Over the course of my career, I''ve worked on numerous interesting and important programs, but none seem to be as compelling to PR insiders and business executives as my work to protect Keiko, the killer whale who starred in the movie "Free Willy." Sadly, Keiko has since died of pneumonia after refusing the efforts of overzealous and extremist handlers to coax him to swim in the open ocean. The program won the PRSA Silver Anvil for Crisis Communications and the Creativity in Public Relations Award for Issues Management.

To satisfy the curiosity that persists about the case, here is an article I authored on the subject more than seven years ago:

The term “hostile takeover” usually conjures images of warriors in dark suits doing battle in boardrooms. They involve big bucks, backroom deals and blind ambition.

However, takeovers can strike organizations in many different forms, all of which can cause severe damage to an organization’s reputation. The loss of control, even if temporary, sends powerful signals to those inside and outside a company. How an organization has planned for and responds to these critical events can determine its ultimate fate.

The Oregon Coast Aquarium faced such a challenge when staff members were barred from having contact with Keiko, the killer whale and star of the movie “Free Willy.” After providing Keiko’s day-to-day care since his arrival in January 1996, Aquarium staffers suddenly were turned away by the whale’s owner, the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation.

Of course, Keiko isn’t your everyday aquarium exhibit. The Foundation, with the financial support of Warner Bros., United Parcel Service, billionaire Craig McCaw and thousands of youngsters, brought him to the state-of-the-art rehabilitation tank at the Oregon Coast Aquarium from a small, shabby pool in Mexico. Their goal was to make the Hollywood dream of freeing the long-captive whale a reality.

After arriving in Oregon, Keiko had helped make the Aquarium one of the biggest tourist draws in the Pacific Northwest. Research showed Keiko was the exhibit most people came to see and what people most enjoyed about their visits. Children, in particular, formed uncommonly strong bonds with the whale.

During the 18 months that preceded the hostile takeover of Keiko’s care on July 1, 1997, the Oregon Coast Aquarium’s identity had slowly eroded to the point that its brand had become inextricably linked to Keiko. Even in the midst of record gate receipts, the Aquarium was in trouble. Its future hinged on a temporary exhibit over which the Aquarium had little control.

For weeks, the Aquarium worked behind the scenes in hopes of settling the dispute with the Foundation. But being kept in the dark about the whale’s care and his health was unsettling.

First there were the concerns raised by the Aquarium’s professional staff. Then came the questions from Aquarium visitors and fans around the world that checked on Keiko through the Aquarium’s Web site. “Keiko doesn’t look well,” they said. “Keiko is acting sick.” It wasn’t long before journalists began asking questions.

It was a turning point for the Aquarium. They faced the choice of wallowing in uncertainty or taking a stand.

In the months that followed Oct. 1, 1997, the Aquarium took definitive action to protect and enhance its brand and to usher in the post-Keiko era. In the process, they shored up public support, illustrated by a public approval rating of 84 percent.

How did they do it? Six primary elements of the Aquarium’s communications strategy can be employed by any organization managing a crisis, large or small.
  1. Return to your organization’s core mission. Like many organizations, the Aquarium had allowed its star attraction to divert attention away from the core values and beliefs on which it was founded. Returning to a common set of principles shaped our communications strategy and actions. That’s how we settled on the strategy of publicly demanding that Keiko undergo an independent health evaluation.
  2. “Inreach” must come before outreach. Staff discontent with what was perceived to be the Aquarium’s inaction caused low morale and a rash of resignations. This instability worsened the crisis. Organizations must act early to build trust among internal audiences in times of trouble. Whatever the communications vehicle used – intranet, phone hotline, memos or face-to-face contact – it’s important to keep staff informed and allow for two-way communication.
  3. Simplify. We boiled down the essence of our story and organizational priorities to their most simple element: Keiko deserves an independent health evaluation. Any organization managing a crisis must identify the core message that symbolizes its unique point of view.
  4. Keep your head down and stick to the message. Message discipline isn’t brain surgery – it’s harder! Human nature is to defend oneself when attacked, but that doesn’t make for effective communication. The Foundation accused the Aquarium of being greedy; intentionally making Keiko sick and cooking the books, but we never budged.
  5. Treat communications as a means, not an end. Ultimately, public discourse should provide leverage for resolving private disputes. Once the Foundation agreed to allow an independent evaluation of Keiko’s health, the Aquarium and Foundation agreed to work together to transition Keiko to a sea pen in the North Atlantic. The result was a worldwide media bonanza that positively portrayed both organizations.
  6. Publicly and privately thank your supporters. The Aquarium took advantage of opportunities for staff and members to celebrate. Externally, we launched a campaign-like series of speaking engagements to unveil the Aquarium’s post-Keiko plans and thank supporters. In the process, we further engaged a core group of community influencers throughout the region. Remember that your supporters helped get you where you are today and who knows when you’ll need to call on them again.
Today, Keiko swims in a pen off the coast of Iceland. If all goes as planned, the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation hopes the whale will relearn how to hunt fish, socialize with other killer whales and be able to fend for himself in the wild. (Editor’s note: Keiko did in fact swim free for a time, but rapidly found another inlet along the Norwegian coast to cohabitate with humans until his death in Dec. 2003.)

Meanwhile, the Aquarium, with a refreshed sense of mission, is readying Keiko’s former tank for new exhibits that will highlight sea life off Oregon’s coast.

The hostile takeover at the Oregon Coast Aquarium was costly. It diverted time, resources and attention away from important issues, including a long-planned expansion and capital campaign. However, like all crises, it presented an opportunity. The Aquarium declared a set of principals and renewed its organizational commitment to the core values on which it was founded.

Only by looking beyond the immediate troubles was the Aquarium able to find a way to capitalize on them.

In this age of partnerships, close relationships with suppliers and interdependent industry coalitions, every organization is susceptible to some type of takeover activity. Returning to the basics – turning inward – will help you identify the best story to tell and how to tell it.