Monday, August 27, 2007

Turtle mania and the press

Here's a quick insight into how a story can grow and grow to give an organization like the World Wildlife Fund some much needed media coverage.

‘Turtle mania’ puts WWF Cambodia on the world media stage
- by Chris Greenwood, WWF Cambodia Communications Advisor

In May, the world’s media beat a path to WWF Cambodia’s door – to cover the story of a soft shelled turtle that spends 95% of its time under the sand and out of view. The story started with the discovery, by a WWF-led survey team, of a female Cantor’s giant soft shell turtle (Pelochelys cantorii), one of the world’s largest and least studied freshwater turtles, during a survey of the Mekong River in March 2007. The stretch of the Mekong River where the turtle lives is an area that was closed for many years to scientific exploration because it was one of the last strongholds of the former Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. The survey was the first detailed study of the area since security restrictions were relaxed in the late 1990s.

In a subsequent visit to the area, researchers also found a nesting ground for the species and brought eggs, an adult turtle, and additional hatchlings captured by fishermen back to Phnom Penh. The combination of a live specimen, eggs, hatchlings, and the mystery of a pristine area of the Mekong River ‘re-discovered’ seemed too good a media opportunity to miss. “All the ingredients were there for a good story, but getting it all together was going to be hard. We had a core team of media professionals from WWF International, WWF US, and Conservation International (CI) advising to coordinate and implement a media release out of WWF Cambodia’s office,” Chris Greenwood, WWF Cambodia’s Communication Advisor said. Seth Mydans, a journalist with the New York Times was invited to join WWF and CI staff at the turtle release site, which led to a prominent article in both the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. The overall result was one of the most successful media engagements in WWF Cambodia’s history. Both Cambodian and international press covered the story in print, and footage of the turtle’s release and interview material which detailed the significance of the turtle was used by BBC, CNN, and numerous other media outlets. At last count, around 200 websites featured the story and interest from magazines and related media groups continued for about a month after the media release date.

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