In Depth

Crying Out for the Wilderness

Media Savvy a Prerequisite for Groups Working to Protect Environment

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and that adage holds true for environmental organizations looking to get their stories told on television—stories that often are complex, scientific and involve intricate packages of legislation.

Case in point: The Campaign for America’s Wilderness, in conjunction with state wilderness coalitions, has been working on a package of bills that was cleared by the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and is now awaiting full Senate action. Due to the nation’s financial crisis, that may not happen until after the November election.

“We need the media to spread the message about the importance of protecting wildland,” said Susan Whitmore, director of communications for Campaign for America’s Wilderness, which gives state organizations advice and resources to get federal legislation over the goal line. “One of the goals is to get journalists interested in going out and looking at and seeing the beauty of these lands. A lot of people take wildlands for granted, and don’t understand the difference between national parks and unprotected wilderness—and don’t think about how little wildland is protected for future generations.”

Currently, about 5% of American soil is permanently protected as wilderness and fully half of that is in Alaska. The organization says about 6,000 acres of open space a day is lost due to development, more than 2 million acres a year.

“Wilderness advocates want to save at least that much a year,” said Ms. Whitmore. “It’s really important to show the audience what we’re talking about and explain why it is important. Video is an important piece, because most people aren’t getting out there to wilderness areas. Most support protection, but that doesn’t mean they’re going. It’s important, we think, to show people the land we’re trying to protect.”

Taking a Hike

The organization recently organized a wilderness hike for a television news crew in West Virginia, to show what undeveloped, un-roaded, un-logged, un-mined pristine wildland looks like, with the intent of having it stay that way for generations into the future.

In Palm Springs, Calif., it arranged for a television station to go on a flyover in a small plane to get footage of some of the nearby land that would be protected under federal legislation.

“We are working on a number of campaigns in about eight states where we’re seeing sprawl creeping into canyons,” said Ms. Whitmore, noting that her organization works closely with others that have similar goals.

For the World Wildlife Fund, some spectacular video of polar bears swimming brought home the point of how global warming is changing their environment and threatening the species.
The WWF is the world’s largest conservation organization, operating in 100 countries. Its overriding goal is saving species—and part of that mission has become intertwined with the issue of climate change, which has a tremendous impact on people and animals.

“Our challenge is that we’re science-based, in the trenches and taking on projects and then translating them into stories that appeal to the public, stories that would appear in the science pages of The New York Times,” said Leslie Aun, vice president of public relations for the World Wildlife Fund. “In order to build support and momentum, we have broadened our media focus over the past year. We know TV is driven by great footage, but it’s a challenge.”

One recent success came last month, when the organization provided the gripping footage of the swimming polar bears to a national magazine show. The story focused on how the polar ice cap is melting, and therefore decimating the polar bear’s natural hunting grounds and habitat, forcing them to swim long distances to hunt for food. The footage was shot by scientists on a reconnaissance mission over the region.

“We hoped there would be interest, as it is very hard to tell environmental stories on TV,” said Ms. Aun, who works with a staff of 10. “There are only several thousand tigers, and declining numbers of other endangered species like pandas and gorillas, but getting crews out to areas where they live is difficult and costly. We do have a video library, but television stations want the footage to be current. Now we’re switching over to HD, and all of that other footage won’t be as good and is becoming dated. At the same time, news budgets are being cut, and they often do not have the ability to go thousands of miles to get footage.”

Earth Hour

Traveling to exotic locales was not an issue in March, when the WWF was involved in a huge media outreach campaign for Earth Hour, which called for people to turn off their power for one hour as a symbol of taking action on climate change. The event, which started several years earlier in Sydney, Australia, had participants on seven continents and 400 cities, including 100 municipalities in the United States.

Ms. Aun said her organization’s media outreach includes shows that reach a young audience, such as “Hannah Montana” and “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” as well as online video channels such as YouTube.

For the Natural Resources Defense Council, founded 38 years ago, each of its five U.S. offices employs at least one media relations staff member who, in addition to responding to breaking news stories, is proactive in pitching stories to local and national media outlets.

“Our Washington, D.C., office is in the thick of it when it comes to breaking news, from energy bills to court cases and rulings,” said Jenny Powers, media director of NRDC’s New York office. “In New York, we can do a little more proactive outreach on serious global warming issues to more consumer-oriented efforts, from home energy use to household toxins.”

Morning Exposure

NRDC works with many of the national morning news shows on segments, including demonstrating how employing eco-friendly practices can be easy and cost-efficient. It recently did a home energy audit of a family’s house in New Jersey, analyzing its carbon footprint and showing ways for family members to reduce their utility bills while reducing pollution at the same time.

“What really speaks to people is how it impacts them at home,” said Ms. Powers. “It’s more intriguing for broadcasters, and to viewers. You want to tell a story and engage viewers in a visually interesting way. For the morning shows, it’s not like a New York Times story about global warming.” The organization also frequently provides scientific experts for network and local evening news broadcasts and cable news shows.

NRDC has expanded its in-house multimedia department, which produces public service announcements and short films and offers high-quality B-roll for television stations to pull down from its Web site. The films it produces are used online and sent to various Web sites and environmental blogs.

Ms. Powers said the organization also uses blogs to supplement the traditional news releases it sends out to media on breaking news stories, such as new scientific studies and verdicts in environmental court cases.

“Working as one of many environmental groups, when a newsworthy event happens, there is general protocol that you put out a press release,” she said. “Then suddenly, reporters have a dozen various sources; it’s hard to be unique and to garner attention by doing the same thing everyone else is doing. It’s good to have a more personalized pitch note that plucks an idea or two that hasn’t been out there, with one of our experts, a fresh angle. Everything happens so fast that you are fighting through messages and voices all the time. We try to cut through all that by offering up a distinct voice through our expert blogs.”

With a focus on issues that can seem overwhelming to the average viewer, such as reducing the world’s oil usage, stemming the tide of toxic chemicals, fostering more “green” jobs and preserving oceans and wildland, the NRDC has elevated the use of its media communications in the past 10 years.

“It’s really been an important tool in our advocacy,” Ms. Powers said. “There has been a concerted effort … to reach various audiences that go beyond the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, which are still critically important. There is a wide range of people that are interested and affected by environmental issues. We’ve been doing a great job, progressively becoming more effective, also through online efforts and online activism, which works together with our broadcast efforts. It’s becoming more important to us that we make sure our voice is reaching a broader group. We’re becoming more strategic and better at it every day.”