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Sea Shepherd: Public Relations Proposal

Executive Summary

Sea shepherd is an international non-governmental organization involved in the activities aimed at conserving the whales. Sea shepherd believes that, the whales need to be preserved for the future generation to have the opportunity to see them. The organization has faced stiff opposition and criticisms from the various corporations and also from the governments in which the organization carries its activities. Frequently, the organization has been responding to these criticisms through its website and also through the media. The responses sometimes have angered and irked some sections of its public.

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Therefore, as a strategy to build its image especially in the eyes of its stakeholders, Sea shepherd has embarked on reorganizing and re-equipping its public relations department in order to revamp the organization’s image. Below report hence, looks at the organization’s accusations and how it has responded to them. Then through employing the institutional theory and two-way symmetric model of communication, the proposal suggest the alternatives the organization can adopt in responding to future accusations or when effectively wants to communicate to its publics.


The issue of whaling came up after the commercial whaling was illegalized in 1986. This particular act, angered countries like Japan and Norway, and to an extent, Iceland who were traditionally whalers. Since the introduction of the ban on commercialization of whale meat, the public outlook on the way the sea shepherd does its duties has changed as the organization has been perceived to go beyond the set rules and regulations and take law in its own hands. Sea shepherd officials have guns which they use for defense, but the public have had a different opinion claiming that Sea shepherd uses the guns to provoke them (Sea Shepherd, 1994).

Indeed, the members of the organization, especially the crews, have received numerous threats from the fishing communities from all over the world. In some circumstances, they have been denied transport passes, deported, jailed and harassed. Sea Shepherd was formed in 1977 as the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS). It is an international non-profit organization, with the aim of conserving marine life, while its objective was to bring to a stop the destruction of the marine ecosystems and the killing of the animals in the world’s oceans (Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, n.d).

Greenpeace was the predecessor to the sea shepherd, an organization founded by Paul Watson among other founder members in 1971. Paul Watson also founded the sea shepherd, but due to ideological differences, he was expelled from Greenpeace in 1977, to what other members termed as his forceful nature, and self-centeredness which the members believed could ruin the reputation of the organization in the long-run.

Issues leveled against Sea shepherd

Sea shepherd as an organization that has forcefully come out to use all arsenals within its capacity has received accusations on numerous occasions. The accusations have largely centered on; the use of violence by the Sea shepherd crews, violation of human rights, the pretence that Sea shepherd was fighting whaling activities when in real sense it was not, and the accusations from the rival organization, the Greenpeace which has accused Sea shepherd of employing ‘unethical’ methods in fighting the whalers.

In response, Sea shepherd, through its media department has been responding to these issues frequently. Paul Watson, who is the founder of the Sea shepherd, has been the face of the organization’s in responding to the accusation, either outlining the position of the organization, clarifying some facts, or hitting directly at the organizations’ critics.

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Sea shepherd use of violence

The history of Sea shepherd clearly portrays an organization that has employed violence against the whalers and the poachers. The organization’s crew members carry out these through sinking the whalers’ ships and trawlers or by completely destroying them. In many instances, they ram at the ships or open their sea valves thus destroying them. To the organization, this is not perceived as violence since; they observe that, they have never harmed anyone in the course of their work. For example, in 2007, Shepherd was accused by the Japanese government of destroying and sinking a ship by the name Nisshin Maru (Sea shepherd, 2007).

Greenpeace accuse Sea shepherd of blackmail and false information

From the moment Paul Watson was removed from the Greenpeace organization, bitter rivalry grew between the two organizations that have led them to engage in constant accusation and counter-accusation on each other. Greenpeace believe in preservation of human rights alongside the preservation of the lives of whales, and therefore, criticize Sea shepherd of promoting violence and engaging in abuse of human rights.

For example, Gerd Leipold, the Executive Director of Greenpeace, wrote to Watson turning down the organization’s request to cooperate with them; moreover, Leipold asserts that “we do not consider this a serious request as your many previous statements about Greenpeace have shown that you have no respect for this organization, and do not shy away from making false statements about it and the people who work for it” (Greenpeace, 2006).

