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Getting support for otter action plans: what the mass media can - and can not - do

Sandra Rientjes European Centre for Nature Conservation

PO Box 1352 5004 BJ Tilburg - the Netherlands

e-mail: rientjes@ecnc.nl

Otters are cute, but is it enough?

On first glance, one would think that communication in support of otter action plans should be easy. Otters easily rank among the most popular species, along with dolphins, pandas, tigers, elephants and a number of other flagship species. And unlike tigers, otters have the added advantage of being cute in an non-threatening way. But if communicating successfully about otters would be that easy, an article on this subject would not be needed. The other articles in this issue of Habitat make it clear that conservation of otters world wide faces all the problems that we find in nature conservation in general, such as destruction and fragmentation of habitats, pollution and hunting. Therefore it is likely that communication to raise support for otter action plans will face all the problems that we usually encounter when developing communication activities in support of nature conservation. So many groups have to be convinced that the otter is worth protecting: politicians, farmers, landowners, water managers, tourists and tourism operators, fishermen, foresters, factory owners, regional planners - the list of stakeholders whose ideas and action can determine the success or failure of otter action plans is endless. With so many people to be reached, trying to get coverage in the mass media such as newspapers, t.v. and radio seems the logical thing to do: mass media reach thousands - sometimes millions of people at the same time. They provide a unique opportunity to reach a large audience and generate support for otter conservation and no one who works in nature conservation can afford to ignore the mass media.

The impact of the mass media

In the Netherlands, the average citizen can currently choose from 35 television channels. On average these channels broadcast 20 hours of programmes a day; there are 700 hours of t.v available per day, 5000 hours per week. If an individual watches 20 hours of t.v. every week, he will still only see 0.4 % of everything that is on offer. In other words: 99.6% of all the ‘information’ offered via television this viewer will never even see. For newspapers the figures are a little better, but on average we read less than 10% of all the information in a newspaper. So the chances that someone will actually see a particular piece of information on t.v. or will read it in the newspaper are small.

Even if someone does notice the item about otter conservation that made the mass media, what will be its impact? What are the chances that an article about otters in the local newspaper will make someone who has always seen these animals as pests suddenly start thinking of them as valuable elements of the ecosystem? Unfortunately the chances are not very high. Two mechanisms are at work here:

To begin with, we are bombarded with so much information that we have become very efficient in filtering out only those bits and pieces that are of interest to us. This means that information in the mass media about otter action plans will primarily be noticed and read by people who are already interested in otters or nature conservation in general. Unless of course the news item has another hook for somebody's attention: information about otter protection in a specific wetland will be read not only by people who are interested in otters but also by the farmers who live near that wetland.

Furthermore, we all prefer to keep our convictions, ideas and belief systems in tact; we don't like to have our view of the world upset. We have very good - often subconscious - mechanisms to avoid information that is in some way upsetting or challenging. We avoid watching certain programmes or reading certain newspapers that we know might challenge our views. If we do come across upsetting information we try to neutralise it by saying the source of the information is unreliable, or by finding another source of information which does say what we would like to hear.

A woman who loves to drive her car is not very likely to watch a documentary about the damage to the environment caused by the ever-increasing numbers of cars. She knows that if she watched it and took its message seriously, she might have to give up something she enjoyed: driving her car. If she does watch it, she will very likely try to disregard it as the biased product of some fanatic environmentalist group. But if an article appears in the newspaper the next day which states that according to the car industry expert the relationship between cars and air pollution is still unclear, this car-loving woman may read that article so that she can strengthen her own opinions and avoid having to consider changes to her behaviour.

Concluding: we tend to read and watch what interests us and does not upset us. We select information that we need, that we like or that will make us feel good and safe. If someone consciously starts looking for information that may be upsetting or challenging this usually means that he or she is already starting to doubt his convictions.

What mass media can and cannot do for otter conservation

What does this mean for the role of mass media to get support for otter action plans? So far it appears that trying to get a message across via the mass media is a combination of preaching to the converted and hiding a needle in a hay stack. But that would be an unrealistically negative view of the situation. Mass media can and do help nature conservation. However there are some things the mass media are just not good at, such as

  • resolving problems and conflicts of interest
  • radically changing people’s attitudes or behaviour
  • developing consensus within society.

And unfortunately that is exactly what we want to achieve when we start communicating in support of otter action plans.

But mass media are very good at other things:

  • giving factual information to a large audience
  • drawing attention to an issue
  • stimulating discussion
  • putting pressure on politicians and industry
  • getting people to do something if they are already convinced it is a good thing.

