The Message Project for the National Park Service
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

The Message Project for the National Park Service

The message project conducted by Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide was a first of its kind attempt to create “brand awareness” of America’s National Parks and the National Park Service.

Paul Holmes

The message project conducted by Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide was a first of its kind attempt to create “brand awareness” of America’s National Parks and the National Park Service.  The seemingly insurmountable challenge was to first create a common identity and purpose among the 20,000 employees of the National Park Service and then communicate the resulting messages to the public.
The National Park Service, one of the most admired agencies of the federal government, conducted its first ever consumer research in 1998, and discovered that, while well loved, the agency was not well understood by the American public.  This lack of understanding represented a significant obstacle to long-term goals of preservation and protection of America’s National Parks.   The National Park Foundation, the Congressionally chartered non-profit supporting the National Parks, commissioned Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide to conduct what became known as “The Message Project.”
The PR program objectives were three-fold:
  • Increase overall public awareness and understanding of the National Parks, including awareness of lesser-known parks.
  • Help create a common identity among 379 sites and 20,000 National Park Service employees.
  • Promote a feeling of stewardship among Americans that engenders philanthropy, volunteerism and resource preservation.
Ogilvy Public Relations conducted an extensive communications audit to analyze existing National Park Service communications.  The audit included:
  • Review of National Park materials, including brochures, Park newspapers, web sites, media coverage, publications of non-profit partners and coverage in local and national media.
  • Site visits to 25 National Parks representing a broad range of natural, historical and cultural treasures.
  • In depth interviews with more than 125 Park Service employees, non-profit partners, elected officials, and other stakeholders.   
Because of the flexible organizational structure of the National Park Service, this new message strategy could not be imposed through command and control.  Rather, it needed to be sold in to the rank and file as a good way to achieve their fundamental mission – preservation and protection of America’s special places.  Therefore, our strategy had to look inward as well as outward.:
  • Provide National Park Service leadership with the information and perspective on their own communications operations so that the potential of those operations could be harnessed.
  • Develop consistent messages among the 20,000 employees scattered in the 379 units of the National Park Service and hone their tools to communicate these messages.
  • Build connections between the American people and their National Parks by focusing on the very personal nature of the  National Park experience.
Once we completed our communications audit, we needed to work with our partners at the National Park Foundation and the National Park Service to develop key messages and communicate them to the public.  To accomplish this, we employed numerous tactics:
  • Provided briefings to the National Leadership Council of the Park Service, comprised of the 20 senior leaders from across the country, to gain their buy-in and endorsement to the recommendations of our audit.
  • Conducted day-long workshops at 20 sites across the country to gain the support of the field staff and motivate them to implement our recommendations.
  • Tested our “Experience Your America” tagline in focus groups of primary Park constituents – affluent seniors, “soccer moms,” African Americans and Hispanics.  In all cases,  the message proved to be an effective method for building the desired personal connections. 
  • Developed a bold print and broadcast advertising campaign that relies on strong visuals and catchy two-word invitations that enticed existing media partners to offer pro bono space. 
  • Chose seven pilot parks to test tactics and generate examples of successful implementation.  We provided each with localized research, on-site consulting and media training to equip the pilots to address their existing communication needs.
  • Developed design standards for the full range of publications, signs and other materials and gave Park managers access to these standards via web-based templates. 
  • Provided the pilot parks with tool kits to help them communicate the message in a standardized way.  The kits included a summary of the research findings, a “Who We Are” PowerPoint presentation template for use with public audiences, guidance on using the “Experience Your America” tag line and the ad series and graphics standards and templates. 
Across the National Park System, managers and employees have accepted and incorporated the Message Project to communicate with the public:
  • Our briefings and tools have resulted in increased use of our messaging architecture, including the mission statement, themes, tagline, ad series and visual identity guidelines.
  • In Washington DC, improved signage played a direct role in increased public support for Park preservation as evidenced by focus group findings.
  • Our tools and training led to positive media placements by lesser-known parks (e.g., Edison National Historic Site, White Sands National Monument, Ozark National Scenic Riverway). 
In the fall of 2000, the implementation of the message project led to the signing of five corporate partners (American Airlines, Eastman Kodak, TIME magazine, Ford Motor Company and Discovery Communications) who will be providing critical resources to National Parks across the country.
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