The Ocean Reef Club is located on the northeast coast of Key Largo in the Florida Keys. Founded in 1945 as a fishing village, Ocean Reef Club today is a 2,000-acre self-contained private club community serving mostly out-of-state members and their guests. It features a hotel, marina, golf and tennis, a private airport, shops and restaurants for its members. For years, the club had taken care of marine dolphins for its members and guests' enjoyment. The dolphins lived in their own aerated lagoon where they were properly fed, closely looked after by trainers and routinely examined by a veterinarian who maintained an office on the premises. In 1997, Ocean Reef came under criticism by animal rights groups that believed the dolphins should be returned to the wild. Several attempts to get the dolphins released were perpetrated by these groups. This growing "Free Willy" mentality caused a noticeable rise in negative publicity directed at the club. Several stories alleged that the dolphins were being neglected and even mistreated. When one of the animals passed away from old age, stories instigated by the more strident animal rights activists implied the dolphin had mysteriously died as a result of water contamination. The club's position throughout this period was not to speak to the media.
Clearly, public opinion was turning against Ocean Reef and management finally decided in 1995 that the club's reputation needed to be protected. As a result, club management hired Proby & Associates to handle growing media attention. After a comprehensive assessment of the issue, the agency coordinated a media preparedness workshop for club management concentrating on how to handle face-to-face interviews and control media inquiries internally. The plan developed a step-by-step first response strategy in order to gain control of any crisis situation. The plan created incident-specific scenarios to plan and test the organization's response capabilities; recognize, anticipate and avoid common mistakes made by management; and involve certain management personnel in issues planning and coordination. The plan also prescribed a means to manage the media during face-to-face and phone interviews, track and monitor coverage and measure the strategy's effectiveness. In regard to the dolphin issue, the agency prepared interviews and provided statements to the media to ensure that the club's position would be included in any future coverage.
From 1994 on, editorial coverage of the captive dolphins issue at Ocean Reef was balanced and accurate. The club's points of view on the issue, supported with factual, up-to-date information developed by the agency, were included in the coverage. The spokesperson was more skillful and comfortable in handling interviews, contributing to a more positive reflection of the club's reputation as a caring and fair-minded organization. The actual interviews were conducted with better planning and implementation. Overall, Ocean Reef Club's reputation was protected and maintained. Since the captive dolphins episode that concluded with the release of the remaining dolphins in 1994, the Ocean Reef Club has witnessed other issues-related events that have necessitated employing the crisis communications plan developed by Proby & Associates.