Beth Whittaker looks at the importance of correctly marketing a park’s messages to its target audience(s) and whether traditional marketing tools are still able to hold their own in a digital world

THE digital era of the 21st century has completely changed the way we communicate and as a result, so has the way we market businesses and services.

Social media and online portals have become an integral part of public relations. No longer are we constricted to the telephone or email to get the message out about a new project or product – businesses have a multitude of tools at their fingertips to ensure their message reaches the right people at a global level.

But with so many communication tools available, how do you choose the right one for you? Which do you prioritise and where do you start? And does it differ between industries?

Paula Werne, director of communications at Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari in the US, sees that the lines between communications, PR and marketing have blurred greatly over the years, with the digitalisation of photos and videos in particular one of the most significant advancements. In the world of press – whether print or online – there is, however, one communication tool that remains as relevant today as it always has – the press release.

While press releases themselves have had to adapt to a new era of communications, they still remain extremely relevant and serve a multitude of purposes, from announcing a new product or service, to improving brand image or expanding public knowledge. Whether they are received directly via email or uploaded to an online media service, press releases assist journalists in the news gathering process, providing essential facts without (most of the time) flowery language and are intended to sell the story.If you are trying to get a message out to the press, whether consumer led or trade, then the press release provides a solid foundation and baseline for marketing campaigns, which can then be built on through more in-depth articles, follow-up interviews and supporting snippets through social media posts.

Image courtesy Busch Gardens Tampa Bay

“The press release certainly isn’t dead,” Werne tells InterPark. “It has just changed. It serves as a marker on your website and as a tap on the shoulder to reporters. It’s not the end-all, it’s a starting place!”

Ron Gustafson has been involved in the world of amusements, PR and journalism for over 40 years, having worked in the newspaper industry as an editor; operated rides with his wife Nancy in the late 70s; and taken on PR/marketing for various amusement clients in the 90s before taking up the position of director of marketing, public relations and educational programmes at Quassy Amusement & Waterpark, in the US, in 2002.

For Gustafson, from advertising to social media, while a great deal has shifted online, the reliance on the press release remains. He told InterPark: “At Quassy, we still rely heavily on timely press releases and photos, which are picked up widely by local and area media that are important to us. A prime example of this was our announcement last spring that we were preparing to open for our 110th anniversary season. PRLOG – an online press release distribution service we use – had more than 1,100 hits on that particular story. In addition, one of the photos we sent out with the release ended up on the cover of Weekend magazine in Conneticut!

“Press releases generate a great deal of media interest in onsite stories about the park – both in broadcast and print. Last year CBS and FOX affiliates in Conneticut both came to the property and featured our Extreme Waterslides, new category five rapids, in broadcast features. We host writers and bloggers who work regionally, nationally and internationally all the time… so media relations and press releases are very important to us.

“I read an article posted by a PR firm a few years ago that said the press release is dead. Some people in our industry might agree, but we still take full advantage of issuing timely press releases and with some fantastic results. If we feel the release is of industry interest, we also share it with those publications.”

For Tim O’Brien, a veteran outdoor entertainment journalist, in today’s digital world there is often the feeling that an official PR programme is not needed but he disagrees this is so, telling InterPark: “Detailed press releases are mostly thought of as dinosaurs in today’s marketing department. Teasers, advisories and bulletins are thrown out there with high hopes and have sadly replaced a detailed communiqué. Releases need to be focused and need to be written with a certain market, newspaper or reporter in mind.

“When I was a reporter I always hated getting a release that was addressed to me, but should have been directed to the food or restaurant reporter. It is as important today as it was in the early days that the ‘right’ information is placed in the hands and minds of the ‘right’ people.

Image courtesy Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari


“Unfortunately many companies feel every department must justify itself in terms of dollars,” O’Brien continues. “PR is not an income producing department – you’ve got to spend money and sometimes, a lot of it – so as a result, the attitude is to just throw it out there on social media and see if it has legs. If it doesn’t go viral within a specified time, repackage it and send it out again.

“While the client’s needs have remained the same (scatter or focus the message to a specified target audience and work that target to get desired results) it feels as though there are new rules in PR. You don’t need professionally trained PR staffers, just people who know how to work the social media network.

