Raining on SeaWorld’s Parade: PETA’s Direct Action and Public Interest Communication

  • Ashli Stokes UNC-Charlotte
Keywords: Direct action, PETA, SeaWorld, social change


PETA is well known for creative animal rights activism, with studies exploring how its text-based advocacy creates change regarding societal treatment of animals. What is less explored is how PETA uses on the ground direct action strategies as public interest communications (PIC). For PIC scholars, these strategies are relevant, as direct action provides communicators with experiential ways to persuade stakeholders of new perspectives to push for social change. Building on previous studies in public relations activism and PIC, this essay argues that PETA’s direct-action strategies complement its text-based advocacy by shaping stakeholder perception through encounters with material realities, specifically by using embodied forms of persuasion. Answering how public interest communicators create effective persuasive messages on the ground is crucial in understanding contemporary social change. 

Author Biography

Ashli Stokes, UNC-Charlotte
Professor, UNC Charlotte (effective July 1, 2018).


American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed. text revision). Washington, DC: Author.

American Psychological Association. (2007). APA dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: Author.

Atkins-Sayre, W. (2010). Articulating identity: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the animal/human divide. Western Journal of Communication, 74, 309–328. doi:10.1080/10570311003767183

Benecke, D. R., & Oksiutycz, A. (2015). Changing conversation and dialogue through LeadSA: An example of public relations activism in South Africa. Public Relations Review, 41, 816-824. doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2015.06.003

Biesecker, B. A., & Lucaites, J. L. (Eds.). (2009). Rhetoric, materiality, and politics. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Blair, C. (1999). Contemporary U.S. memorial sites as exemplars of rhetoric’s materiality. In J. Selzer & S. Crowley (Eds.). Rhetorical bodies (pp. 16–57). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Bomey, N. (2018, February 27). SeaWorld CEO suddenly out as theme park attendance wanes. USA Today. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2018/02/27/seaworld-ceo-joel-manby/376136002/

Boyd, J. & VanSlette, S. H. (2009). Outlaw discourse as postmodern public relations. In R.L. Heath, E.L Toth, & D. Waymer, D. (Eds.), Rhetorical and critical approaches to public relations II (pp. 328–342.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Brunner, B. (2017). Community, engagement, and democracy: Re-envisioning public relations and public interest communications through civic professionalism. Journal of Public Interest Communications, 1(1), 45-56. doi:10.32473/jpic.v1.i1.p45

Burke, K. (1931). Counterstatement. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Butterworth, M. L. (2008). “Katie was not only a girl, she was terrible”: Katie Hnida, body rhetoric, and football at the University of Colorado. Communication Studies, 59(3), 259-273. doi:10.1080/10510970802257705

Cadwalladr, C. (2013, March 30). Peta's Ingrid Newkirk: Making the fury fly. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/mar/31/peta-ingrid-newkirk-making-fur-fly

Campbell, K. K. & Burkholder, T. R. (1997). Critiques of contemporary rhetoric. New York, NY: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Chattoo, C. B. (2017). Anatomy of ‘The Blackfish Effect.’ Huffington Post. Retrieved from www.huffingtonpost.com/caty-borum-chattoo/anatomy-of-the-Blackfish-_b_9511932.html

Christiano, A. (2017). Foreword: Building the field of public interest communications. Journal of Public Interest Communications, 1(1), 4-15. doi:10.32473/jpic.v1.i1.p4

Cisneros, J. (2008). (Re)Making the immigrant body: Rhetoric, materiality, and social protest in 'La Gran Marcha' of March 25, 2006. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the National Communication Association, 94th Annual Convention, San Diego, CA.

Condit, C. (1990). Defending abortion rhetoric: Communication social change. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Crable, R. E. & Vibbert, S. L. (1985). Managing issues and influencing public policy. Public Relations Review, 11, 3–16.

