Strategies & Tactics

Panda Express: How the National Zoo Celebrated a Beloved Animal's Final Week in Washington, D.C.

December 3, 2018

[smithsonian's national zoo]
[smithsonian's national zoo]

For followers and frequent visitors of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, Bao Bao the giant panda was more than just a popular attraction during her time in Washington, D.C. — she was an internet celebrity, too.

In the three weeks following her Aug. 23, 2013 birth, more than 1.2 million visitors clicked on the Zoo website’s panda cam to watch her eat, sleep and romp around. Then, in 2014, a popularity contest revealed that she was the Smithsonian’s “most iconic item,” beating out both the Star-Spangled Banner flag and a portrait of George Washington.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that Bao Bao was a rock star from the moment she was born,” says Pamela Baker-Masson, associate director of communications, exhibits and planning at the Zoo. “Naturally people grew very attached to her.”

But despite this attachment, Bao Bao’s time in the District was always going to be fleeting. Giant panda cubs born at the Zoo move to China by the time they are 4 years old to enter a breeding program, and on Feb. 21, 2017, Bao Bao boarded a plane and flew 16 hours nonstop to her new home at the Dujiangyan Panda Base.

For Baker-Masson, Bao Bao’s relocation posed both a challenge and an opportunity for her team. First, they’d have to help the public through the sadness of losing their favorite animal.

However, if they celebrated Bao Bao by creating a multi-day media event series in the lead-up to her departure, then perhaps they could spin the grief into excitement for the Zoo and its conservation efforts while also gaining new followers along the way.

“We knew that Bao Bao had fans and followers around the country and the world,” says Baker-Masson. “I wanted the team to create an inclusive experience.”

PRSA named the ensuing campaign — titled “Bye Bye, Bao Bao” — a finalist for the Best of Silver Anvil for 2018.

Working through logistics

At the outset, Baker-Masson knew the inherent difficulties facing “Bye Bye, Bao Bao.” Besides the limited time frame and scope of the campaign — the Zoo scheduled all of its farewell events in the six-day lead-up to Bao Bao’s departure — her team only had $3,000 to work with.

They’d also have to plan around the hectic schedules of the animal care team, whose main priority was readying a 200-pound panda for her new life in China.

“We had to be very strategic in what we asked of our colleagues,” says Baker-Masson. “The animal care team are consummate professionals but they have a lot of demands of their time in order to prepare a giant panda for departure halfway around the world. We had to know when to back off.”

To overcome its logistical issues, Baker-Masson and her crew relied heavily on the Zoo’s own content platforms. In addition to 24/7 Bao Bao coverage via its online panda cam, the Zoo filmed eight Facebook Live behind-the-scenes broadcasts highlighting departure preparations, created a “Best of Bao Bao” e-newsletter, and shared behind-the-scenes photos and videos to the Smithsonian’s main Instagram on what the life of a panda keeper is like.

Finding the right tone

The other key challenge for Baker-Masson involved striking the right tone with “Bye Bye, Bao Bao.” A campaign too jovial could be viewed as disingenuous by Bao Bao’s most ardent fans, while a campaign too somber would undermine the importance of Bao Bao’s future in the panda breeding program.

The Zoo managed to steer clear of these extremes by balancing the sentimental with the educational. Bao Bao devotees were given the opportunity to write commemorative postcards, post on a #ByeByeBaoBao Facebook event and write farewell messages on a chalkboard wall across from Bao Bao’s indoor enclosure. The Zoo even live-streamed her departure at Dulles International Airport.

But Baker-Masson also wanted to remind viewers of Bao Bao’s higher purpose. The Zoo posted a detailed FAQ on their website and conducted a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” to explain the importance of the panda breeding program and remind everyone of their commitment to conservation.

“We determined that acknowledging the challenges and sadness of the departure would be integral to the storytelling,” says Baker-Masson. “Conservation victories are hard-won and by telling all aspects of her story with full transparency, we were correct in making the assumption that our visitors could understand why we had to let her go.”

Learning for the future

In the end, the Zoo’s efforts on “Bye Bye, Bao Bao” managed to pay both immediate and long-term dividends.

Over the course of the six-day campaign, the Zoo gained an average of 1,121 new followers every day across its social channels, punctuated by interactions with such high-profile social media influencers as Chelsea Clinton, Alton Brown and Camilla Belle.

In addition, public visitation to the Zoo increased by 138 percent when compared with the same time frame in 2016, and the Zoo’s homepage saw its unique views balloon by 104 percent.

“Bye Bye, Bao Bao” also gifted Baker-Masson and her team with insights for the future. For instance, in subsequent campaigns, Baker-Masson plans to create more media spots that “take viewers behind the scenes.” She also wants “to be more celebratory, and [to] show the animals and let the animal care staff be their voices.”

As for Bao Bao today? She’s thriving in China, says Baker-Masson. But beyond that, Smithsonian employees don’t keep close tabs on her life. Despite how much they may have loved caring after Bao Bao, her purpose transcends brightening the spirits of those who got to know her while she frolicked within the Zoo’s confines.

“Our emotional connections aside, we understand our mission to save species,” says Baker-Masson. “We can’t lose sight of the fact that it’s all about conservation and knowing there is a higher purpose to our work. Everyone was really proud of the work we did with Bao Bao, and while it was sad in some respects, overall it felt good.”


Best of Silver Anvil Finalist

Organization: Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute

Category: Most Effective Campaign $5,000 or Less

Dean Essner

Dean Essner is the editorial assistant for PRSA’s publications. A former resident of Washington, D.C., he holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and English from the University of Maryland. Email: dean.essner@prsa.org.

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