Case Study: Working Without a Cuteness Factor, Smithsonian Turns to Fun, Froggy Tactics in Amphibian Conservation Efforts

The Smithsonian PR team distributed 10,000 postcards promoting the amphibian rescue project and its mobile giving campaign to children and families at exhibits and special events.   Images courtesy of Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute

Thus, in an effort to stem the deadly tide against frogs, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute—part of the Smithsonian Institution—created the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project. To help raise public awareness of the project’s efforts to save 20 species of frogs in eastern Panama (considered the last stronghold for amphibian diversity) while also seeking a cure for the disease that is decimating them, the Smithsonian communications team sprang into action. The ultimate goal: to make the public care about frogs and to get them to take action to save them.

“The challenge is to get the word out about the crisis, but to do it in a way that provides hope, and to generate local, national and international stories,” says Lindsay Renick Mayer, public affairs specialist for the Smithsonian National Zoo.

The institute’s specific ongoing objectives of the campaign are as follows:

• Demonstrate how unique and valuable frogs are to the global ecosystem.

• Tell the story about the work in Panama to children, families, reporters and the science-curious public in innovative ways, including via digital and social media.

• Amass local, national and international media attention for the project, both in the U.S. and in Panama.

• Help attract new funds for the rescue project and to maintain a vibrant volunteer program.


Perhaps it’s because frogs tend to be small, slimy creatures, selling the public on the importance of their survival is problematic, says Mayer. Couple that with a gloom-and-doom story and the task is doubly hard. Yet, there are some incredible stories about frogs that hadn’t been told, and once they are told, people just might see the “cool side” of amphibians, she says.

But to disseminate that message, the institute would need some help. It received that help through nine global partners, including zoos and conservation organizations.

Six communications people from those partners assist the institute’s three-person PR team with communications, says Mayer. Media pitching and blog strategies are discussed in monthly conference calls with the partners. “When one organization sends out a press release about their work on the project, we all send out releases to our own lists and assist with the pitching,” says Mayer.

In January 2010, the PR initiative went full bore. Tactics from Jan. 2010 to May 2011 included:

â–¶ Six press releases were launched related to the project and the amphibian crisis. These releases were supported by the central Smithsonian public affairs office, which promoted them through social networking sites and through posts on EurekAlert, an online science news service.

â–¶ Using a comprehensive multimedia press kit, the story was pitched to a variety of media outlets, including the Washington Post, USA Today, NPR, Discovery News, NBC’s Today show and local outlets in Washington, D.C., Colorado, New England, Texas and Panama. In addition, select reporters were invited to go on expeditions to the Panamanian rainforest with institute researchers. In fact, an NPR reporter went to Panama to cover the frogs early on, and later returned to do a follow-up story, says Mayer.

â–¶ Collateral materials were produced, including a tri-fold pamphlet that tells the story of the project and provides tips about how to get involved; a postcard showing a variety of Panamanian frogs that helps us tell the entire story of the decline (see image); and an annual project report was created with the goal of generating additional funding.

â–¶ Implemented a Cute Frog of the Week feature, which showcases a new frog species each week with a striking image and colorful and fun information about that species.

â–¶ Rotated blog posts weekly among the partners, guest bloggers and the frog keepers at Summit Zoo in Panama.

â–¶ Launched a mobile giving campaign, asking individuals to text “FROG” to 20222 to donate $5 to the rescue project. This was promoted on the Web site, in exhibits and on all publications related to the project.

â–¶ Partnered with an iPhone/iPad app developer to promote the project on the popular Nimblebits Pocket Frogs game. “For 48 hours, anybody who signed into Pocket Frogs would get a note saying, ‘you’re a frog lover, you should contribute to the Smithsonian’s efforts by texting this number,’ and so we saw a huge spike in our donations during that time,” says Mayer.

â–¶ Secured more than 10 hours of footage in Panama to provide as B-roll to reporters This includes video of the animals in captivity, researchers looking for frogs and swabbing them for chytrid, the keepers caring for the animals and frogs that are dead and dying in the field. In addition, dramatic images of Panamanian species of frogs were provided to the media.

â–¶ Regularly posted tweets and Facebook status updates to promote the project’s blog, which also positioned the institute as experts in the field.

â–¶ Promoted the project in three National Zoo newsletters that go out to various audiences (total circulation, 129,000).

The biggest challenge for the Smithsonian PR team was getting Americans to understand and feel passionate about an environmental crisis that is happening far away, says Pamela Baker-Masson, associate director of communications for the Smithsonian National Zoo. PR funding was tight, and if Baker-Masson had her druthers, she would have allocated more money up front for video production.

Despite a dearth of video footage at the outset of the campaign, the results were solid, including:

Media Hits

• Coverage in nearly 50 outlets, including the Denver Post, NPR, National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Fox News, New Scientist and Zooborns.

• A press release about the rescue project becoming the first to breed the La Loma tree frog in captivity was picked up by nearly 20 different outlets, including UPI, MSNBC, Live Science and Our Amazing Planet.

• Smithsonian Networks and Defenders Magazine both accompanied scientists on an expedition in July 2010. The December 2010 Defenders article reached 350,000 subscribers. In September, the Smithsonian Networks documentary on the amphibians’ plight aired.

Digital/Social Results

• The rescue project now has 4,163 Facebook followers and 1,172 Twitter followers. The Cute Frog feature is also promoted on the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s Facebook page, which has 13,312 followers.

• Promotion of the project’s news and progress on the Smithsonian’s central social media pages helped attain reached nearly 95,000 followers on Facebook and 375,000 followers on Twitter.

• According to Google Analytics, the blog has, on average, 5,000 page views per month in 2011—compared to about 2,000 page views per month one year ago.

The PR team plans to take the frogs’ predicament nationwide to public schools, “to inspire little people to think about little frogs,” says Baker-Masson. The beauty, she says, is there are frogs in every state in the U.S., so kids can relate to why it’s important to care and support frogs.

But along with the beauty comes a concern: A number of frog species in the U.S. have already been wiped out, making it even more imperative that the Smithsonian team continue its efforts. PRN


Pamela Baker-Masson,; Lindsay Renick Mayer,; Douglas Plank,