Communicating For Today and Tomorrow

Communicating For Today and Tomorrow

By John Russonello, Belden, Russonello & Stewart

Call it the “long term vs. short term” dilemma, or the “education vs. mobilization” choice. Whatever term you use, environmental advocates are constantly working to achieve two different, valuable, and obtainable communications goals at the same time. They seek first to send messages that will energize environmental true believers into immediate specific action; and second, to build a greater appreciation over time of environmental issues among the persuadable public.

Over the past few years, thanks to the inspiration and funding demonstrated by the Joyce Foundation, the Belden Fund, and others, and the initiative taken by the Biodiversity Project and Clean Wisconsin, BRS has been able to conduct a considerable amount of public opinion research in the Great Lakes states, with a special focus on attitudes of Wisconsinites. Our work has taught us many lessons both for energizing the believers and inspiring the agnostics.

Energizing the base of support

First, our work has taught us that environmental advocates for the Great Lakes (and any environmental issue) have a better chance igniting a fire under the environmentally- minded if they:


  • Focus on a threat to residents’ health, recreation,well-being, or security that is already apparent. This means reinforce feelings rather than introduce a new topic. Pollution in Lake Michigan is more salient than declining water levels in Lake Superior because people can see and feel the pollution, but the northern lake’s water levels are more remote.
  • Present a solution to the threat, because if you do not have a solution there is not enough reason to become involved.
  • Place people in the solution. Give them something to do that is not overly onerous but meaningful, such as asking voters to question policies at a town meeting about how much development should be allowed on the shores of lakes, or asking voters to ask about a candidate’s position on pollution enforcements.
  • Make sure what you are asking of your supporters is timely, relevant and will have some impact. The believers do not need to be convinced that there is a problem, but rather that there is a solution that makes sense and that needs their involvement in particular. Urgency of action is often more important than urgency of the issue for the true believers.


Building a broader, deeper constituency

Building a stronger appreciation of the environment over time is an even bigger challenge than energizing the believers. Some insights from the research:


  • Creating greater appreciation is not the same as creating more knowledge. We often hear environmental advocates describe their long-term communications goals as increasing environmental education, or environmental literacy, among the public. But our research in the Great Lakes states and else where suggests that education of facts about the environment does not guarantee appreciation. For example, in one study we investigated what information, feelings, and associations among the public nationally most closely predicted a person being committed to protecting the oceans. We found the residents most committed to ocean protection were not those who had the most knowledge about the oceans, but rather those who had an emotional connection to the oceans from events in their lives, such as going the beach in childhood.
  • Find the values that will be more salient than facts. For example, the facts of water diversion in the Great Lakes and shrinking water levels are not immediate concerns. Therefore, asserting that something remote to people’s lives is an urgent problem does not increase saliency, or even educate, because it will fail to command attention when residents compare it to getting adequate health care, good schools, a job with decent pay, or safe neighborhoods. When environmentalists talk about the lowest levels in 50 years, residents either think you are exaggerating, or surmise it is a cyclical thing.
  • Repeat your same message of values with information. As you comment on the issues of the moment that are newsworthy – in the case of the Great Lakes, pollution and zebra mussels – include a consistent values message, followed by a piece of information that will lead to greater appreciation. For example, the sense of pride and responsibility that residents feel about the Lakes is heightened when residents gain a sense of the Great Lakes as an ecosystem – a place that is a national treasure and an essential system for life in the region – rather than simply bodies of water. A message that describes the lakes as this large system for life will build greater appreciation over time.


Environmental communicators can achieve both goals of energizing the believers and creating more believers over time if they see both goals clearly and strategically, and they never stop listening to what their neighbors are saying is important in their lives.

Special thanks to the Biodiversity Project for sharing John’s work. John Russonello is a partner in the public opinion research firm, Belden, Russonello & Stewart, and has played the leading roll in the Biodiversity Project’s research projects on fresh water issues and biodiversity.



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