Changing the future of animals and lives of people

Debra Erickson is Director of Communications and Interpretation, at San Diego Zoo Global. She has the best job in the zoo as she oversees eight different areas and is involved in an array of tasks from exhibit design to advertising campaigns and works for three different institutions. Debra kindly agreed to share her experience and insight of one of the best zoos in the world.


WAZA: Have you always worked in the zoo industry or what brought you to the zoo world?

Debra: I was a girl scout through high school and spent a lot of time outdoors. I became very familiar with the wildlife in the Olympic Mountains and majored in biology in undergraduate school. I was planning on becoming a field biologist but after a season in the field, working most of the day by myself on small rodents, I realized I couldn't work in the wilderness for months on end with very little contact with others. I then decided to become a teacher and to help support myself while obtaining my credential; I started working as a tour guide at SeaWorld San Diego. I was hooked. I quit teaching in the traditional classroom and have since worked at SeaWorld Orlando, San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and Atlantis, Paradise Island. I have left the industry three times to work in the beer, semiconductor, and orang-utan and rain forest conservation fields, but always returned to zoos and aquariums.


WAZA: Is Communication in the zoo world very different from any other industry? What makes it special?

Debra: I believe that the basics of an excellent communications program are the same in any industry. I used to joke when people asked me how I could move from an aquarium to a zoo: "The job is the same, only the animals' names have been changed." What makes us different are two things: We change the future of animal species in which we work and we change the lives of the people that visit our institutions. San Diego Zoo Global has successfully bred more than 165 endangered species and has reintroduced over 30 species back to the wild. I have watched the zoo over more than 25 years take a species which only numbered 22, and prevent its extinction. The California condor now numbers almost 400 individuals and it is flying free in California, Arizona, and Baja California. When I went out to see the last three condors in the wild before they were brought into the zoo, I went because I wasn't certain that they would return to the wild. We helped make it happen.

We also touch people's lives in so many ways. Numerous employees that now work at the zoo were inspired to work at the zoo after attending summer school classes as children. Hundreds of people have shared their stories with me on their first visit to the San Diego Zoo as a child. And we continue to make a difference every day. For almost 20 years we have brought animals to visit children in local hospitals each month. Just in the last few months we have changed the life of an autistic child that attended our summer camp program and we gave severely wounded war veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan the first opportunity for a moment outside of the hospital with their family. This was done before opening hours due to their post-traumatic stress syndrome. No one involved will ever forget the expressions on the veterans' and their children's faces. In summary, we provide hope for endangered species, a pathway to science careers for children, and life-long lasting memories for our millions of guests.


WAZA: Could you describe your main duties at San Diego Zoo?

Debra: I oversee the daily marketing, communications, and interpretation functions for the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research. I have the best job at the Zoo since I am involved in everything from designing exhibits and developing advertising campaigns to creating marketing strategies and testing new technologies.

What do you like & dislike the most in your role?

I receive great rewards daily by mentoring my team members, raising awareness of the plight of endangered species, and giving people of all ages a once in a lifetime experience with the animals in our collection. One of my biggest challenges is the propensity people have for exclusively communicating on e-mail. Face-to-face (leave your desk!) discussions, lunch meetings (break the bread!), and even phone calls should be used for communicating important or contentious matters.


WAZA: Could you describe us a typical working day?

Debra: The wonderful thing about my job is that there is no typical day. Since I oversee eight different areas: interpretation, PR and social media, design, digital communications, e-Learning, advertising, publications, and photo and video services, days are full of fun, variety, and challenges. On a recent day, I conducted my weekly update meeting with my managers where we developed an outline for a return on mission presentation. Then I met with our instructional designer to review the progress on the instructional design of an elephant management module. Next, I facilitated a meeting for our spring promotion, Play Days, working with my team along with operations and animal care staff. My next task was board of directors conference call for Endangered Species Day, a follow-up call with an official from US Fish and Wildlife Service, and then a final review of the front gate signage package for the zoo before it was sent out for bid. I spent the end of the day typing meeting minutes and trying to catch up on e-mail.


WAZA: Do you work closely with the educators' team? How would you define the relationship with them?

Debra: I started my career in education as a tour guide at SeaWorld San Diego and was education director at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and SeaWorld of Orlando. I am very fortunate to work with two education directors that I have known for over 25 years. We have successfully worked together to define the roles of education vs. interpretation. Interpretation is responsible for developing themes, messages, interpretive signs and interactive elements, training materials, fact sheets, e-Learning modules, and evaluation plans for all new exhibits and then provides this information to education. Education creates and implements all guest-facing programs. We work together as a team to implement an interpretive audit program that involves management team members (including food service, merchandise, operations, and animal care) auditing more than half of our offerings each year. Audits are used to help us continually improve the guest experience.


WAZA: What was your biggest challenge and achievement since you joined the zoo?

