CAMPAIGNS: National Aquarium takes a bite out of sharks' bad image

PR Team: National Aquarium in Baltimore Campaign: Launching the Shark Quest exhibit Time Frame: February 18 - March 16, 2003 Budget: $15,000

PR Team: National Aquarium in Baltimore Campaign: Launching the Shark Quest exhibit Time Frame: February 18 - March 16, 2003 Budget: $15,000

The past few summers have given sharks a bad reputation. Outside media coverage of beachside bitings has left the impression that the usually docile creatures pose a threat to ocean-goers everywhere. In reality, sharks' numbers worldwide are dwindling, and the issue isn't getting the attention it deserves because shark sympathy is in short supply among humans. "Shark conservation issues are alarming, with more than 11,400 killed every hour of every day," says Andrea Butler, the National Aquarium's director of communications. "And as top predators, when we lose sharks it affects the balance of ocean health. So the goal was to connect people with sharks in new ways to help them learn to respect and protect these threatened animals." So the aquarists at the National Aquarium in Baltimore decided to help the public get back in touch with sharks. They redesigned the entire complex with an eye on shark education, and increased the number of sharks in their tanks. Strategy With the exhibit, called Shark Quest, opening on March 16, Butler and her two-person staff decided to target media in four major markets that would consider the aquarium a summer family destination: Baltimore, the District of Columbia, southwest Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia. The plan called for piquing reporters' interest early, then coming back to them right before the launch. Tactics The aquarium started by sending postcards to 400 media outlets, titled "Shark Factoids." On one side they read, "You are 144 times more likely to be injured by air freshener than by a shark," with a drawing of a can of air freshener and a frightened woman. On the back, the cards showed the Shark Quest logo. Those were followed in three-day intervals by other postcards with similar facts and pictures, including one warning that falling coconuts were 30 times more dangerous than sharks. Finally, the reporters received an actual coconut, with an explanation of the new exhibit, CD-ROM press release, and an invitation to the launch of the media tour. "We had 40 reporters attend our breakfast event, held in a special room at the aquarium that has a great view of the Inner Harbor. We had palm trees set up, which continued the coconut theme, and we blew up the postcards into signage to direct people to the event." The tour itself began March 3. Four of the aquarists, after some media training, took to the road with shark jaws, shark artifacts, and actual sharks. In the first few weeks, they did 12 TV appearances and six radio spots. And to ensure continued coverage throughout the summer, Butler commissioned a survey on the public's shark knowledge. "It validates that Americans are hooked on shark myths," she says. Results To date, the exhibit has generated more than three million media impressions, including several on CNN, AP, Fox, CBS, the Discovery Channel, and The Washington Post. But of even more relevance to the aquarium was what the coverage did for attendance. On the exhibit's opening weekend, attendance exceeded projections by 19% the first day (8,324 people), and 21% the second day (6,195). Future The survey will soon be released to the media. "We're going to release those findings mid-May, right before summer travel coverage, so were hoping to get another push when we do that," explains Butler. The exhibit will stay in place until the end of 2003.

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