Test Drive My Job: Louisville Zoo’s Publicist Kara Bussabarger

Yes, that’s an elephant.

You can imagine my surprise when I opened my e-mail message and  this amazing photograph appeared on my screen.

Kara Bussabarger has one of the coolest PR jobs I’ve ever heard of: she is the public relations manager for a zoo.  When you think about it, zoos have a lot of PR needs; there’s always something going on and they’re always in the news.  I know people in DC were obsessed a couple of years ago with the pandas at the National Zoo.  Seemed like those bears were on the news every day.

Read how Kara’s career path wound its way from criminology to public relations.

Kara Bussabarger

Louisville, Kentucky

Age: 32

Public Relations Manager for the Louisville Zoo


Company Size: 150-300 employees, No. 1 non-profit tourist attraction in the Louisville, Kentucky region

What made you get into marketing and/or public relations? I came to public relations through a different course than most. I actually have a degree in criminology and psychology. In that course of study, I would ask a lot of questions to find out the heart of the issue and how to solve the problem. That actually led me to journalism, which intrinsically asks a lot of questions to find the heart of the story. So my background seemed to weave well into where I am today—public relations in a non-profit organization. I like working in the non-profit sector because I am not just working for a bottom line, but also a mission. I feel my work really matters, and there are always wonderful stories to tell.

What do you like best about the field? Being a storyteller. I am a storyteller. But to be a storyteller, you have to have an audience and a story to tell. The degree to which that story grabs and forms a relationship with your audience is the degree to which you are a successful storyteller or not. So to be able to tell these stories, I have to have relationships—with my media contacts and the people on my staff. I couldn’t tell stories without them.

What aspects of the industry are you currently most excited about? I love learning and getting the word out about the Zoo and the great work we do for animals and conservation. So probably the most exciting thing now is the interest in Web 2.0.

Describe a typical work day including your typical work hours. I usually work well more than 40 + a week. There is no typical day, but an example could be: 3:30 a.m. arrive at work for an early morning TV remote, 7 a.m. wrap up the remote, 8 a.m. work on a press release, 9 a.m. answer media calls, 11 a.m. take reporter to interview animal keepers, 10 minute lunch at my desk, 1 p.m. answer e-mails and return calls, 2 p.m. pitch stories to media outlets, 4 p.m. meetings, 5 p.m. leave, and into the night checking my Blackberry …

Describe your office: Do you work from a busy office in the city, do you work mainly from home/a coffee shop? I think I have one of the best offices around—a Zoo! At my office window there are often peacocks strutting by and spreading their feathers and squirrels running and playing. Now if I want to see things more exotic than that, I can travel the world from Africa to the Arctic just by stepping out of my office and taking a stroll around the Zoo. It is a very fun environment to be in.

What types of clients does your company work with and what services do you provide? The Louisville Zoo, a non-profit organization and the State Zoo of Kentucky, is dedicated to bettering the bond between people and our planet by providing excellent care for animals, a great experience for visitors, and leadership in scientific research and conservation education.

What’s a recent project you worked on that delivered results you’re proud of? What was your role in the project? Interestingly enough, I am spearheading and working on a 50th birthday celebration for Timmy, the oldest male western lowland gorilla in North America. The celebration hasn’t happened yet, but I am already excited about the results of the press release that went out and the media buzz already stirring all across American and on the Internet. I know it will get even more attention the day of. Not only is this a great milestone personally for Timmy, but it speaks to the extraordinary care our animals receive. Louisville Zoo’s award-winning Gorilla Forest is on the forefront of gorilla management and meets the demographic trends of current gorilla populations like geriatric gorillas.

What are your favorite things about working here? The people and animals. Years before I started working at a zoo, I wrote a personal mission statement for my life. It read: “I want to create, edify, motivate and bring about love and fulfillment for all people and animals around me.” I feel that I am doing that at the zoo.

How do you best collaborate with your team (standard board room meetings, conference calls, BaseCamp or other project management tool, etc.) Working at a zoo that covers 134 acres, I have to stay connected to staff and media at all times. My Blackberry is priceless for phone, e-mail and Internet! But nothing is better than face-to-face interaction and some of these meetings can be quite interesting—like meeting with the elephant keepers in the elephant barn!

What do you wish was different at your job? Although I like working in the non-profit field, the pay is not usually comparable like in a corporate setting. So …

Do you see yourself in this job in 5 years? If not, where do you see yourself? I know whatever I am doing it will be something with animals!

Any other pertinent info that would give someone a good feel for your job?

Here are some of the things I do in my position:
· Serve as spokesperson for high-profile organization and one of Kentucky’s top tourist attractions (No. 1 non-profit tourist attraction in the Louisville region) to media and public
· Serve as integral member in organization’s overall strategic planning, brand building and culture initiatives
· Oversee, develop, analyze and implement organization’s public relations strategy, budget and plans, including all media coverage—print, television, radio and web
· Proactively pitch and target new media coverage (local, national and international), as well as develop and nurture existing media relationships
· Act as a casting agent for weekly television segment on ABC
· Host, write, report and produce a monthly local cable television show
· Produce, research and write monthly conservation public radio show segment, including in-depth web component
· Organize, promote and execute press conferences and events
· Design, script and create persuasive copy for speeches, brochures, publications and websites
· Forecast, prepare and manage possible unfavorable issues in the media
· Create and compose press releases, internal Q&As, media alerts, media kits and other business communication
· Provide media training and coaching to integral internal and external team members
· Pitched and secured international television show Animal Atlas to highlight the Zoo for a minimum of three years as well as coverage in Woman’s Day magazine, Sports Illustrated, NationalGeographic.com, Discovery Channel, full-page article in People magazine and much more
· Bestowed the esteemed “Key to the City” from Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson’s Press team for outstanding work
· Awarded the prestigious “Foundation Award” by the Louisville Zoo Board of Directors for “exceptional skill and exemplary work” (was the least tenure person to ever receive the high honor)
· Served as selected representative at Polar Bear International conference in Columbus, Ohio (2007)
· Served as chosen representative for intensive, two-day Joint Information System (JIS)/Joint Information Center (JIC) workshop presented by the Department of Defense for crisis communication

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