Born more than a century ago as a purely local attraction, The San Diego Zoo has metamorphosed over the decades into a world-famous center dedicated to conservation and ending extinction.
Yet as the zoo has expanded its ambitions, it has also had to adapt its public outreach and messaging to reach a more diffuse, fragmented audience that in today’s Internet era has a limited attention span.
When a new 10-part TV series showcasing the zoo and its keepers debuts Aug. 10 on Animal Planet, San Diego Zoo leaders are hoping it will mark a pivotal step toward reaching the very audience it depends upon for its continued growth — and mission. It’s called simply, “The Zoo: San Diego.”
Given the proliferation of online media and other diversions, it’s harder than ever to get the public’s attention, says Rick Schwartz, a zoo spokesman and “ambassador.”
Long gone are the days when someone like conservationist Joan Embery could captivate a nation with her appearances on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, accompanied by a menagerie of animals. (Clips of those scenes, though, including the famous episode with a marmoset urinating on Carson’s head, can be found on YouTube).
With the decline of traditional television broadcasts and the rise of streaming on smart devices, the zoo has had to branch out to reach people through the media they follow.
“We’re not targeting specific species so much as we’re looking for compelling stories,” Schwartz said. “The San Diego Zoo is loaded to the gills with what we consider good stories.”
The zoo’s biggest challenge, he said, is “indifference.”
“There’s so much going on in the world today, and there’s so much, for lack of a better term, interference. Everyone trying to jockey for attention.”
While the old Tonight Show was an American phenomenon that in its heyday dominated late-night TV viewing, Animal Planet says its programming is available for viewing by 360 million households in more than 205 countries and territories. Viewership of individual shows, though, is only a fraction of that.
Animal Planet episodes are offered online to cable television subscribers. In the United States, Animal Planet audiences can also get programming through the Animal Planet Go app.
Sean Dixon, chief operating officer of San Diego Zoo Global, the zoo’s parent, said at a July 23 preview that he and his colleagues were looking for a partner to get the word out about the wave of mass extinctions caused by humans.
Animal Planet approached the zoo, and they negotiated the deal.
“We picked the best of the best,” Dixon said. “We need to act, and we need to act now. If not us, who? If not now, when?”
The zoo isn’t paying for the coverage, although it allotted extensive staff time and resources to accommodate the production team over the course of 17 weeks of filming. Under a location agreement, the zoo received an undisclosed fee from Animal Planet.
On average, the zoo has spent roughly $11 million annually on advertising and promotion, an expense that has remained largely unchanged over the last several years. The zoo’s total expenses for 2018 were $301.7 million.
The upcoming debut of the Animal Planet series arrives as visitors to the zoo are still adjusting to the spring departure of its highest profile inhabitants — the giant pandas, who are now in China. While gone from the zoo, they are featured in one of the episodes.
The Animal Planet episodes discuss conservation, Dixon said, “to demonstrate not only the deep bond between humans and animals, but the lengths that our team goes to take care of these animals.”
By telling those stories, the zoo will motivate people, Schwartz said. Then they’re open to zoo messages about how they can help.
“We work very hard to try and inspire people to get involved, whether they want to donate, support our conservation efforts or just do things at home or in their daily life that help support healthy ecosystems,” he said. “That makes a difference.”
This is Animal Planet’s second foray into a zoo-based program. The first was simply called The Zoo, featuring the Bronx Zoo. It premiered in February 2017 to 1.1 million viewers, said Animal Planet spokeswoman Nicole VanderPloeg. That put Animal Planet in the top 10 of ad-supported cable programs in that time slot.
“Throughout the season, every episode of The Zoo averaged more than 1 million viewers, making it Animal Planet’s most watched freshman series since July 2015,” she said by email. “Each episode of the series last season averaged more than 1.1 million total viewers,” age 2 or older.
More to tell
The zoo’s communication and marketing strategy may be good in reaching visitors, but it doesn’t quite do justice to its science and conservation efforts, said Miro Copic, a marketing professor at San Diego State University.
“They’ve built their model as being the premier zoo in the world,” Copic said. “And the Safari Park tends to be in the top 10 or 15 of the zoological places to visit anywhere in the world.”
While these messages are good as far as they go, Copic said the zoo should do more to publicize its scientific advances. What the public sees is just a fraction of what the zoo actually does.
Copic said he was “astounded” when reviewing the scope of the zoo’s global conservation reach, research and educational programs.
“They’ve got well over 100 researchers, here in San Diego and stationed around the world, and that is not a high-profile thing from a public perspective,” Copic said.
Zoo projects include a captive breeding program for an endangered Hawaiian crow called the ʻalalā, ongoing efforts to save Africa’s leopards, and studying wild koalas in Australia.
Near Escondido at the Safari Park, the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research develops science to help species live and reproduce. It’s deep in a project to bring back a nearly extinct rhino subspecies, the northern white rhino.
Other initiatives Copic says are worth promoting are the zoo’s educational programs for teachers, so they can integrate lessons on conservation and extinction into their classrooms, he said.
“They’ve done yeoman’s work, and I don’t think it’s been recognized anything close to the extent that it could,” he said.
