling a different message. The Vancouver Aquarium brand proved not persuasive enough, not strong enough, to protect it from its detractors. When Parks Board commissioner Catherine Evans said the Aquarium has to “catch up” in terms of the ethical treatment of animals, she was clearly stating the board didn’t trust the Aquarium message. Thus emboldened, the Board dismissed–at a swipe–the Aquarium’s mission to be a player working to solve the world’s environmental problems. By rejecting the display of rehabilitating cetaceans, they essentially said it is to be nothing more than a tourist attraction (and a lesser one at that).

And that lack of trust is too bad because the Aquarium is, says Andrew Trites, director of the UBC Marine Mammal Research Unit, “an incredible resource that has advanced researchers’ understanding of the pressures marine mammals face.”

Ironically, in his book – Death At SeaWorld, Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity (2012) – about activists and SeaWorld that inspired Blackfish, David Kirby does vindicate the efforts of one display-industry organization: none other than the Vancouver Aquarium, which had long given-up keeping orcas in captivity, and now believed “whales were not a lost cause whose only salvation was public display. ” In fact, Kirby tells readers it was the Aquarium’s view that “the answer to problems such as pollution and orca-habitat spoilage was not to build a Noah’s ark of ‘human care,’ the answer was to heal the sea.” That is, in a nutshell, the Aquarium’s mission: research, education and conservation. Kirby understood the Aquarium is about scientific leadership, unlike SeaWorld’s entertainment leadership; the Parks Board refused to trust the Aquarium story.

Museums may scratch their heads and wonder why they aren’t having greater impact on people. They may want to see themselves as playing “a major role as a focus of reflection and debate,” says Edward Rothstein (“New Insights into History may skew the Big Picture,” New York Times, 19 March 2014). If achieving this “remains beyond their reach” it’s because they ask “how do we…?” without ever getting a proper answer.

Whatever the question, the answer is content. If aquariums want to be trusted, substantive content development–a good story–is the right catalyst. And these days what counts is content that is delivered digitally.

Museums are incredible resources providing intelligent thinking on vital national issues, but academics marginalize themselves by not speaking out. If they “don’t matter in today’s great debates” and appear “less and less accessible to the general public” says Nicholas Kristof, they will be seen as irrelevant and anachronistic. Who wants to associate with or support a brand like that?

Articulate organizations that keep people engaged and talking about their work are able to prove their organization is worth the cost to politicians, taxpayers, foundations and ordinary donors–anyone who grudgingly surrenders resources. The Aquarium, on the other hand, didn’t tell a good story and made it easy for the Parks Board to swing its axe.

“How are scientists going to get money from policy makers if our leaders and legislators can’t understand what they do? If they can’t make clear what their work involves…they won’t fund science.”

– Claudia Dreifus, “Science so Everyone can get it,” New York Times, February 24, 2014.

Does your brand say “leadership?” The best way to be judged fairly when something happens (and it will) is to be prepared: establish your identity in peoples’ minds before problems strike. Explain yourself. Tell your story. The more thoroughly embedded their perceptions, especially with respect to credibility and trustworthiness, the more likely the organization will weather the storm. That is the lesson from SeaWorld and, now, the Vancouver Aquarium.

In previous years, documentaries were accessible to people who made an effort to be informed via TV screens, film festivals or DVDs. Netflix has changed that, so has the web. Your constituency of young people really do pay attention to this far-reaching medium and museums need to be aware of how powerful the digital realm has become. Blackfish was impactful because it was “everywhere.” The Ford Foundation obviously sees the power of digital storytelling. How are you reaching the masses and building trust in the power of your mission?

You can access a broader audience–and get content to people when and where they want it–but those people want a good story. A better story might have built the trust the Aquarium needed to defend its mission, and persuade the Parks Board. A documentary or two, a series of Op-Doc-style videos, engaging stories told with virtual reality, more substantive digital content, personalized content delivered to their followers–all of this–might have helped the Vancouver Aquarium change the world…and protected their world.

This is part of an ongoing series of articles Bv02 is producing about the reshaping of “the story” online: how content has gone wrong, and how to change it. Rob Ferguson is Bv02’s branding and content specialist who focuses on helping clients understand “who are we?” and the impact their unique ideas and content have on developing identity and extending brand awareness.

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