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Talking Conservation: What We Say/What the Public Hears

Executive Summary

Communications Research Report

Dear Conservation Partner: December, 1997

This summary highlights the results of a study that determines whether messages developed by the Conservation Partnership are understood by the general public. The partnership leaders have challenged you to increase public awareness of the conservation cause in America.

A series of four focus groups of urban and suburban participants was held in cities across the United States during July 1997. The discussions were designed to test the public's understanding of 13 key conservation terms and their interest in the conservation cause.

The NACD Office of Public Affairs coordinated the research in cooperation with the NRCS Social Sciences Team and Conservation Communications Office. Communications experts from agencies and organizations within the Conservation Partnership helped develop the survey. Marketing Horizons, Inc., of St. Louis conducted the research and prepared the final report.

The results showed the general public understands few words that the Conservation Partnership uses in its messages. In addition, the words that are understood, are generally thought of as conservation on public lands, not private lands. Communications professionals within the Conservation Partnership are encouraged to study this research and use it to develop conservation messages with greater clarity.

The Conservation Partnership

National Association of Conservation Districts

Natural Resources Conservation Service

National Association of State Conservation Agencies

Purpose & Methodology

This study examined conservation messages and their effectiveness in prompting consumer action to conserve the environment. The purpose of the project was two-fold:

  1. to determine how well conservation messages and issues are understood by the public, and,
  2. to help the Conservation Partnership communicate messages more clearly.

Marketing Horizons conducted a series of four focus group meetings held in July 1997 that examined the public's level of understanding of 13 key conservation terms; a discussion of issues associated with conservation; an assessment of five statements describing the conservation cause; a measurement of preferences about conservation services and individual involvement; and an evaluation of several conservation advertisements and NACD's brochure entitled "America's Conservation Districts."

Four focus groups, each consisting of 10-12 suburban and urban residents, were held in Boston, Atlanta, St. Louis, and Burbank, California in July 1997. Participants were screened to ensure a cross section of the population included men and women distributed by age, and representation of various ethnic and racial backgrounds, including Caucasian, Black, Hispanic, Asian and American Indian.

 

Results

These findings should not be interpreted as conclusive; they are based on the results of discussions and interactions with individuals in the four focus groups.

However, we feel they provide a fair representation of the general feelings and attitudes of a diverse group of individuals from across the nation which can help us tailor future conservation messages and strategies.

 

The general public does not have an adequate understanding of conservation terminology and is not influenced by conservation messages directed to them.

Respondents were asked to give their level of understanding of a list of 13 conservation terms.

Most said they understood: conservation, natural resources and, water quality.

1/3 said they didn't understand: technical assistance, wetlands and stewardship.

1/2 or more said they didn't understand: biodiversity, locally led conservation, best management practices, sustainable agriculture, watershed, nutrient management and nonpoint source pollution.

Public understanding of conservation issues is largely based on popular opinion of the day.

When respondents were asked what topics came to mind when they heard the term conservation, many mentioned common headline issues of the day, such as recycling, endangered species, forest preservation, waste management and water conservation.

Consumers generally don't think in terms of private land conservation or associated benefits.

Consumers feel the major focus of conservation should be on education and information, especially with the youth.

Respondents liked the statement Conserving natural resources for our children and future generations.

People are interested in learning what they can do for the environment in their own backyards and exhibited a broad-based willingness to volunteer on their own terms.

The statement most liked by respondents was Helping citizens become better stewards of natural resources in their own backyards.

Respondents recommended the primary focus be on local government involvement with state and federal support.

In order to improve public awareness, respondents recommended that messages be few and brief.

Respondents said that nature-oriented messages and appropriate graphics have strong appeal.

Respondents were concerned about the potential negative impact conservation efforts may have on jobs and business success. 

 

Recommendations 

The following recommendations are based on the results of the study. Implementation of these recommendations into local and national conservation communication programs should improve chances for delivering effective conservation messages and increase the involvement of consumers in conservation activities.

 

Message delivery

-Express messages in non-technical terms the public understands. -Most conservation words need supplemental explanation with specific examples.

-Shorter and fewer messages should be used in order to gain attention and interest. -Messages and graphics should be designed with personal (relevant) appeal and tested with target audiences.

 

Conservation terms

-Emphasize water quality in communication efforts, as it is a well understood and important issue. - Use the phrase natural resources freely as it is a well understood term. - Use the term conservation in communication efforts, but provide some explanation to ensure the interpretation is consistent with the goals of the Conservation Partnership. This explanation must emphasize conservation on private lands because consumers today generally limit their interpretation to that of preservation related to public lands. - When using the locally-led conservation concept make sure to explain what it means.

 

Strategies

-Identify partnership entities who have an interest and ability to communicate similar messages. -Work the volunteer element into outreach efforts. -Don't make the public choose between conservation and business success. -Specify the benefits of private land conservation, such as wildlife habitat, water quality, air quality, tourism, aesthetics, and recreation (fishing and hunting).

 

Guiding principles for public communications

Compiled by the NACD Public Affairs Department with the results of this study and other conservation communications surveys conducted by the Conservation Partnership.

  1. People will support messages they see affect them personally. Make your message relevant.
  2. People buy into ideas when they see actions they can take to improve their situation. Your message should ask them to do something.
  3. People support ideas put forth by people they trust. Build relationships of trust before you ask for action.
  4. People respond to ideas that are practical, easy to do and clear. Your message should focus on one idea and be easy to understand.
  5. People form opinions more by events than by words. Center your outreach efforts around events as much as possible.
  6. People will allow local leaders to make decisions for them if they feel they have had input. Your messages and activities should always allow for public discussion. 

 

Partner survey team 

Survey results were analyzed and the reports prepared by the following team members: Dr. Earl Wims, Chairman, Marketing Horizons, St. Louis, Missouri; Dr. Frank Clearfield, Director, NRCS, Social Sciences Team, North Carolina; Ron Francis, Director, NACD Public Affairs, Texas; Lynn Bctts, Public Information Officer, NRCS, Iowa; and Karen Grimes, Information/ Education Specialist, St. Charles County SWCD, Missouri. For a complete detailed report contact NACD,

P.O. Box 855, League City, TX 77574, (800)825-5547 ext. 28.

National Association of Conservation Districts P.O. Box 855, League City, TX 77574