Debra: The biggest challenge and the achievement are the same, co-leading the internal San Diego Zoo Global team and managing the agency in the rebranding effort for the Zoo. We were able to accomplish the following:

a.    Rename the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park to San Diego Zoo Safari Park. This allows us to more easily communicate the differences between the zoo and the Safari Park. People outside of San Diego County didn't understand what a Wild Animal Park was and why, if they visited the world-famous San Diego Zoo, they needed to visit the Wild Animal Park. Safari Park says it all: You go to the Safari Park to take one of a variety of safaris.

b.    Rename the organization from Zoological Society of San Diego to San Diego Zoo Global: Individuals had an impossible time remembering the corporate name of the organization. San Diego Zoo Global connotes that we are a zoo that works around the world.

c.    Rename Center for the Reproduction of Endangered Species or CRES to San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Individuals couldn't remember what the acronym stood for and we were able to associate our conservation and research function with our well-known brand, San Diego Zoo.

d.    Create the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Conservancy, a program and name that helps us communicate that we are more than a zoo; we are a wildlife conservation organization.


WAZA: How was the "San Diego Zoo Global" brand built? Would you say that it is an easy understandable brand?

Debra: The San Diego Zoo is 95 years old and has a 50% unaided recognition and 87% aided recognition in the United States. The brand was built over the years by developing world-class exhibits and providing an unforgettable guest experience in conjunction with executing an extremely well-crafted communications strategy. The organization continues to invest in growing recognition for the organization. Our public relations efforts generate over 600 million impressions each year and our website is usually one of the 5,000 most visited sites on the Internet. We continue to innovate and test new tactics to build awareness not only for our brand and the zoo but for our conservation work in 35 countries around the world. In the last year our conservation efforts have been featured by many major media outlets including the BBC, CBS, NBC, ABC, Bloomberg News, New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times.


WAZA: Is San Diego Zoo involved in the Decade on Biodiversity? If yes what is the mission of the Communication department for this Decade?

Debra: The San Diego Zoo is investigating the possibilities of becoming involved in the Decade of Biodiversity. I attended my first WAZA meeting last June and, as part of our five-year interpretive plan we are currently updating, we are trying to determine how we can best become involved in the initiative.


WAZA: Do you think this project is a marketing opportunity for San Diego Zoo? And for the whole zoo and aquariums community?

Debra: When I was working for Busch Entertainment Corporation in 1997, the parent group for the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Parks, I led a project where we partnered with a variety of conservation groups including The Nature Conservancy and US Fish and Wildlife Service to partner with Pizza Hut, on a program to raise awareness of biodiversity. Pizza Hut at the time had been conducting the Book It! Program in the US for over 12 years, a reading and rewards project, and reached millions of children. We thought we could effectively raise the awareness of biodiversity nationwide through the Book It! program and associated communications during a two-year effort. This included a national contest to develop a symbol of biodiversity that we were hoping would end up being adopted nationwide. The results were in year 2 we had over 22 million children in almost 900,000 schools participate. The reading program itself was a great success but overall understanding of biodiversity didn't rise after two years with the theme and we were unable to get any traction for the adoption of the biodiversity symbol despite the involvement of over five international and national conservation organizations.

Unfortunately, biodiversity is a word that most individuals don't understand and the word itself is a barrier to communicating its importance. I don't see biodiversity as a marketing opportunity. I feel if we effectively market the zoo, people will come and then we will share the concept of biodiversity with them during their visit.  


WAZA: What do you think is the most important quality for a Communication/ Marketing person in the zoo industry?

Debra: I believe integrity is the most important quality that a communications professional must possess. We need to ensure that we communicate accurate information in an unbiased manner. We are responsible for delivering messages on a wide-variety of sensitive issues from climate change and evolution to the bush meat trade and culling in captivity and the wild. We have the duty to present both sides of an issue clearly, with correct data to corroborate our positions.


WAZA: Do you foresee any big changes in the zoo industry on the marketing/communication point of view?

Debra: I believe the major challenge that we will be facing over the next few years is the continued escalation of the animal rights movement. It has already had a major impact in our industry as some U.S. zoological facilities have made the decision to no longer display elephants and one facility recently deciding to send their elephants to a "sanctuary." The activists will continue their work to remove elephants from all zoological facilities. The activists are also trying to obtain human rights for non-human primates. In 2008, the Spanish parliament passed a resolution to provide great apes with the right to life and freedom. In Spain, great apes can no longer be in a circus, a TV commercial, or film, though they can still at this time be displayed in zoos. We all need to have proactive communications plans in place to deal with animal rights issues head on.




  • Debra Erickson Interview-Pic 1

    Debra Erickson with Orangutan, 2004

    © San Diego Zoo Global





  • Debra Erickson interview-pic 2

    Debra Erickson and serval

    © Ken Bohn, San Diego Zoo Global