Sea shepherd response to the issues

Sea shepherd, responding to the accusation from the government of Japan stated that its crews was not responsible for the fire that had destroyed the mother ship of the Japanese whaling fleet, and “the last thing we would have wanted to do was sink a floating factory full of oil and chemicals in the pristine waters of the Antarctic ecosystem” (Sea shepherd, 2007). Sea shepherd was in acceptance that the accusations leveled against it about intimidating and disrupting whaler’s activities were right; however, it did not damage their vessels. Moreover, Sea shepherd had never used any method “that had the capability to cause injury or death to another human being” (Sea shepherd, 2007).

Sea shepherd blamed the Japan government and other corporations of initiating propaganda against the organization’s efforts of conserving the whales and instead branding them “eco-terrorists” (Sea shepherd, 2007).

Responding to Gerd Leipold, Sea shepherd stated that the organization’s existence did not have to depend on Greenpeace, and that Greenpeace had nothing of substance to offer (Sea shepherd, 2006). Sea shepherd further accused Greenpeace of not being committed to the saving of the whales, instead, the organization was only soliciting for funds to end up in the pockets of a few gullible individuals. Sea shepherd continued to state that Greenpeace had sabotaged its registration and shamelessly continued to beg for money when already it had enough; moreover, it had achieved nothing in twenty years of its operation and as a result of these claims, Sea shepherd was not willing at all to seek any assistance from Greenpeace (Sea shepherd, 2006).

In response to Greenpeace, Sea shepherd stated that leaders of Greenpeace did not have a clue of the vision that led to its establishment and that Sea shepherd as an organization will continue to criticize Greenpeace (Sea shepherd, 2006).

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Ethical framework in public relations

Many public relations practitioners should strive to be successful and therefore they are expected to make intelligent split-second decisions on situations compounded with ethical dilemmas (Lieber, 2003). Moreover, any decision arrived at is largely expected to sustain an ongoing delicate balance between serving the best interests of a client and also that of the overall society. Hence, this balance defines the two accepted philosophies of the roles of a public relations representative within the society (Day, 2003, cited in Lieber, 2003).

The first principle advocates that these representatives, although paid, actually advocate for decisions that they already believe in; this is where the individual is just expressing his or her opinions in accordance to freedom of expression (Lieber, 2003).

The second principle sees the public relations representative as a hired conduit for a point of view that he or she may not personally condone (Lieber, 2003); therefore, any public relations practitioner needs to offer to the public, the chance to hear the message of his or her client even if it is a controversial one. Ethical dilemmas usually emanate from dealing with the various variables, for example, the decision to service a client normally presents a common ethical dilemma facing public relations firms, and hence servicing disreputable client can offer a valuable controversial opinion which may present equal possibilities of causing more harm than good by providing the public with potentially harmful information (Lieber, 2003).

In public relations, there are three common types of theoretical bases and models that are founded in ethical principles (Lieber, 2003). The first model is the model of discourse which states that public relations role is to encourage discourse. Under this model, PR professionals are expected to perform a persuasive function which is similar to the attorney representing a client, and the assumption is that when competing messages and viewpoints are adequately represented, the truth will inevitably come out (Lieber, 2003).

The use of two-way symmetrical model is adopted under this discourse, which structures public relations as the forum of discussion in which a variety of individuals, opinions and values come together, generally leading to different conclusions (Lieber, 2003). Here, public relations representatives just like the attorneys “operate with their clients best interests as their primary motive” (Lieber, 2003).

The second model is the model of societal obligation which states that the main role of public relations practitioners is serving the society and the community (Lieber, 2003). In addition, the social responsibility of PR practitioners is the duty of strengthening community and promoting communal values of fairness, democracy, and truth. Therefore, according to the model, “a proper balance between obligation to employer and a ‘principle of mutuality’ to contrasting opinions ensures a responsible strategic communication process.” (Lieber, 2003).