DeLuca, K. (1999a). Image politics: The new rhetoric of environmental activism. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

DeLuca, K. (1999b). Unruly arguments: The body rhetoric of EarthFirst!, Act Up, and Queer Nation. Argumentation and Advocacy, 36, 9-21. doi:10.1080/00028533.1999.11951634

DeLuca, K., Lawson, S. & Sun, Y. (2012). Occupy Wall Street on the public screens of social media: Many framings of the birth of a protest movement. Communication, Culture & Critique, 5, 483–509. doi:10.1111/j.1753-9137.2012.01141.x

Downes, E. (2017). “Doing Good” scholarship: Considerations for building positive social change through the emerging field of public interest communications. Journal of Public Interest Communications, 1(1), 31-44. doi:10.32473/jpic.v1.i1.p31

Duhon, S., Ellison, K. & Ragas, M. (2016). A whale of a problem: A strategic communication analysis of SeaWorld Entertainment’s multi-year Blackfish crisis. Case Studies in Strategic Communication, 5, 3–37.

Edwards, L. (2018). Framing, rhetoric and culture jamming in public relations. Public Relations Inquiry, 7(2), 107-109. doi:10.1177/2046147X18775139

Fenske, M. (2016). Performing publics. Review of Communication, 16, 98-100. doi:10.1080/15358593.2016.1183908

Fessmann, J. (2017). Conceptual foundations of public interest communications. Journal of Public Interest Communications, 1(1), 16-30. doi:10.32473/jpic.v1.i1.p16

Flood, M. (2017). The Wiz Live! and body rhetoric: The complexity of increasing diversity in a whitewashed entertainment industry. Ohio Communication Journal, 55, 109-118.

Foss, S. K. (1996). Rhetorical criticism: Exploration and practice. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland.

Foust, C., Pason, A., & Rogness, K. (2017). What democracy looks like: The rhetoric of social movements and counterpublics. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.

Friedersdorf, C. (2014, March 12). The fantastical vision for the original SeaWorld. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/03/the-fantastical-vision-for-the-original-seaworld/284561/

Geiling, N. (2015, November 9). SeaWorld San Diego ending controversial killer whale shows. Think Progress. Retrieved from https://thinkprogress.org/seaworld-san-diego-ending-controversial-killer-whale-shows-c0a18bffbb2b/

Goodnow, P. (2006). On Black Panthers, blue ribbons, and peace signs: The function of symbols in social campaigns. Visual Communication Quarterly, 13(3), 166–179. doi:10.1207/s15551407vcq1303_4

Grunig, J. E., & Grunig, L. A. (1992). Excellence in public relations and communication management. Hillsdale, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates.

Harold, C. (2004). Pranking rhetoric: “Culture jamming” as media activism. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 21(3), 189-211. doi:10.1080/0739318042000212693

Heath, R. L. & Waymer, D. (2009). Rhetorical and critical approaches to public relations II. Activist public relations and the paradox of the positive: A case study of Frederick Douglass’ ‘Fourth of July Address’. In R. Heath, E. Toth & D. Waymer (Eds.), Rhetorical and Critical Approaches to Public Relations II (pp. 195–215). New York, NY: SAGE.

Henderson, A. (2005). Activism in ‘paradise’: Identity management in a public relations campaign against genetic engineering. Journal of Public Relations Research, 17(2), 117–137. doi:10.1207/s1532754xjprr1702_4

Hess, A. (2011). Critical-rhetorical ethnography: Rethinking the place and process of rhetoric. Communication Studies, 62(2),127-152. doi:10.1080/10510974.2011.529750

Hon, L. (2017). Editor’s essay. Journal of Public Interest Communications, 1(1), 1-3. doi:10.32473/jpic.v1.i1

Howard, B. C. (2013, November 22). Animal-rights activists take air out of Macy’s Thanksgiving parade. National Geographic. Retrieved from https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/11/131121-macys-thanksgiving-day-parade-protests-animal-rights-seaworld-joan-jett/

Ihlen, Ø. (2004). Norwegian hydroelectric power: Testing a heuristic for analyzing symbolic strategies and resources. Public Relations Review, 30, 217-223. doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2004.02.001

Jasper, J. M. & Poulsen, J. D. (1995). Recruiting strangers and friends: Moral shocks and social networks in animal rights and anti-nuclear protests. Social Problems, 42, 493-512.

