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Twitter saves Rusty the Red Panda; Or, Twitter Ends Fun, Self-Guided DC Tour
By: Patrick Foughty, APR
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When I spotted what I thought was a raccoon in my neighborhood, I never thought it would lead to my wife’s (@AshleyFoughty) quick burst of Twitter stardom and the rescue of an endangered animal.

It all started when we were walking home from lunch. A cute little animal not much bigger than a housecat emerged onto the sidewalk, looked at me, and moseyed down the street as if he lived there. Due to her love for animals and the zoo, my wife quickly determined it was a Red Panda — something that is not indigenous to the Washington, D.C. area where we live. Being more a digital native than I, her instinct was to pull out her iPhone, shoot photos of the little critter as he jumped through some bushes, and tweet them at the National Zoo (@NationalZoo). We then made some calls and spoke directly to some zoo personnel, resulting in their immediate response and quick rescue of one of only 10,000 or so Red Pandas left on earth.

That’s when things erupted. Because we had spent the morning preparing for my overseas deployment that afternoon (I’m a Navy reservist), we did not know the D.C. area had been talking about this little guy for hours since the National Zoo had tweeted for help in finding an escaped Red Panda named "Rusty." My wife’s tweet was out for just minutes when news media and the world began talking about it and asking for interviews. In watching what happened, how my wife responded, and the how news media practically blitzed her, I’ve come up with a few takeaways in both the PR field as well as social media.

Images matter We all know this, but this case is a pure example. I too, tweeted about Rusty at the same time. I had zero retweets; my wife included a picture, and she got over 500 retweets and news media calling her. Her image (featured above — and yes, I have permission to use it) was used my hundreds of media outlets across the world.

Tagging — do it! If the subject matter has relevance to some person or organization, tag them; it greatly influences your chances of being seen.

Twitter can save lives — Ok, perhaps this is an overstatement, but once the zoo saw the tweeted picture they knew this was not a hoax and responded to the right place. Bottom line, if used smartly, Twitter can be useful for more than just updating people, giving news updates, or spreading information on how to write a better blog.

Media Training Because I’m a nerd, and because my wife is patient, I’ve practiced media training on her several times. This obviously sunk in as she was able to use many of the basics like sticking to a couple talking key points; thanking reporters for their time; or just remembering to smile — even for a radio interview. The lesson learned: you never know when or how a media opportunity will come up so make sure the people you think may be asked to speak to media are trained during the "slow" times, and if you have the resources, try to conduct basic all-hands media training for the rest of your staff, even if it’s unlikely they’ll ever talk to media. At least then everyone in your organization will have had at least had some exposure to media training when and if they get questioned on the street. A crisis or even happy but sudden event is not the time to worry about media training.

Call reporters back My wife places a high value on responding to people who reach out to her. So should PR folks. She spent a lot of time getting back to reporters on her own. Not because of some publicity wish (although she is an actress) but because it’s something she values. As a PR person it’s important to always get back and stay in contact till a query is closed out — even if you don’t have an answer by deadline. Odds are, if you stay in touch, a reporter or news organization may give you more time. Remember, reporters don’t necessarily need PR folks; they can always get someone to talk to them. But then, we lose any control of the narrative.

Have fun with it While she claims it was exhausting, my wife also had a lot of fun. Not only was she talking to news media and having more attention than she usually gets, she was also part of helping rescue an endangered animal. Sometimes the PR job can be a drag, with lots of queries and staff work, but don’t forget to have fun with it, build relationships, and step back and watch your message blossom in the information space.

You never know when an opportunity will avail itself for getting your message out; perhaps it’ll be a good idea in a meeting, an interesting story about one of your employees, or a Red Panda walking around in your neighborhood. Keep your eye out, and be ready.


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About the Author
Patrick Foughty is a former helicopter pilot turned PR lover. He pays bills by playing the role of Public Affairs Specialist for the U.S. Navy in Washington D.C. where he manages media operations and digital media for his organization. When he's not thinking about PR he's working on his first novel or studying medieval history.
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