ANALYSIS: Corporate Case Study - Outside aid keeps the NationalPark Service on right PR path

In terms of PR, the National Park Service battles tight funds, limited manpower, and a dichotomy of goals. Yet it often gets the message out, thanks to some powerful allies.

In terms of PR, the National Park Service battles tight funds, limited manpower, and a dichotomy of goals. Yet it often gets the message out, thanks to some powerful allies.

If the National Park Service's (NPS) public affairs office had a theme song, it probably would be With a Little Help From My Friends.

The cash-strapped agency has gotten extra money in recent years to alleviate its maintenance backlog, but its communications staff remains predictably small. Thankfully, public affairs gets lots of internal and external support.

Communications chief David Barna supervises 11 positions in an agency whose mission seems contradictory - it must protect parks for future generations while facilitating their use by present-day citizenry. Recurring media relations issues address this dichotomy, as well as tech issues that didn't exist when the agency was founded in 1916, such as automobiles, personal watercrafts, and cell phone towers. Meanwhile, two public inquiry workers sift through thousands of letters, calls, e-mails from researchers, and vacation planners.

Among Barna's best friends are field PA officers who report to seven regional directors. Each region employs one full-time PA staffer, and the largest 100 of the 385 parks have PA designees. Only half of those hold PA specialist classifications, however. The rest handle media calls, congressional queries, and commercial filming requests on top of other administrative duties.

Most field PA officers rise from the ranks of interpretive park rangers - the helpful, uniformed people who lead nature hikes or recount daring escape attempts from Alcatraz. One reporter says communication at the local level can be spotty. "Sometimes, there tends to be an entrenched, almost defensive attitude among some who work in the various local park units, Todd Wilkinson, a freelancer for the Christian Science Monitor, opines, though he praises the headquarters staff. "The Park Service has always consistently and honestly answered difficult questions."

The PA staff also collaborates weekly with counterparts from other divisions in the Department of the Interior (DOI). In fact, some press releases posted on the NPS' website appear on DOI letterhead. Barna gives Interior Secretary Gale Norton first crack at fun or high-profile announcements.

DOI statements often communicate policy instead of operational issues.

Most NPS staffers are career government employees, while DOI's PA staff is more heavily peppered with political appointees. This may insulate NPS somewhat from the political winds. Spokespeople have been "more cautious and less informative about certain issues President Clinton favored since President Bush took office, observes Michael Kilian, a Washington correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, who rates the PA staff highly overall.

Aid from external sources

Agency spokespeople also get help from the National Parks Foundation (NPF), an organization decreed by Congress in 1967 to receive charitable donations on behalf of national parks. Much park land has been deeded to the government by affluent families like the Rockefellers, but monetary donations given directly to the NPS must go into the government's general fund, Barna explains. The NPF dedicates the money it receives to publicizing parks and enhancing visitors' experiences, says Mike Bento, the NPF's SVP of marketing and communications.

Communications chief: David Barna
Deputy chief: Elaine Sevy
Media relations: Carol Anthony (operations), Gerry Gaumer (natural
resources), Cindy Wood (cultural resources)
Public inquiries supervisor: Frances Cherry
Congressional affairs director: Clark Cooper (works in a different
division with a staff of 15)
Outside agencies: NPS can't lobby or hire outside PR firms. The National
Parks Foundation, a congressionally mandated nonprofit organization that
supports the NPS, uses Ogilvy PR frequently and is working on projects
with Carter Ryley Thomas (Richmond, VA) and Widmeyer Communications
(Washington, DC)
"(The NPF) began as a passive acceptor and is now an active solicitor of gifts, Bento explains. The shift came in the late '90s when James Maddy became NPF president and began exploring corporate interest in aligning commercial brands with national parks. Since then, contributions have grown from $3 million-$4 million annually to more than $30 million, Bento says.

Donations come from ad/PR budgets as well as philanthropy purses, Barna notes. Companies like Ford, Kodak, and American Airlines make national parks key social responsibility beneficiaries. Although corporate logos can't be plastered across national monuments and NPS spokespeople don't mention sponsors, the foundation does promote them and the companies are free to publicize their contributions. Target, for example, showcased itself in store circulars as the leading contributor in the $10.5-million renovation of the Washington Monument.

The NPF additionally gives the service a big PR boost by partnering with media outlets like the Discovery Channel and Time, which regularly run PSAs and features about obscure parks.

The foundation also paid Ogilvy PR to perform a communications audit on the NPS, an effort that Bento led before joining the foundation. "The government wouldn't have been able to use appropriated dollars to go out and do something like that, Bento notes. The audit found the service's arrowhead-shaped logo to be a very strong brand image, but also found its use inconsistent - brochure and business card designs varied widely among parks and agency divisions, for example. Through Ogilvy's "messaging project, agency officials received brand training, and the NPS unveiled its "Experience Your America tagline.

An uneasy alliance

The NPS' relationship isn't as cozy with another organization established to advocate parks. The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) was founded a few years after the NPS at the behest of the agency's first director, Stephen Mather. "He needed an outside agency to say some of the things he couldn't say, explains Roger Di Silvestro, the NPCA's senior communications director. Congress members like creating revenue-generating parks in their districts, and Mather's intent was to establish an organization that could speak out against inappropriate sites.

These days, the NPCA boasts some 425,000 members. It employs lobbyists to push its agenda in Congress, and lawyers to pursue it in court. For example, the organization criticizes the Bush administration for requiring a second round of public comment on the NPS' snowmobile ban. NPCA perennially advocates increased park funding, and in September it launched the Americans for National Parks campaign aimed at pressuring Bush to make good on his campaign promise to boost parks spending by $4.9 billion.

The NPCA's goals don't always jive with those of the NPS' administration, but since government agencies can't lobby for their own appropriations, the service obviously stands to benefit from the NPCA's campaign. The NPS itself employs a 15-person government affairs staff that spends much time responding to congressional inquiries and drafting bills that the lawmakers request.

The NPS' friends couldn't help much in December when a judge shut down all DOI websites. Presiding over a longstanding dispute between the Bureau of Indian Affairs and various tribes over trust funds, the judge hired a hacker who was able to access such accounts. The PA staff couldn't post online press releases, access e-mail, or efficiently provide information to their site's million daily visitors for two-and-a-half months until NPS proved its servers were secure. Some privately maintained sites mirror NPS' content, but they couldn't be updated during that period.

"You couldn't reach us by mail very well, either, Barno recalls. NPS gets its correspondence through DC's Brentwood post office, which was contaminated by anthrax. Mail was redirected to a "cooking facility in Ohio. Barna keeps a melted videotape on his desk as a memento.

Despite the NPS' low resources and communication logjams during the internet blackout, things may be looking up for PA. The agency's current director, former Florida state parks executive Fran Mainella, has been known to utter the traditionally dirty word "marketing and even directed the staff to publicize free park admission on Veterans Day.

And park rangers remain among the best-loved public servants. "Name another public official that parents want to have children photographed with, Bento challenges. Maybe that's why Barna wears a uniform to press conferences.

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