The process of artificially inseminating a panda takes a little more than half an hour, and on April 30, people who follow the Smithsonian’s National Zoo on Twitter
could monitor every minute of it.
“The overwhelming response seemed to be, this is kind of weird, maybe a little gross, but fascinating,” says Lindsay Renick Mayer, communications specialist for the zoo.
One follower put it rather less delicately: “Is anyone closely following #pandaAI? If so, ewwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww.”
Attempts to impregnate Mei Xiang, a 13-year-old panda, have become an annual media event in the Washington, D.C., area. Almost anything involving the zoo’s beloved pandas gets coverage, but this year, the zoo’s communications team aimed to go beyond the standard press-release-and-photos package and really bring people closer to the process.
A new approach
Mei Xiang has been at the National Zoo for 11 years and in that time has given birth just once, in 2005. The zoo’s scientists have studied panda reproduction and behavior intensively, and, after a number of attempts to mate her with a male, they’ve moved on to the artificial method.
“Coming into this new breeding season, we’d done this story from every angle,” says Pamela Baker-Masson, associate director of communications for the zoo.
Fans of the zoo’s pandas—and there are many fans—knew the breeding season was fast approaching. Because they can watch the pandas 24/7 on the zoo’s PandaCam, fans know when something’s about to happen.
“They know we’ll turn the cameras off if we have to go in with the pandas for any reason,” Baker-Masson says. “Anybody watching the cameras would know that the artificial inseminations had begun.”
The artificial insemination process actually involves two inseminations, and the zoo’s scientists performed the first one on the night of Sunday, April 29.
As she headed home in the early morning hours after the first half of the process, Baker-Masson started wondering. She knew there would be questions and discussions online as soon as people noticed the cameras were off.
“I don’t want to frustrate the media, and I certainly don’t want to frustrate the public,” she says. “So what are our alternatives?”
Monday, about 90 minutes before the 4 p.m. start of the second artificial insemination procedure, the zoo sent out a news release that the whole thing would be live-tweeted.
The zoo’s decision to live-tweet the procedure was an extension of a policy put in place last fall, Baker-Masson says, in which the communications team decided to experiment with social media. Live-tweeting an artificial insemination would be a bit risky—Mei Xiang had to be anesthetized— but the zoo went ahead with it.
“We really had to have the support of the chief vet, Dave Wildt,” she says. “He was the best choice to do the tweeting, because he didn’t have a specific participatory function in the A.I. He was overseeing everything.”
Mayer worked with Wildt throughout the day to make sure all the information that needed to go out during the procedure went out in a timely way. Wildt and Mayer pre-wrote some informational tweets—for example, one pointing out that giant pandas can get pregnant only during a 24- to 72-hour window once a year—and wrote extemporaneously for the rest. The blog DCist collected all the tweets, and a good many responses, in a story on Storify.
“We just saw how things were going, and Dave would tweet what was happening,” Mayer says. “We were standing by his side, helping him with that.”
In total, the zoo sent out 46 tweets and 12 pictures taking followers through the entire procedure. Each one was tagged with the #pandaAI hashtag, which Mayer says was a big help.
“You want to provide some kind of hashtag if you’re doing something like this so others can chime in,” she says. They did: The hashtag has been used more than 800 times since the live-tweet.
The artificial insemination procedure started around 4 p.m. By 5 p.m., #pandaAI was a trending topic in greater Washington, D.C. Within 48 hours of the procedure, the National Zoo had gained 800 Twitter followers. Normally, growth like that would take about a month, Mayer says.
“There’s no doubt that, because we did this for the first time with a giant panda, that helped,” Baker-Masson says.
Her team plans to do a lot more analysis of just what live-tweeting the procedure accomplished, but she says it hopes it changed people’s perceptions in a couple of ways. First, Baker-Masson says she hopes it lets people know that the National Zoo is open and welcoming to its fans.
Second, Baker-Masson says she hopes people view it as proof that the National Zoo is more than just a place to come and be entertained. “I think we helped people understand and appreciate that we’re science-based,” she says. “We’re research-based.”
Mayer says the zoo planned for its work on Twitter to engender those kinds of thoughts about what the staff there does. “The communications team views Twitter and other social media as more than a novelty.
“We’re trying to take a thoughtful, strategic approach to this.”
Matt Wilson is a staff reporter for Ragan.com.