Strategic Storytelling

WHERE: San Francisco Zoo

STRATEGIC CHALLENGE: Reposition the San Francisco Zoo as a center for wildlife conservation and education to build enthusiasm and support for zoo improvements.

The San Francisco Zoo, founded in 1929 and built as a WPA project in 1940, had seen better days. The Depression-era physical plant was plagued by deferred maintenance. Attendance was down and funding was not keeping up with need. By the time I came on board, zoo leadership had already stepped up to the challenge, raising federal funds and opening the acclaimed EHDD-designed Gorilla World two years earlier.

My task as public affairs director was to increase attendance, grow membership and tell the strategic story of the zoo’s renaissance preparatory to funding the Primate Discovery Center. All three tasks were accomplished. Zoo attendance increased by 50% and membership by 200% during my seven years there. The Primate Discovery Center opened in 1985.


Renaissance of the Zoo

The San Francisco Zoo’s strategic story told of its rebirth as a modern, conservation-oriented organization, focused on the future. A multi-pronged approach – including exhibit openings, special events and television appearances – described its resurgence prior to announcing a fundraising challenge grant. Often such organizational stories are overlooked. However, careful placement with reporters covering civic institutions generated the press needed to build public support. The zoo’s improved standing allowed us to bring in celebrity spokespeople, including San Francisco 49er great Joe Montana.

Exhibit Openings and Special Events

A steady string of exhibit openings – Magellanic penguins, giant pandas, the Primate Discovery Center, Koala Crossing, golden monkeys from China, one-horned rhinos from Nepal – kept the zoo front and center as a civic attraction worthy of attendance and support. Mayor Dianne Feinstein attended half-a-dozen ribbon cuttings and exhibit openings in just one year. Public events and promotions supported new exhibits, which drew crowds and coverage.

Twin messages of wildlife conservation and education

Wildlife conservation and education were major themes in the renaissance of the San Francisco Zoo. Species survival breeding programs were undertaken for 14 species of animals, including bald eagles, snow leopards and gorillas. We actively promoted these efforts with newsletter articles and extensive media placements. Preparation included training zookeepers and volunteer docents as media spokespeople and ambassadors for their animals so they could offer the public accurate and interesting information.

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