Pandering to the media: what we can learn from Britain’s panda watch

BIG Partnership senior account manager Charlene Sweeney on the lessons that can be learned from the most anticipated birth since Prince George.

After a nail-biting few months, the panda pregnancy that might never have been has officially become the panda pregnancy that is no longer. Tian Tian, Edinburgh Zoo’s female giant panda, it has been confirmed, is no longer displaying signs of being with cub.

Despite no hard evidence that Tian Tian was ever expecting – she didn’t cooperate with an ultrasound, and with female pandas weighing up to 100kg, who was going to argue with her? – the media has faithfully documented every step of her possible pregnancy following her artificial insemination in April.

The excitement built to a crescendo in August when Edinburgh Zoo announced that tests suggested Tian Tian, whose name translates as Sweetie, was pregnant. As any new arrival would be the first panda to be born in the UK, a 24-hour CCTV was installed in Tian Tian’s enclosure to allow zookeepers to monitor her progress. Reporters also went on to red alert, implementing the biggest baby watch seen since it emerged that the Duchess of Cambridge was expecting Prince George.

The coverage was so prolific that ever-cynical Radio 4 presenter Eddie Mair took to broadcasting a daily “Possible Panda Pregnancy Update”, accompanied by a jaunty jingle and announcement of “still no news”.

So how did Edinburgh Zoo manage to sustain interest in Tian Tian’s antics for so long?

On the one hand, its success is partly explained by the fact that we’re all suckers for anything about animals. On the other, it was a PR masterclass. The institution used every trick in the book to gain column inches, from a drip-feed of press releases and access to interesting experts, via rampant engagement with social media; I’ve lost count of the number of panda hashtags that littered Twitter.

But – and there nearly always is a ‘but’ with long-running stories – a tipping point has been reached. Since it emerged that Tian Tian is not in the family way, discussion of the issue has turned distinctly negative, with questions being raised about how ethical Edinburgh Zoo’s attempts to breed a cub are. One tabloid newspaper even splashed with a story suggesting the reluctant mum-to-be had eaten her own cub.

I’d argue that the coverage of Tian Tian’s phantom or failed pregnancy shows that it is possible to have too much of a good thing, and that when planning a media campaign, knowing when to exercise restraint is just as important as knowing when to let loose. Even the most positive narratives are vulnerable to criticism when a story is running out of steam.

To be fair, Edinburgh Zoo has countered the backlash by pointing out that every failed attempt to breed a panda adds to the knowledge needed to conserve the species. And they have a point. It is thought there may be as few as 1,500 giant pandas left in the wild.

Still, it wouldn’t do any harm to retire Tian Tian from the limelight for a while. At least, until the next mating season begins.