The third model is the model of, professional responsibility; the model sees the PR practitioners not as communicators, but as professionals, with defined responsibilities. Here, the professionals are seen as specialized expertise and purely oriented toward service. (Lieber, 2003).Therefore, the ethical expectations for the PR practitioners to consider when developing a persuasive communication is to ensure: “truthfulness of the message; authenticity of the persuader; respect for the persuadee, equity of the appeal and social responsibility for the common good” (Lieber, 2003).

How effective could Sea shepherd respond to accusations

According to Corrigan and Mortensen (2004), “crisis communications should be long-term activity by which organizations use formal procedures to respond productively to the crises”. Today, the PR practice is yet to discover a definitive proactive model that can successful prepare an organization for navigating crisis-mode PR, and one reason can be that a given organizational situation often demands a personalized response.

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An effective public relations model needs to “examine the circumstances that lead to the crisis, encompass the crisis, and should continue even after the life cycle of the crisis” (Corrigan and Mortensen, 2004). Upon being confronted with the crisis of accusations from the Japan government and Greenpeace, Sea shepherd in responding needed to:

  1. apply divergent thinking to the accusations,
  2. clarify the levels of reference and identify connections between them,
  3. take into consideration the role of time whereby the sequence of events could help in dealing with the problem,
  4. explore new ways to look at the relationship between the accusations and the true facts about the organization (Rawlings and Stoker, n.d).

Response to use of violence need to embrace the institutional theory

Many public relations practitioners need to be effective in creating and maintaining mutually beneficial relationships with the stakeholders; there is a need to negotiate the many environmental influences on the organization that affect the organizational survival (Patel, Xavier and Broom, 2005). The institutional theory suggests that “the organization’s continuity depends not only on material resources and the technical information, but also on the organization’s perceived legitimacy”(Patel, Xavier and Broom, 2005).

For a conferred status, organizational legitimacy is controlled by those outside the organization, and therefore relies on organization preserving a coalition of supportive stakeholders who have legitimacy-determining power. The theory suggests that organizations can establish legitimacy sources by frequent and intense communication with the organization’s social surroundings. Therefore, in accordance to this theory, Sea shepherd in responding to the government accusations needs to put in mind that its activities, to a great extent, depend on the cooperation of the government, hence any mutual understanding needs to exist between these two groups. Indeed, the response needs to address the failures of the government in a more constructive way.

Response to Greenpeace need Two-way symmetrical model of communication

The model represents one of the four models of public relation that was developed by Grunig. Basically, “the 2-way symmetrical model is based on a free exchange of information that is used to alter attitudes in both the organization and its publics” (Paun, 2010, p. 4). According to Paun (2009, p. 4), “organizations that apply the notion of the two-way symmetrical communication will: enjoy more mutually beneficial, sustainable and commercially satisfying relationships with their stakeholders; make a more significant and worthwhile contribution to society; have more committed employees who are stronger or organizational advocates.”

Indeed, the relationship that exists between the organization and the stakeholders may be enhanced and strengthened by the use of two-way symmetrical communication where there is flow of information from and to either of the parties.

According to Grunig, Grunig and Dozier (2002, p. 308), with this model, the PR practitioners are able to use scientific research in determining how to persuade the publics to behave in the way the organization may want. Through the two-way symmetrical model, the PR professionals are able to utilize research and dialogue to bring about symbiotic changes in the ideas, attitudes and behaviors of both the organization and its publics. Most models are much characterized by monologue-type of communication, but the two-way symmetrical communication, involves much of dialogue, that in turn promote trust and positive adjustments.

Sea shepherd, giving press statements, is largely promoting one-way communication, which is largely not okay with its stakeholders. Since the organization is involved in conservation issues, it needs to outline its position to its public clearly and also, gets to the side of its public. The point is that, there should be understanding to the two sides; the organization and its publics hence need to embrace a two-way communication that advocates for dialogue. “In the two-way symmetric model, the communicator is the go between for the organization, and its public, trying through all methods of communication to have each side understand each other’s point of view” (Childers, 1989).

