San Diego Zoo takes modern approach for prehistoric area

The San Diego Zoo's $45 million, seven-and-a-half acre Elephant Odyssey is the largest exhibit and expansion in its history.

San Diego Zoo takes modern approach for prehistoric area

Client: San Diego Zoo (San Diego, CA)
PR agency
: Burson-Marsteller (New York)
: Elephant Odyssey exhibit launch
: January-June 2009
: About $400,000

The San Diego Zoo's $45 million, seven-and-a-half acre Elephant Odyssey is the largest exhibit and expansion in its history. Christina Simmons, PR manager, explains that it's a "prehistoric bioclimatic zone" with more than 35 living species; information on 15 extinct species; and eight statues of six extinct species.

PR led promotion of the Memorial Day weekend launch, and Burson won the account. Simmons notes it's the first time in "about a decade" the zoo has had major PR representation. Campaign goals were to drive attendance and communicate the zoo's leadership position and animal-care practices.

"We used the launch to reintroduce the zoo and to reconnect to the southern California community, the media, and the travel market," says Debra Erickson, director of communications and interpretation at the zoo.

The nonprofit zoo can't rival for-profit tourist attractions in terms of ad dollars, but Simmons says, "Putting resources behind PR allowed us to reach people at a national level."

Erickson notes that the team decided to focus on families, a key market. Messages included the exhibit's uniqueness and its entertainment and educational value; that it serves as both a zoo and a museum experience; that elephants are endangered and ways in which the zoo is developing solutions; and that individuals can make a difference.

Rhonda Brauer, MD and West Coast brand marketing chair at Burson, says traditional media relations, blogger outreach, spokespeople, the Web site, and celebrities helped drive messages.

National, regional, and local news outlets were targeted, as well as family and travel bloggers. Lifestyle and travel media tours were conducted in New York and Washington, DC.

The Web site included a game, a map, photos, and educational information.

Elephant specialist Dr. Mike Chase and zookeeper Rick Schwartz served as spokespeople. Entertainment Tonight co-host Mark Steines emceed the open- ing. Brauer notes that spokespeople were prepared to address concerns about captive elephant care and stress the zoo's leadership position in animal care.

Simmons notes that the April delivery of the life-size animal statues on open-air trucks from Wisconsin presented an unforeseen opportunity for a traveling exhibit. Schwartz, a videographer, and a photographer joined the "statue tour," making stops that were announced online and via media. Schwartz also blogged on the Web site. Photos, videos, and updates were posted on the zoo's Facebook and Twitter pages.

A press event and a family-themed VIP party were held May 22 (the day before opening to the public).

Opening-day attendance was "higher than projected," reports Erickson. Overall zoo attendance is also up from last year, which she attributes to PR.

Web site visits exceeded 250,000 (from April to July). Through July, more than 1.5 million videos were downloaded from and from - double that of last year, says Erickson.

Facebook friends rose from 2,000 to nearly 34,000. Twitter was established as "an experiment," she adds, and followers now exceed 2,000. Both sites will be updated daily.

Forty media outlets attended the opening, CBS' The Early Show and among them. Blog coverage included and Momlogic.

The VIP party drew about 1,500 attendees, including government officials, business leaders, and stars of Mad Men, Grey's Anatomy, and Big Love.

Erickson says Burson will continue working with the zoo. The team is planning a campaign to relaunch the polar bear exhibit next spring.

PRWeek's view
The decision to let PR lead the effort proved to be a wise one, as it was clearly the best marketing tool to help the organization communicate the complexity of the exhibit and other messaging. The San Diego Zoo seized upon multiple opportunities with this initiative. For example, it was smart to jump on the "statue tour" opportunity and use the Internet to both generate and sustain buzz. This team did a fantastic job of using the Elephant Odyssey launch to reinvigorate overall awareness about the zoo and to develop a strong social media presence.

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