Individual Public Relations and Community Relations Projects: University of Maryland, College Park - Silver Medal

Category 5: Individual Public Relations and Community Relations Projects
University of Maryland, College Park –
Fear the Turtle Sculpture Project

Contact: Cassandra Robinson, associate director, university marketing, 2101 Turner Bldg., College Park, MD 20742, Phone: (301) 405-9992, e-mail:

Description: The University of Maryland is a public research university, the flagship institution of the University System of Maryland and the original land grant institution in Maryland, founded in 1856. Today the university is ranked among the Top 20 national public universities in the nation and is an economic catalyst for the state. A celebration of 150 years of the university’s growing influence throughout the state and region could not be confined to the campus. The Fear the Turtle Sculpture Project, a public art exhibition (similar to the Chicago Cows on Parade and Baltimore Crabtown Project), was conceived as an interactive, community outreach effort that would engage the public and the campus while also celebrating the university’s historic achievements and statewide connections.

At the center of the project were 50 nifty turtle sculptures that added a dimension of fun to the traditionally academic anniversary activities. Artists from across the state, and beyond, responded to our call to transform four-and-a-half-foot tall fiberglass turtles into works of art that reflected their own pride in the institution, and captured the spirit of achievement and excellence reflected in the “Fear the Turtle” slogan. Designs ran the gamut from “Celestial Event Terrapin” nodding to Maryland’s strength in the space sciences; to “Terp Chaos” recognizing prominent research in math; to “Outstanding in His Field” which harkened back to our agricultural roots. Many sculptures highlighted university and state iconic symbols and celebrated the arts, athletics and diversity, all major elements of the university’s campus culture. Starting on Maryland Day (April 29), the university's annual open house that attracts some 70,000 visitors, the turtles stood on display for more than five months – 30 on campus and 20 spread across the region. Hundreds of people enjoyed a summer of fun turtle hunting excursions, and they sent of photos to prove it.

Beyond the fun of fanciful turtles, the project also was designed to raise needed dollars for scholarships. Auction proceeds benefited the university’s scholarship campaign and the sculpture project helped spread a philanthropic message leading into launch of the university $1 billion capital campaign.

Planning and Objectives: The idea of transforming out beloved terrapin mascot into public art had been discussed for several years, and the occasion of the 150th Anniversary seemed the appropriate time to take it on. After talking with coordinators for other similar projects, we knew we were in for a major challenge that would require support from many corners of the campus as well as outside resources.

As an integral part of the 150th anniversary celebration, the primary objectives of the project were to:

  • Build awareness of the university’s anniversary across the state and metropolitan Washington region, focusing on the institution’s impact and its broad connections to state industries and enterprises.
  • Reach out and engage alumni and citizens of the region in the anniversary celebration in a manner that would encourage interaction with the university, especially a visit to the campus.
  • Provide a visible element to sustain campus excitement and interest in the yearlong anniversary.
  • Promote appreciation of art and culture with a creative exhibit that’s accessible to the general public.
  • Reinforce the branding messages of the ongoing institutional Fear the Turtle marketing campaign.
  • Build momentum for scholarship fundraising leading into the kickoff of a major institutional fundraising campaign.

Guided by these objectives we worked to structure the project with elements that focused on outreach instead of the traditional internal focus of anniversary celebrations. In the project planning process, we worked to identify partners who could help us reach audiences across the state and to think about the tools that could help us connect and engage.

  • We worked with local community arts councils and community galleries willing to share our project call for artists with their members.
  • We partnered with the state tourism office and local businesses to secure 20 prominent display locations across the state and in Washington, DC.
  • We partnered with a Washington and a Baltimore TV station in a promotional contest to ensure a burst of energy for the project near the end of the five-month display period.
  • We developed an interactive website to showcase all the turtles and create a communal space to share photos and engage in turtle related activities. It would also serve to collect feedback from the community.
  • We planned for a printed and an online turtle locator map to make turtle hunting easy and fun, and an online auction site to make it possible for just about anyone to claim a turtle for their own.

To ensure success in the fundraising aspect of the project, we worked closely with our corporate and foundation relations staff to identify 50 sponsors. A pre-purchase option would allow sponsors who wanted to keep their sponsored turtle to make an additional donation and jump-start the scholarship fund.

Logistical considerations also required extensive attention in the planning process. We needed an efficient way to contact and manage 50 artists, 50 sponsors and 50 display location hosts along with the comings and goings of 50 turtle sculptures. An online database management program would be key. Developed by our in-house web team, it would help manage everything from sponsor/artist matching, to online voting, to photo scrapbooks. Our publications team would be called on to design and create a host of materials from maps, to calendars, to invitations and bid paddles featuring cutouts of three turtle designs. The campus facilities staff also would be put to the test over the long haul. We took special care early on to cultivate a champion on the facilities team who was always just a cell phone call away and ready to respond to any turtle emergency.

With so many elements spanning such an extended time, managing this project was more than challenging. Every component requiring review and approval was multiplied times 50. At every turn new tools and procedures would be needed to manage the flow and stay within the boundaries of university and legal requirements. The turtles engendered such warm feelings and good will throughout the university, however, that nearly everyone called on for assistance was eager to help find solutions to the problems.

Target Audience: The Turtle Sculpture Project was meant to reach out to a broad array of constituents ranging from those with close ties to the university to those who may be visiting the state for the first time. Specifically we targeted:

  • The immediate university family of alumni, faculty, staff, students and parents.
  • The general public of the region, particularly Maryland residents, for messages about the university’s connections throughout the state.
  • Tourists and other visitors to inspire them to want to learn more about the university associated with the cool looking turtles.