San Diego Zoo performs its conservation work in partnership with other zoos. Collaborations are coordinated nationally with the help of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a nonprofit trade group. Internationally, zoos ally through World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
One of these partners is Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, another noted zoological organization. That zoo’s work is in many ways similar to that of the San Diego Zoo — and so too is its marketing strategy, Peter Zahler, Woodland Park Zoo’s Vice President of Wildlife Conservation Initiatives, said by email.
“Woodland Park Zoo amplifies our message to the public in a wide variety of ways — everything from marketing campaigns and fundraising events to traditional press and social media,” Zahler said. “Each medium and outlet resonates with a different audience for a number of reasons: age, location, socioeconomic status, background, ability, personal preference and more.”
The zoo is able to measure the effectiveness of the messaging via engagement on social media, stories done by traditional media outlets, successful fundraising, and zoo attendance, he added.
New brands for a new century
The zoo originated many of its science programs under Charles “Chuck” Bieler, who led the zoo from 1973 to 1985. These were driven by a need to better understand animals, so their care could be improved.
For example, the late Dr. Kurt Benirschke established the Frozen Zoo, a cryopreserved tissue bank of animals in hopes that they might one day be resurrected — a project now in process with the nearly extinct northern white rhino.
Such initiatives intensified under Bieler’s successor, Douglas G. Myers, San Diego Zoo Global’s president and CEO, said zoo trustee Rolf Benirschke, Kurt’s son, and former San Diego Chargers placekicker.
Myers moved the zoo from a theme park emphasis to a leadership in conservation, Benirschke said.
The zoo has made a number of changes in this century to accommodate its expanded role. In 2010, it reorganized and rebranded itself into three parts.
— San Diego Zoo Global became the new name for the parent organization, emphasizing its worldwide role in conservation.
— The Wild Animal Park was renamed the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.
— The San Diego Zoo branding remained unchanged.
More recently, the zoo has launched nationwide, advertising-free programming for hospitalized children, under the name San Diego Zoo Kids Channnel. The programming provides entertaining facts about animals, such as the nature of giraffe teeth, along with animal care.
While providing education and a conservation message, the channel also allows children to take their mind off their condition.
In 2018, the zoo entered the book publishing business, featuring children’s books that tell true stories of individual animals at the zoo.
Along with these increased areas of outreach, the zoo also sharpened its message from one of conservation to a rallying cry for ending extinction.
This plan, known as The Call, was adopted in July 2015. The zoo has published a book about this shift. More information can be found at https://thecall.sandiegozoo.org.
Benirschke said The Call led to a particularly big change in how zoo employees regarded themselves. Instead of looking at themselves primarily as performing one function, employees began to look at themselves as participants in a vast effort to end extinction.
Another big change is on the way: Myers recently announced his retirement, effective at the end of 2018. The zoo is conducting a worldwide search for his replacement.
The successor “has to be capable of running more than a zoo,” Benirschke said. “That person will have to negotiate with an Apple, a Google or an Amazon. How can we partner with other big organizations to be more effective in getting our message out? How do we connect with the kids that come here? How do we make it a more individualized experience?”
And the zoo needs to do better outreach to its biggest fans — the 4 million visitors a year it attracts — he said.
“Let’s find ways to make sure we create an experience that’s memorable, impactful, life-changing,” Benirschke said. “If you look at the big donations from the zoo, they all come from people that got engaged, touched in some capacity.”
Rise to fame
The San Diego Zoo’s growth to national prominence was spurred by television. The zoo was showcased on the weekly program Zoorama, which was on the air from 1955 to 1970. Aired on the San Diego CBS affiliate, the program was later picked up by the network to broadcast it to a national audience.
Zoorama’s second host, Bob Dale, became a familiar bow-tied presence, introducing animals and their characteristics into the living rooms of millions of Americans.
“We had no writers, no producers,” Dale said on a YouTube clip. “The director did the producing and set things up — and you would just go!”
That seat-of-the-pants dynamic also was key to the rise of an even bigger television star for the zoo — Joan Embery, the conservationist and former zoo ambassador. A Lakeside resident and native San Diegan, Embery now operates The Embery Institute for Wildlife Conservation.
Embery said her big break in the early 1970s came courtesy of a young elephant named Carol, who she cared for. At that time, Embery was a very junior female in a male-dominated organization, working at the Children’s Zoo.
Embery taught Carol to swing a paintbrush with her trunk on paper to produce images. Sensing a novelty, the zoo’s public relations department alerted the media. Local television reporter Jack White did a story on Carol the artistic elephant.
That story went nationwide — today we would say viral — and came to the attention of the top-rated Tonight Show and host Johnny Carson.
With each appearance with Carson and other television hosts, the entertainment included a message that the San Diego Zoo was active in animal conservation.
Bieler, the former zoo director, said Embery studied hard for her appearances and eventually became the zoo’s most recognizable public face.
“She was just so credible,” known for being exceptionally well-prepared, Bieler said.
When traveling, Bieler said he got a consistent reaction. “I’d say I’m director of the San Diego Zoo, and they’d say, ‘Oh, you know Joan Embery!’”
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