Johnston, J. (2017). The public interest: A new way of thinking for public relations? Public Relations Inquiry,6(1), 5–22. doi:10.1177/2046147X16644006

Lacewing, M. (2008). Philosophy for AS. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Landau, J. (2014). From in loco parentis to Student-Citizens: The 1964 Berkeley Protests as De tournament. Communication Quarterly, 62(5), 589–606. doi:10.1080/01463373.2014.949384

Li, L. (2013, November 20). PETA & angry Alec Baldwin go after SeaWorld’s Thanksgiving day float. Retrieved from https://observer.com/2013/11/peta-angry-alec-baldwin-go-after-seaworlds-thanksgiving-day-float/

Madden, S., Janoske, M., Winkler, R., and Harpole, Z. (2018). Who loves consent? Social media and the culture jamming of Victoria’s Secret. Public Relations Inquiry, 7(2), 171-186. doi:10.1177/2046147X18764216

McEwan, B. (2014, June 3). PETA vs. SeaWorld: The creative tactics and tech that drive PETA’s SeaWorld Campaign. Nonprofit Quarterly. Retrieved from https://nonprofitquarterly.org/2014/06/03/peta-vs-seaworld-the-creative-tactics-and-tech-that-drive-peta-s-seaworld-campaign/

Middleton, M., Senda-Cook, S. & Endres, D. (2011). Articulating rhetorical field methods: Challenges and tensions. Western Journal of Communication, 75, 386-406. doi:10.1080/10570314.2011.586969

Milner, R. (2013). Pop polyvocality: Internet memes, public participation, and the Occupy Wall Street movement. International Journal of Communication, 7, 2357–2390.

Neate, R. (2015) SeaWorld sees profits plunge 84% as customers desert controversial park. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/aug/06/seaworld-profits-plunge- customers

Newman, A. (2013, November 18). New York Today: Parade Protests. New York Times. Retrieved from https://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/18/new-york-today-parade-protests/

Olson, K. & Goodnight, T. (1994). Entanglements of consumption, cruelty, privacy, and fashion:

The social controversy over fur. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 80 (3), 249-276. doi:10.1080/00335639409384072

Penny, J. (2012). Visible identities, visual rhetoric: The self-labeled body as a popular platform for political persuasion. International Journal of Communication, 6, 2318–2336.

PETA. (2013, October 30). ‘Orcas’ rain on SeaWorld’s parade. Retrieved from http://www.peta.org

PETA. (2014a, November 19). Naked ‘orcas’ to protest Macy’s SeaWorld float. Retrieved from https://www.peta.org

PETA. (2014b, January 1). PETA protests SeaWorld float at 2014 Rose parade [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kt3u1N66VyA

PETA. (2014c, December 4). SeaWorld protestors jump barricade at Macy’s parade [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ZBvkmyNNs0

PETA. (2014d, December 5). SeaWorld ‘Christmas Celebration’ to draw PETA protest. Retrieved from https://www.peta.org

PETA. (2015, May 27). Go underwater with PETA’s new virtual reality experience, “I, orca.” Retrieved from https://www.peta.org/blog/go-underwater-with-petas-new-virtual-reality-experience-i-orca/

PETA. (2016, October 26). From tanks to tombstones: PETA to set up chilling orca ‘cemetery’ at SeaWorld Orlando. Retrieved from https://www.peta.org

