A Communications Trifecta

February 2019

By Cathie Gandel

Using Earned, Owned and Paid Media to Tell Your Story

When Hardy, a tiny stranded sea otter pup, was rescued from the waters near Vancouver Island in June 2017, he had no idea that he would end up as a media star and unofficial ambassador for the Vancouver Aquarium, an Ocean Wise Initiative, in Vancouver, B.C. A year later, thanks to staff and volunteers who worked around the clock, the now thriving Hardy has reached people far and wide garnering 135 million media impressions and connecting with 25 million people on social media. How? 

“By using an integrated mix of earned, owned and paid media,” said Charlene Chiang, vice president, engagement at Ocean Wise, the parent organization of the Vancouver Aquarium. “These are the tactics that we as communicators now have in an expanded arsenal to share stories in an impactful way.”

Earned media, through traditional public relations, is still an important tool, but issuing press releases can’t be the only outreach effort.

“There are too many stories and too few outlets to publish these stories,” said Chiang. The benefit of owned media—think websites, blogs, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook—is that you can both control your message and connect with your audience in real time. Paid media—advertising in print, on social media or even billboards—can push your message to an even larger audience. 

Earned, owned and paid media. How do they work together? And in what order?  Five panelists at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums 2018 Annual Convention in Seattle, Wash., in September 2018, discussed these questions. The conclusion: be guided by the goals of your facility and the story you want to tell, the audience you want to reach and the response you want to get. 

“It’s about reaching the right people through the right channels at the right time, to get them to make the right decision,” said Travis Claytor, former director, corporate communications at SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, in Orlando, Fla. 

Panelists shared some tried-and-true tactics including the importance of telling a story, using third parties to spread the message and gaining traction by pegging the news to an event at the facility or even a national initiative.

 Tell a Story and Call for Action 

The national media landscape may be changing, but successful outreach is still all about story-telling.

“We need to get out of the high-level messaging we do and make it more about telling stories about specific people or experiences people have had,” said Lauri Hennessey, vice president of engagement at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Wash. “Telling stories allows us to give broad, amorphous issues a name and a face.”

When Taj and Glenn, two baby greater one-horned rhinos were introduced into the Zoo’s new Assam Rhino Reserve in May of 2018, they became poster boys for the global and local wildlife trafficking crisis.

“The rhinos gave us an opportunity to talk about fighting wildlife trafficking, with the hashtag #RhinoLookout. This was our way of telling visitors to do more than just visit the rhinos, but look out for them, too,” said Hennessey.   “Because the Zoo is moving more and more into advocacy, we always try to have that last piece in our storytelling.”

The advocacy angle is an important part of the storytelling for all the facilities represented on the panel. At the Vancouver Aquarium, Hardy was not only what Chiang calls “a fuzzy ball of wonder,” he and his rescue were also an engaging story. Beyond that, he provided the vehicle to publicize the challenges otters face in the wild.  

“He helped us share an important conservation story from start to finish,” said Chiang. “What is threatening the sea otter population and why are they stranding?  What role do we play in helping to save wild species? And what can we do as consumers to protect this iconic species?”

 A button on the Aquarium’s web site made it easy for people to contribute to Hardy’s care and otter conservation efforts.

Jessica Fontana and her team at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Ga., wanted to draw attention to the difficulties facing sea lions in their native habitats. They built their story around six sea lions who were survivors of an unusual mortality event that saw hundreds of pups stranded along the California coast. The opening of the Aquarium’s new sea lion exhibition provided a news peg. Owned media channels—blogs and the web site—pushed the story and using earned media paid off. The Today Show sent a reporter to the Aquarium on the exhibit’s opening day, not just to meet some cute little sea lions but also to talk about the dangers these animals face in the wild.  Whatever the story, consistency is crucial. “Our earned, owned and paid tactics all have a similar mission message,” said Fontana.

Even with success using earned and owned media, facilities use paid media to get that extra edge.

“The reality is that it’s hard to be heard on social media channels, so people are doing a lot of pay to play to boost their social media posts,” said Hennessey.

But there are ways for smaller facilities with smaller budgets to use these tools successfully.

“Send out your press releases to media, along with images and footage, to garner widespread coverage,” said Chiang. “Be sure to also share the same compelling content on your owned channels, such as your organizational blog.” 

And while a video story can be an engaging way to share your story in an emotive way, it’s best to cut the story to ten to 30 seconds to share on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, Chiang advised.

“Finally, you can reach an even wider audience with a small investment in boosted posts,” said Chiang.

Help from Others

You don’t have to do everything alone. 

“Focus on leveraging influencers to help tell your stories,” said Andrea Rodgers, vice president for communications and public relations at the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Ill.

This may be particularly important when reaching Millennials who trust and depend on their circle of social influencers.  Shedd made a conscious decision several years ago to develop a core group of third-party advocates.

“They would be the first to know news, come in and get authentic behind-the-scenes experiences, and then share and post about them,” said Rodgers.

For example, what does Blackhawks hockey player Jeremey Roenick, have to do with sharks? Nothing, but he supports Shedd and was enlisted in their recent media campaign: Keep Sharks Swimming. He brought in a whole new audience.  “Influencers can help spread your message,” said Rodgers. “They have a loud voice plus fans and followers who can spread the message further.”

But you don’t need celebrities to do this. Your audience is your ally too.

“We can only reach a finite number of people,” said Claytor. “Our goal is to deliver messages in a way that makes it easy for our audiences to act, whether that’s sharing it on their social channels or something bigger like taking part in conservation efforts.”

“We looked at our campaign to Keep Sharks Swimming as the four ‘S’s,” said Rodgers. “See, Share, Sign and Support. Our goal was for people to see the content, share it on their personal networks, sign our petition on the website and select a button also on the website to support our campaign financially.”

Invite the Wider World

Be alert to ways to tie your story in with what’s going on in your facility, your community and even nationally. For example, several facilities used exhibit openings to peg their stories to.  Events planned around these openings can increase media hits and visibility. The Woodland Park Zoo invited their community to “drink pink with a purpose” at a Rhino and Rose soiree that brought guests face-to-face with both the rhinos and the trafficking crisis. Others held “Name the animal” contests to engage audiences. Shedd tied its Keep Sharks Swimming Campaign to the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. “If you’re going to have a shark campaign and it’s going to be during Shark Week, you want to get your content on the Discovery Channel’s video, web site and social media platforms too,” said Rodgers.

The AZA Advantage

AZA-accredited facilities have a secret weapon: each other.

“We all get to learn from each other,” said Fontana “We can share ideas, templates, strategies, and contacts.”

Andrea Rodgers and her team at Shedd created a social media influencer tool kit.

“It has easy suggestions for language, photos, images. Everything you could possibly need,” she said. “We made it really simple.”

And other AZA-accredited facilities can be directly involved in helping you tell your story.

“AZA is not just a partner organization; it’s another amazing tool,” said Travis. In September 2017, SeaWorld—along with five other AZA-accredited facilities—took part in rescuing and rehabilitating Tyonek, a beluga whale calf from an endangered population in Alaska.  

“That meant five organizations with resources that we were able to leverage, to contribute to telling the story of this amazing animal,” said Claytor.  

Although SeaWorld San Antonio was ultimately chosen as Tyonek’s new home after he was deemed “non-releasable” by regulatory agencies, the story of his rescue, and the work of everyone involved, benefited not just that facility but the entire community, said Claytor.  

In the end, there is no magic formula for mixing these different media. Test. Pilot. Learn. Revise. Repeat. And tweak as you go along.

Cathie Gandel is a writer based in Studio City, Calif.



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