Media relations

Counting sheep, and lions and spiders…

January is a time for taking stock. Whether inspired by Japanese decluttering guru Marie Kondo or trying to start the year with more clarity, most resolutions include getting organised. But some stock taking exercises are far more difficult to undertake than others; for instance, while it is not necessary to pick up a Sumatran tiger to know it sparks joy, it is quite important to know how many you have.

This sort of stocktake is exactly what ZSL London Zoo does every year. As a requirement of its licensing authority, the zoo keeps a record of all the animals it houses, counting more than 750 different species, from Giant East African snails to Humboldt penguins. Last year, it recorded 19,289 animals.

If the procedure sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve seen it in the newspaper. It is a stalwart of the January content calendar, and for good reason. The image of zookeepers armed with their trusty stocktaking clipboards, surrounded by the animals they care for can hardly fail to uplift wintry spirits.

Tina Campanella, senior press officer at ZSL, has been involved with the stocktake ever since she joined the international conservation charity in 2016, and describes it as her ‘favourite press event of the year’.

She explains: ‘The photocall is always held on the first day possible in the New Year, about a week before the keepers must submit their numbers for the annual records to our license holder.

‘Parliament is in recess, Christmas is over, there’s a nice gap in the media schedule and it’s still the school holidays so we can attract new visitors: it’s the perfect way to get exposure for ZSL London Zoo at the very start of the year, while re-engaging with the media for the year ahead.

‘People love a chance to look behind the scenes and so inviting the press to cover the count gives everyone an insight into what being a zookeeper is really like at the world’s oldest scientific zoo. It’s one of those questions you never think to ask, but that everyone is interested in knowing the answer to: how do you count jellyfish in an aquarium? Do penguins line up for a headcount every morning?’

The appetite for such content doesn’t seem to abate. This January, the stock take was featured in 308 international, national and regional news outlets, including the Daily Mail, The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph. Footage and interviews appeared on BBC Breakfast, ITV News and London Live, to name but a few.

With the world’s attention turning to ZSL for the day, there is also an opportunity to communicate its hard efforts towards conservation. Data on the stock take is uploaded onto a global zoo database called the Zoological Information Management System in order to ‘inform the experts managing conservation breeding programmes all over the world’.

‘By promoting its importance, we’re ensuring that more zoos use it,’ says Campanella. ‘It’s also a chance for us to throw a spotlight on the amazing animals that call ZSL London Zoo home, and a great platform to talk about the world-class care our zookeepers give their animals.’

This care extends to the tactics they use for the stock take. Counting two Sumatran tigers is somewhat easier than counting Leafcutter ants, which comprise 47 species of leaf-chewing ants. ‘For some keepers, counting the animals is as simple as one, two, three – enrichment, training and food rewards are used to ensure every animal is accurately accounted for – while others have to use imaginative tactics to ensure every resident is counted.

‘Aquarium keepers take photos of the tanks and use still images to avoid counting the same fish twice, for example. It takes some creative thinking on everyone’s part.’

Communications planning is vitally important to the success of the annual event, and it focuses firmly on the visuals, with a three-hour photo call featuring up to ten keepers and their animals at its heart. Multiple interviews and exclusive filming opportunities, both before and after the stock take, also must be arranged. And it must differ from the previous year.

Campanella adds: ‘Each year must feature different animals and counting ‘props’, which, we or the keepers usually make. I’ve painted cricket style scoreboards, six-foot rulers and much more. It’s always a new creative challenge.’

Planning begins six weeks before the photo call, according to Campanella, who starts by speaking with the animal teams, ‘scoping out animals and spokespeople from every area of the zoo’.

Every zookeeper, animal curator and member of the press team – totalling more than 160 people – is involved with counting the animals, reporting the numbers to the zoo licensing authority, uploading the data and arranging the press visits. The project takes a week to complete, and takes place alongside regular zoo work, so timings must be exact, which, as Campanella notes, is troublesome when working with animals.

‘They’re wonderfully unpredictable.’ There is plenty of ground for media outlets to cover, but zoo babies, in particular, are a sure-fire hit. ‘We have more than 750 species of invertebrates, reptiles, mammals, birds and fish, many of which are critically endangered animals which ZSL is working to conserve in the wild,’ says Campanella.

‘There are lots of mini-stories to tell, so we try to represent as many different animals as possible in the main photocall – from tiny Partula snails to huge western-lowland gorillas. We like to include animals born during the year too. It’s nice to give the media an update on how they’re all doing, especially if they covered the birth.’

There is no rest for the press team, who must prepare their spokespeople, engage with the media to arrange unique content, and think up filming opportunities.

According to Campanella, the day can start as early as three in the morning for a broadcast, such as Good Morning Britain, but interviews run throughout the day on radio and television before ending with a feature on the evening news.

‘It’s all hands on deck to make sure every member of the press gets what they need to tell the story in the most engaging way,’ says Campanella. ‘When you have 40 journalists on site all wanting different things at the same time it means no matter how much planning you do, the day involves a lot of plate-spinning. Obviously, we never complain about that though; the more the merrier!’

Campanella is passionate about the event, but she says it is vital to delegate. ‘I organise the event but the whole team pitches in on the day, and it’s important that everyone has specific roles planned out ahead of time. One person has to keep the whole photocall running to time, another will be staffing interviews, someone else will be one step ahead to make sure everything is ready at the next stop. Another will be fielding interview requests on the mobile. We’re a well-oiled machine, but you do genuinely learn something new every year.

‘This year it was that squirrel monkeys are very adept at climbing tripods during live broadcasts.’ Life can be unpredictable but coverage of the stock take remains constant, which is surely down to the hard work of Campanella and her team.

‘It’s a popular news event for sure, but we never rest on our laurels,’ she explains. ‘We work hard every year to make it fresh, interesting, and ultimately unmissable.