Staffing/Budget: Coordination and management of the Fear the Turtle Sculpture Project was spearheaded by the marketing/communications staff with additional volunteer support from members of the campus-wide Anniversary Planning Committee. Marketing/communications staffers included a project coordinator, a staff assistant; a web manager and assistant; a publications designer and a photographer. The donor relations staff of three coordinated the auction event. The university’s facilities staff provided a lead manager and a crew of five to handle the multiple moves of the 100+-pound sculptures and getting them to the display locations near and far.

The total budget for the project was $250,000, with $200,000 covering the cost of producing the turtle molds and a $1,000 stipend for each artist. Money raised through sponsorships covered this entire cost. Printing partners also absorbed the cost of 5000 full color posters and partial cost for 3000 calendars.

Results: The impact of the project greatly exceeded our wildest expectations for each of our stated objectives. The level of public engagement and expressions of pride grew throughout the exhibit period as people identified their favorite turtles and formed attachments that were difficult to break as the project came to an end.

  • Visibility/Awareness: News of Maryland’s Turtle Sculpture Project spread from Washington, DC to the Maryland-Pennsylvania border and from Hagerstown to the Eastern Shore. Media in nearly every quadrant of the state carried the story of the project and their local artists who were helping celebrate the university’s anniversary. The Baltimore Sun ran two separate stories in one week highlighting different aspects of the project.

    The high visibility display on campus and in some of the state’s most popular tourist areas (the Baltimore Inner Harbor, Annapolis and Ocean City) made certain that thousands had the opportunity to appreciate the turtle’s unique beauty and to learn of the anniversary celebration. High traffic transit stops on I-95 and at Union Station in Washington, DC assured many thousands more were exposed to the turtles. Several property owners or managers at display locations were so enthusiastic about hosting a turtle, that it became a point of pride highlighted in their organization newsletters.
  • Engagement: Each of our target audiences was not only aware of the anniversary and the sculpture project, but each was actively engaged with the university at some point during the project. Artists from near and far included alumni, staff, students, and parents as well as community artists with no prior connection to the university, but each had to think critically about linking their art to the university’s mission and achievements. Some 83 designs were submitted by 62 artists.

    Tools for turtle hunting were produced, including a printed turtle locator map that was made available at key display locations across the state plus an online version on the project website. The map, along with photos of each sculpture, was featured in the spring issue of the university magazine that went to 138,000 alumni and friends. The turtles displayed on campus helped draw many alumni back for a visit to alma mater.

    Creating a region-wide show-and-tell experience was accomplished through the turtle sculpture website at It was the centerpiece for public interaction and engagement. In addition to highlighting photos and details about each sculpture and its location, the site invited the public to submit photos taken with their favorites for an online photo gallery and homepage feature, to vote for their favorites with a running Top 10 list posted on the site, and even to try their hand at creating their own unique sculpture in a paper doll-like fashion that could then be emailed to a friend.

    Just as interest was beginning to wane, a Turtle Scavenger Hunt Contest was added to the mix in August as a joint marketing effort with the CBS affiliate television stations in Washington and Baltimore. Anyone who took photos with all 50 turtles would be eligible to win one for their very own. Everyone who had begun a turtle photo collection early in the summer was now back in the hunt that lasted through September, leading up to the public auction.

    Activity on the Turtle Sculpture web page was phenomenal. There was an average 20,000 hits a month throughout the display period. Some 20,000 people visited to vote for their favorite turtle sculpture; the website photo gallery received 621 uploads; and more than 7070 photos were entered in the Turtle Scavenger Hunt with 274 people submitting 30 or more photos.

    As the display period ended, the campus community had become so attached to the turtles that students were clamoring for the university to find a way to keep them on campus. Many of the bidders granted this wish, donating their prized turtles back for permanent display on campus. Keepsakes to help preserve the memory of the sculpture project included a limited edition, numbered poster series featuring five of the most popular sculptures and a 2007 calendar featuring each of the sculptures.

    The culminating event, a Bidders Reception and Auction, was divided into three components to offer fair opportunity to all segments of the project’s target audiences. Pre- and post-event online auctions made it easy for fans to bid from afar, and a live auction event with a silent auction component created an energetic, exciting sendoff for the sculptures with heated competition bringing in more dollars for scholarships. The 325 guests sipped terrapin teas, turtletinis, and terp-and-tonics, and waved bid paddles designed as one of the turtle sculptures. Successful bidders were happy to sport a six-inch round button proclaiming “A Turtle is Mine.” The auction was timed to occur one day before the kickoff of the university’s new fundraising campaign.
  • Appreciation of Creative Arts: The creativity of both amateur and professional artists was on full display in this project. They presented 50 different ways to showcase the university and the public responded with great appreciation. As public art, each turtle had its own special fan club, and several were hands-down favorites of nearly everyone.
  • Marketing/Branding Messages Reinforced: The Fear the Turtle marketing slogan and branding messages were significantly reinforced during this project with the repeated use of the slogan as the title of the project. Promotion of the Scavenger Hunt Contest on Channel 9 and Channel 13 featured the institutional public service announcement. The 2007 calendar assured that for every month of the year following the anniversary, a prominent university fact is displayed along with the beautiful sculptures, continuing our institutional messaging for a second year.
  • Scholarship Campaign Highlighted: Every communication about the sculpture project carried the message of our ultimate goal of raising funds to support scholarships for Maryland students. We successfully secured sponsors for all 50 turtles. Their sponsorship covered the sculpture production and other project costs to assure that all funds raised from sale of the turtles could go directly to support student scholarships. Approximately $280,000 was raised from sponsors who pre-purchased their sculptures and bids at the culminating auctions. Interest in supporting the Scholarship Campaign has continued to grow, and resulted in achievement of the $100 million mark in February, 2007, much earlier than anticipated.