Did you know that large alligators can go up to 18 months without eating? The nearly 20,000 people who “like” the Alligator Alley Facebook page certainly do.
Alligator Alley is a popular wildlife sanctuary located in Summerdale, Alabama, about 30 minutes away from the beaches of Gulf Shores. This summer, I had the opportunity to work closely with the team at Alligator Alley though my internship at JJPR, a local PR agency.
During my time on Alligator Alley’s account, I learned a lot about alligators and the people passionate about protecting them, how to interact with a very enthusiastic fan base and that news reporters are down to get up-close and personal with very large reptiles.
Breaking down the client.
Alligator Alley opened its doors (and waterways) in 2004 with the vision of creating a safe, natural environment for nuisance alligators. Instead of being killed, most of these alligators are relocated — either back to a natural waterway or to a sanctuary like Alligator Alley.
These sanctuaries (or “gator farms”) provide a safe environment for the alligators, which are often separated into age ranges until they’re introduced into the general population at the facility to fend for themselves — much like we humans who are shuffled from grade to grade and then released into the adult world.
The controlled environments at Alligator Alley and similar sanctuaries create great opportunities for educational experiences. Visitors can observe the alligators in their natural habitat and even have a hands-on encounter with a baby alligator, all while learning what makes these reptiles special.
Alligator Alley tasked us with helping to spread its messages of protection and education. With its already robust fan base in place, we had to find creative avenues to engage with that public in new ways, while also creating content and messaging that would reach out to an entirely new set of people.
A loyal following.
One of the main tasks I took on while working on the Alligator Alley account was creating monthly social media content calendars for its social media accounts. This responsibility took a lot of research on my part. While I had experience managing social media content before, I had never worked with a company quite like this one.
I scoured all of the previous posts on the two channels, watching for engagement that might clue me in on the kind of content that would encourage further interactions. What I found was that fans loved seeing photos of people interacting closely with alligators and that they were also willing to interact with posts that posed questions to them. Some posts asked them to point out a camouflaged alligator or to count how many hidden ones they could find in a photo. They also love (I mean, LOVE) when the staff live-streams feeding time once a week.
This observation of fan behavior revealed that the reason Alligator Alley is so popular is because of its oddity. This is not a zoo or a pet store; there’s an element of perceived danger in visiting the sanctuary that’s even inferred through the user experience on social media.
Not just social media.
Though my primary responsibility was to focus on digital content, I was able to collaborate with my account manager on securing news coverage for Alligator Alley.
Late July is alligator nesting season, which means the staff is busy (carefully) collecting eggs for incubation. This whole process is extremely dangerous but the visiting reporter was totally game to jump straight into the middle of collecting, standing just a few feet from an angry alligator mom.
We had no problems pitching this story to local news stations because it was so different from their normal content. Even our local morning show hosts swapped the studio for the swamp.
This kind of client is a dream for PR agencies. The content is dynamic and interesting – it’s something people want to read and watch because of the shock factor. Alligator Alley is compelling enough without needing us to tailor or create a message; our job was to get the message out to the right audience.
In the PR world, a lot of emphasis is placed on a few “categories” of organizations: entertainment, sports, nonprofit, political campaigns, government, education, health care, etc. But, it can be easy to forget that every type of organization can benefit from the functions of public relations, whether that’s an alligator farm, a sports team or a retirement home. Every organization wants to get a message out there and public relations is what helps that happen.
Brooke Bailey is a junior majoring in public relations at The University of Alabama (UA). She is currently an editorial writer for Platform Magazine, an online student-run publication at UA that is sponsored by The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations. Follow her on Twitter and connect with her on LinkedIn.