Pandas drive publicity for National Zoo

Zoo embarks on 10-year revitalization plan with steady focus on wildlife conservation education

Zoo embarks on 10-year revitalization plan with steady focus on wildlife conservation education

Everyone has their favorite animals - lions, perhaps, or giraffes - but nothing at the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park in Washington, DC, draws as big a crowd as the giant pandas.

Crowds mean publicity, of course, and the pandas provide plenty of it, notes John Gibbons, public affairs specialist at the zoo. The zoo's first pair, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, was a gift from China Chairman Mao Zedong to the Nixon administration in 1972. The media called it "panda diplomacy," but the five cubs they produced over the years never lived more than a few days.

Would the next pair, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, who were purchased from the Chinese government in 2000 for $10 million - with the money to go toward conservation efforts - be able to conceive? In July 2005, Mei Xiang gave birth to Tai Shan, triggering media coverage from all over the world.

"Especially at the beginning, we were working 14- to 16-hour days just to respond to all the phone calls and special requests we were getting from the media and public," said Gibbons. "This was even before he could be seen by the public."

For the public affairs and marketing staff at the zoo and the Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ), the four-decades-old nonprofit that provides wide-ranging support for the zoo's operations, the innate fascination with the giant pandas and other creatures that draws 3 million or so annual visitors to the zoo is just the starting point for achieving the zoo's broader mission: educating people about animal conservation in general.

Designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and opened in 1889, the 163-acre zoological park in northwest Washington today not only houses some 2,400 animals of around 400 different species, but serves as a local park. Admission is free, unlike most other zoos in the world, with funding primarily from the US Congress, but supplemented by corporate and individual donations. The zoo also maintains a research facility in Front Royal, VA, and sponsors conservation projects around the world.

In part because the zoo has no admission fee, FONZ plays far more of a critical role to the zoo's operations than similar groups at other zoos. The 1,600 to 1,800 FONZ volunteers and more than 200 paid staffers are involved in virtually all aspects of the zoo's operations, from animal keeping to event planning to Web site management.

Jackie Vinick, partnership marketing manager at FONZ, helps organize community events the group holds every year, from the annual trick-or-treating Boo at the Zoo event to one-off events like the Cheetah Naming Contest, which drew 13,000 voters to the zoo's Web site and raised more than $3,000 for a new cheetah breeding and research facility. Events certainly draw visitors to the zoo and help raise money for various zoological programs, Vinick notes, but they also contribute to the zoo's general mission to educate people about conservation.

"We really focus a lot of efforts on major promotions throughout the year that involve kids, in particular, to help educate them about what they can do to help conserve wildlife," Vinick says.

Handling PR for the zoo isn't always easy. The zoo and FONZ public affairs teams must at times deal with crises like the spate of an animal's death and budgeting problems the zoo experienced a few years back, which led to the resignation of former director Lucy Spelman. A 2005 report from the independent National Academy of Sciences largely cleared the zoo's staff of animal mismanagement, but between 2002 and 2004, most of the news coverage about the zoo focused on "problems," notes FONZ media relations manager Matt Olear.

"The zoo went through a couple of years of tough publicity," he says. "Probably the biggest impact of all that coverage on FONZ media outreach was that with all the things we try to do and promote, such as education, the media just were not interested in reporting it. People didn't want to report on what you might consider 'light' or 'fluffy' news."

But corporate and media sponsors of individual events and exhibits, including Comcast, Animal Planet, Fujifilm, Whole Foods, and others, were steadfast in their support of the zoo during the rough years, Vinick notes. And they still provide critical ongoing publicity for individual events and the zoo in general, given that the zoo and FONZ PR budgets cover little more than staff salaries.

The birth of cheetah cubs in late 2004 sparked a shift in media attention to the better, Olear says, and the zoo overall is in the initial stages of a 10-year revitalization that should lead to additional good coverage, starting with the October 17 opening of the new Asia Trail, a pathway starting with sloth bears from India and leading visitors up to, of course, the giant pandas of China.

AT A GLANCE

Organization:
Smithsonian National Zoological Park

Director:
John Berry

Headquarters:
Washington, DC

Operational budget:
More than $40 million, including congressional funding and corporate and individual donations

Key Trade Titles:
Local print and TV outlets, various zoological publications

PR budget:
Undisclosed

Communications Team:
National Zoo public affairs staff (3)
FONZ media and comms staff (10)

PR agencies:
Hill & Knowlton (for Fujifilm
Giant Panda Habitat)

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