Alternative Response to the accusations

The question that can be asked is whether Sea shepherd PR should be involved in promoting the image of the organization or should it be also be involved in; managing conflict and the cost of conflict, or promoting harmony between organization and its publics or developing positive relationships which can yield mutual benefits. The prime function of public relations is to establish relationships with organizations and the publics that are vital to the function of the organization. “Generally, PR practitioners need to move out of self-interested advocacy and promotes in an objective way the fundamental rights of the publics with much emphasis on priority, sensitivity, veracity and respect.” (Edgett, 2002).

According to Pearson, Susskind and Fidel, 1996 (cited in Edgett, 2002), they suggest six principles of “mutual gains communication” that include: acknowledging the concerns of the other side, encouraging joint fact finding, offering contingent commitments to minimize impacts if they occur, accepting responsibility, admit mistakes and share power, focusing on building long-term relationships and lastly, act in a trustworthy fashion at all times.

Therefore, adopting an ethical framework to the alternative response for Sea shepherd is relevant because: Sea shepherd is an organization that serve the society and hence need to build a positive relationship with the society; Sea shepherd publics need honest and reliable information; criticisms should be the avenues to strengthen the organization’s weak points and therefore responding to them should uphold respect, truth and dignity to those who raise those criticisms. In responding to the Japan government’s accusations, Sea shepherd should have divorced itself from blaming the whalers and the government, and instead outlined its achievements in the fight to conserve the whales.

Describing how it confronts and executes its acts which may be perceived by the larger society as cruel, (Sea shepherd was forgetting its social responsibility), Sea shepherd needed to explain the challenges they meet while carrying out its activities (clarity), for example, the danger they face from the well armed whalers and the lack of co-operation from the governments (issue-based). The organization also would have emphasized their human rights approaches and why any cooperation from the governments and other corporations was necessary. According to Hass (2003), says that, “there is need for a broadened view of organization-stakeholder interaction that encompasses both actual and simulated conversations depending on the anticipated effects of organization actions on the stakeholders.”

Sea shepherd in dealing with the Japan government can embrace the institutional theory, which explains that, the legitimacy of the organization’s, to an extent, depends on the government and other publics ‘goodwill’. Therefore, an alternative response would have been that, Sea shepherd is in recognition and appreciation of the perception of the public that it uses violence; however, it needs support from the government and other stakeholders in its endeavor to preserve the marine life, while at the same time respecting the rights of the publics. Indeed, dialogue and cooperation will go a long way in eliminating the stand off and providing amicable solution to the issue.

In responding to the Greenpeace, Sea shepherd, needed to outline the failures of Greenpeace as an organization in relation to its objective in protecting the whales. Sea shepherd should device a public relation mechanism of responding to issues in more objective way than narrowing down to particular individuals, for example, (priority, objectivity and veracity, according to Edgett, 2002). That is why the two-way symmetric model is relevant to the organization in communicating to its publics, because it enhance consensus building and also focus on the interests of others, and which Sea shepherd need to promote at all times in regard to its status (Emma, 2010).

The stakeholders are the most important to the organization (Hass, 2003); hence communication from the organization should be of building confidence and dispelling any doubt among them. Therefore, an alternative response would have been to appreciate and respect the role played by Greenpeace while at the same time calling for a true and cooperation in serving the society, given that their goals are almost directed to the same course.


Sea Shepherd has always actively played its role in the protection of the marine ecosystem, more so in thwarting the unlawful and indiscriminate whaling in the high seas. This is despite the various challenges it faces in the form of opposition from the proponents of whaling, more so Norway and Japan. However, the main challenge that the organization faces is the issue of PR especially when dealing with its publics. Indeed, its actions have, in some instances, been viewed as detrimental to the society although some publics provide support for such actions.

Basically, the actions of an organization may either promote or destroy the image or reputation of the organization, thus proper strategies of PR are important. It therefore becomes important to the Public relations department to be more innovative and effective in dealing and responding to the criticisms. The image that Sea shepherd needs to create should be one of positively rectifying the organizational perception in the publics, while at the same time, satisfying the needs of its publics through honest and reliable information.


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