“The immediacy that social media now provides however, has a tendency to undermine both accuracy and professionalism. Printed press releases are used to explain, promote and announce. The news comes from the ‘horse’s mouth’ and can be trusted as the official word. When the step of ‘official’ verbiage is skipped, there is a huge opportunity for miscommunication. So often today, in a hurry to scoop their fellow media partners, ‘news’ is disseminated before an official version can be drafted and released.”

While it is easy to see the negatives of social media and blame the demise of ‘true PR’ and ‘sloppy’ journalism on it, it is also important to recognise social media’s strengths and the role it can play in supporting the traditional press release.

Gustafson handles all of Quassy’s social media in-house – monitoring the Facebook fan page, Instagram and Twitter accounts, as well as the Google listings and he makes use of social media for strategically targeted adverts, based on interests and demographics, pinpointing the regions where they want the adverts to appear.

“It’s extremely cost effective,” he says. “In fact, we will be building new adverts this week (at the time of writing) for our group sales department focused on two different market groups.

“Our fans enjoy seeing photos of off-season work at the park and we run a Throwback Thursday photo almost every week, which has a huge following from our fan base and industry insiders who are quick to share it. We also ran a Facebook contest with a network television affiliate a few years ago. Our objective was not only to promote the park at a time when we were getting into the height of the season, but also build our database. This short-term, relatively inexpensive campaign bumped our internal database by more than one third.”

Taylor Martin, social media and content leader at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, adds to this, telling InterPark: “Viewers are exposed to so much ‘noise’ these days, making it even more challenging for your brand’s voice to be heard. Social media has allowed us to connect with individuals across the world and learn what content they find most engaging. On the contrary, social media has created a culture of impatience that only allows brands three to five seconds to convey their message before a viewer loses interest. Now, more than ever, it’s important to be creative and captivating.

“Through a combined broadcast and social media strategy, we can maximise our reach by speaking to a wide variety of audiences,” he continues. “Co-ordinating multiple touch points through online articles, television segments, social posts and influencer engagement not only reaches more people but also promotes message retention.

“Broadcast media has gained momentum by expanding to social media as well and we work with our broadcast partners on both fronts to provide engaging content offline and online.”

Image courtesy Busch Gardens Tampa Bay

In a digital age, it is clear that everything intertwines and it is important to take social media seriously. Press releases, blogs, social media and video content all work together; if one of the mediums doesn’t catch a reporter’s attention then one of the others will.

“Having sat on the other side of the fence I realise the media – be it social, print or broadcast – is in need of good stories and ideas,” Gustafson notes. “While we will distribute local stories of interest to just our regional partners, when we have something of broader interest, we look at the bigger picture and push it out across the board. I’m also not afraid to throw out the occasional ‘story pitch’ to reporters and assignment editors and then be ready at our end should they grab it and run with it.

“Change is constant in the world of media but I truly believe that the press release is alive and well – we take full advantage of the extensive coverage we still receive from local area, national and international media.”

For O’Brien, good, ‘free’ news dissemination today is very difficult but necessary. He says: “Pay to play ‘news’ sources are everywhere and can often confuse people just starting out in the PR business. My advice to anyone either studying or practicing the art form of PR, is go back to the basics and build your own methods from those basic premises. Don’t start building from what you see and hear today.”

And for Martin, in the amusement market, everyone is going to have a new attraction, a new festival and so on at some point and the challenge, however you choose to do it, is making it known why guests should choose your brand and what makes your experience unique.

Image courtesy Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari

“It’s important to keep your audience engaged at all times throughout a marketing campaign,” he says. “Use a variety of content, highlight different angles and don’t be afraid to ‘break the fourth wall’ when it makes sense. We focus on two to three key takeaways per campaign to win over the audience’s interest as quickly as possible. From there, we aim to drive them to our website to learn more at their leisure. As we progress through a campaign, we dive deeper on an individual highlight and analyse what people are most interested in.

“Be sure to look at numbers as well – what works for your brand versus what doesn’t? Just because it worked for one campaign doesn’t mean it will work every time. Maintaining engagement is key, which ultimately leads to sales and success.”