Social Media and Public Engagement in National Parks

My last post was about social media and how it has been used to catch vandals in US National Parks. But that is not the only way in which social media and national parks are converging these days. More and more, social media is being used by land management agencies (like the National Park Service, the USDA Forest Service, and the BLM) to engage with the public. Here I am going to highlight two social media campaigns that attempt to engage new audiences and bring those audiences out to experience public lands: The “Red Chair Experience” campaign from Parks Canada and the “Find Your Park” Campaign by the National Park Service.

Me "participating" in the #sharethechair campaign at the George Wright Society conference.

Me “participating” in the #sharethechair campaign at the George Wright Society conference.

Red Chair Experience:

Parks Canada, the Canadian equivalent to the National Park Service, started a campaign in the past few years to place plastic, red “Adirondack” chairs in random places in their national park units. The program started in Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland and now there are plans to put these chairs in each national park unit. You can find a list of the parks that have these chairs here. As a side note, the chairs are made from recycled plastics.

The main theme of the red chair program is personal connection. According to Parks Canada “Visitors are encouraged to seek out the “Red Chairs” to enjoy these special places and to share their experience through social media and other communication channels.” So the idea here is that visitors will find the red chair(s), take a picture of the chairs or themselves in the chairs, and share the image on social media using the hashtag #sharethechair. The hope is that friends and family will see these images and hear stories about the chairs and be encouraged to visit other Canadian National Parks. You can check out the promotional video for the Red Chair Experience/Share The Chair campaign below.

As a consumer of social media, I love this idea! I think it is a really creative and interesting way to reach audiences (especially younger generations) where much of their social interactions occur on social media. I immediately texted Dave from the conference where I heard about the red chairs and demanded that he “find the Red Chair in Wapusk this summer!”  However, there have been some voicing reservations about the program.

An article from the Calgary Herald raises concerns about the costs of the chairs ($550 a piece), suggest that the chairs may be eyesores in some locations, and that the program may be missing the point (encouraging “selfies” instead of pictures of the landscape). I understand these concerns and think that the chairs need to placed strategically so that trampling and other impacts are reduced. When it comes to the cost of the program, I agree that public land management agencies are not well-funded and this is an issue. However, the public is not going to support government spending on national parks and other protected areas if they do not value these places. I believe that the Red Chair Experience is an excellent attempt to connect audiences that (may be) becoming more and more disconnected with nature but are highly “connected” through social media to natural places.

Find Your Park:

Next year, 2016 is the 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service. The biggest public engagement campaign to celebrate their centennial is the Find Your Park campaign. This effort is incredibly collaborative, not only is the NPS partnering with The National Park Foundation on the Find Your Park campaign, but there are a variety of celebrity “National Park Service Centennial Ambassadors”.  Like the Red Chair Experience, the goal is to create a personal connection between individuals and national parks. Note that the wording is Find YOUR Park not Find Park. People interested in finding their park can go to the Find Your Park webpage, take a short quiz about what they want in their park experience, and then the website suggests locations to visit. A map is included which shows the locations of nearby National Park Service units (the closest one to me is Golden Spike National Historic Site). Then visitors are encouraged to “Share Their Park” on social media outlets like Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #findyourpark.

The celebrity centennial ambassadors (including Bill Nye) represent a diverse group of ages, genders, backgrounds, and ethnicities (a preliminary list is in this press release).  Here is a video of Bill Nye finding his park, while wearing an awesome Sherlock Holmes-style hat.

When the Find Your Park campaign was presented at the conference I attended, just like with the Red Chair Experience, a concern about costs was brought up. The National Park Service is spending a fairly large amount of money (sorry I did not write the figure down…) on their centennial campaigns. However, like the Red Chair Experience, the goal is to connect people to the National Parks and the centennial seems like a perfect time to ramp up public engagement campaigns. If people do not care about these places they will not care for them (and they will not support policy that cares for them either).  Jon Jarvis, the Director of the National Park Service sums up the goals and benefits of the Find Your Park campaign better than I could in this quote:

“The centennial is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the National Park Service to reflect on our accomplishments and to use all of our parks and programs to connect all Americans and visitors from around the world with the natural, cultural and historic treasures in our care. As a new generation responds to Find Your Park, I am confident that this campaign will have a powerful impact that will last through our next 100 years.”

Instagram:

As a quick aside, Instagram is also becoming a great way for public land agencies to interact with the public. As part of the Find Your Park campaign and National Parks Week (April 18–26, 2015), many national park units – including Yosemite and Great Smokey Mountains  – hosted “instameets”.  These were scheduled events where visitors could meet at a specific location within the national park and take photos or short videos to share on social media.

I really enjoyed seeing all of the instameet photos and love following some of my favorite National Parks on Instagram. If you are on instagram, I highly recommend following the Harry S. Truman National Historic Site. I have never been there, but after seeing all of their clever Instagram posts –  it is definitely on the short list for national park units to visit. Apparently their social media campaign worked on me.

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2 thoughts on “Social Media and Public Engagement in National Parks

  1. Pingback: Finishing My Dissertation and Finding My Park | The Average Visitor

  2. Pingback: National Park Centennial Celebration Blanket – The Average Visitor

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