PETA. (2017a, July 6). 39 ‘orcas’ to hold ‘die-in’ in call to stay away from SeaWorld. PETA.org. Retrieved from https://www.peta.org

PETA. (2017b, August 2). Happening now: Dying ‘orcas’ ‘beached’ at SeaWorld’s Aquatica. Retrieved from https://www.peta.org

PETA protest demands SeaWorld release its orcas. (2018, March 5). Retrieved from http://www.thecwsandiego.com/story/37642949/peta-protest-demands-seaworld-release-its-orcas

PETA takes dramatic stand against SeaWorld’s Rose Parade float, leading to 19 arrests. (2014, January 2). Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/02/peta-seaworld-rose-parade_n_4532159.html

Rice, J. E. (2008). The new ‘‘new:’’ Making a case for critical affect studies. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 94, 200–212. doi:10.1080/00335630801975434

Romero, D. (2013, December 31). Rose Parade’s SeaWorld Float will be focus of PETA protest. LA Weekly. Retrieved from http://www.laweekly.com/news/rose-parades-seaworld-float-will-be-focus-of-peta-protest-4255052

Rovisco, M. & Veneti, A. (2017). Picturing protest: visuality, visibility and the public sphere. Visual Communication, 16(3), 271–277. doi:10.1177/1470357217704633

Sample, I. (2008, December 11). Stress and lack of exercise are killing elephants, zoos warned. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2008/dec/12/elephants-animal-welfare

Sangiovanni, M. & Bondaroff, T. (2014). From advocacy to confrontation: Direct enforcement by environmental NGOs. International Studies Quarterly, 58(2), 348-361. doi:10.1111/isqu.12132

SeaWorld (n.d.). What we do. Retrieved from https://seaworldentertainment.com/en/what-we-do/welcome

Selzer, J., & Crowley, S. (Eds.), (1999). Rhetorical bodies. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Smith, A. (2018, 27 February). SeaWorld CEO steps down as attendance slides. CNN Money. Retrieved from http://money.cnn.com/2018/02/27/news/companies/seaworld-ceo-joel-manby-steps-down/index.html

Smith, M. F. (2005). Activism. In R.L Heath (Ed.,) The Sage handbook of public relations. (395-407). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Smith, M. F. & Ferguson, D. P. (2010). Activism 2.0. In R.L. Heath (Ed.), The Sage handbook of public relations (2nd edition). (395–407). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Stokes, A. Q. (2013). You are what you eat: Slow Food USA’s constitutive public relations. Journal of Public Relations Research, 25(1), 68–90. doi:10.1080/1062726X.2013.739102

Stokes, A. Q. & Atkins-Sayre, W. (2018). PETA, rhetorical fracture, and the power of digital activism. Public Relations Inquiry, 7(2), 149-170. doi:10.1177/2046147X18770216

Stokes, A. Q. & Rubin, D. (2010). Activism and the limits of symmetry: The public relations battle between Colorado GASP and Philip Morris. Journal of Public Relations Research 22(1), 26–48. doi:10.1080/10627260903150268

Wallace, B. (2016, May 4). SeaWorld breached: Score one for the cetaceans. New York Magazine. Retrieved from http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2016/04/seaworld-tilikum-orcas.html

Weaver, C. K. (2010). Dressing for battle in the new global economy: Putting power, identity, and discourse into public relations theory. Management Communication Quarterly, 15, 279–288. doi:10.1177/0893318901152007

Weaver, C. K. (2013). Mothers, bodies, and breasts: Organizing strategies and tactics in women’s activism. In C. Daymon & Demetrious, K. (Eds.), Gender and public relations: Critical perspectives on voice, image and identity. London, UK: Routledge.

Zielinski, A. (2016, October 25). New Halloween attraction at SeaWorld: An orca graveyard. Sacramento Current. Retrieved from https://www.sacurrent.com/the-daily/archives/2016/10/25/new-halloween-attraction-at-seaworld-an-orca-graveyard

Original Research