For example: a local authority is planning to cut down a river forest, which is an important otter habitat. Putting information in the mass media may help: it will inform people who are already interested in otters that something is happening, they may write protest letters to the authority. Most organisations want to keep a good image, and if there is some public support for conservation the local authority will hate being portrayed as an otter-killer in the local newspaper. Mass media can help mobilise public opinion, provided there is a public opinion to mobilise. Involving the mass media in the implementation of otter action plans is a good idea if the objective is to spread information, create a discussion, or get people to make a small change in their behaviour. If the objective is to fundamentally change people's attitudes or their behaviour, other communication instruments are more appropriate.

Talking with the people who matter

The problem with mass communication via radio, t.v. or newspapers is that people don’t have the chance to say anything back. There is usually no easy way of knowing whether the message reached them, whether they understood it, or whether they agreed with it. The effect of communication remains unclear.

The other problem with communicating via the mass media is that you do not really know who you are talking to. In fact, you are talking to everyone and anyone, to the general public. And although this may seem a strange question: what can the general public actually do in support of otter action plans? It is not the general public who decides on hunting quota for otters - it is the department that regulates hunting, in consultation with hunting associations and nature conservationists. It is not the general public who use nets and traps which kill otters: its is the fishermen, with the permission of the fishing authorities. It is not the general public who discharges organic chemicals into a river - it is the chemical industry of the farming sector.

Many of the problems in nature conservation in general - and this also applies to the implementation of otter action plans - have to do with clashes of interests between conservationists and other clearly identifiable groups such as farmers, local and regional planners, members of angling associations, foresters …... Frequently, nature conservationists expect or even demand that these people will change their attitude and their behaviour quite radically - sometimes in a way that will cost them money. Looking back on what was said before about the limited effect of mass media on behaviour and attitude, it will become clear that newspaper articles, t.v. documentaries and radio interviews are not the most effective approach to solving concrete conflicts of interest and to getting people to change their behaviour in a radical and expensive way. In situations such as these direct, personal communication is the more effective and mass communication should only be used if there is no other communication available.

Often there is no 'technical' reason to use mass communication. The number of people who have a direct effect on success or failure of otter action plans - especially at the local level - can be so small that direct, even face to face, forms of communication are possible. In many countries relations between conservationists and stakeholder groups such as farmers, fishermen and water managers are not very friendly - to say the least. Conservationists should take care not to portray people who disagree with them as unreasonable, stupid, evil or uncivilised and therefore as ‘beyond communication.’ Most human beings have their reasons for doing what they do and this also applies to groups that come into conflict with conservationists. From their perspective of the world, they are acting in a completely rational way; they are just trying to make a living, trying to provide for themselves and their families. Sending one-way messages at them via the mass media will not get them to co-operate with otter action plans - or at least to stop opposing them. This requires more direct communication, which will allow them to react to messages, where it is clear if there are misunderstandings, and where ideas can be exchanged.

Direct communication with stakeholder groups on conservation issues is difficult and sometimes (but no as often as we think) the differences of opinion are so deeply rooted that it is impossible. Still, mass media campaigns aimed at the general public have even less chance of solving the real problems facing the implementation of otter action plans.

Communication with the general public

Although in my opinion direct and two-way communication with relevant stakeholder groups should form the core of communication activities in support of otter action plans, it remains important to raise support for otter conservation with the general public. Conservation will become a lot easier if most of the population - even if they live in towns and will never see an otter in their lives - like what we are doing. It will make the stakeholders who are directly involved such as the fishermen and landowners more willing to listen to us. As mentioned before, mass media coverage is a good way to get information to the general public. However to achieve real changes in attitudes it is also necessary to develop communication activities which focus on specific groups of the general public, such as children or local women's groups. You have to bring your message to their doorstep, bring information to places where these groups frequently come, present it in a way that appeals to them, that relates to their daily life, and preferably, you have to give them something to do. People in general don't like to hear doom and gloom messages. They do not like to hear that unless something is done, the otter will become extinct in region X,Y or Z within two years, if you don’t also tell them what they can do to prevent this. People don't like to feel helpless.

Finally: how to get mass media coverage

Getting the mass media interested in otter conservation is not something that you will be able to do in a day or even a month. You will have to invest a lot of time and effort into exploring the different newspapers, journals, magazines, radio and t.v. channels which might be interested in your work. It will take even more time to establish a good personal relationship with reporters and journalists. The following suggestions may help you but in the end it will all depend on whether journalists will think that you have something to say that is interesting enough.

  1. Be prepared. Explore the market and make sure that you have the necessary information available before you really need to contact the press. Find out which media cover environmental issues and which journalists report on them (this can be done by carefully reading papers and magazines, and watching radio and t.v. programmes). Assess what kind of issues they cover. Make a database (or a list) of names, addresses, telephone numbers, fax numbers etc. of the editorial offices and of individual journalists. Do not forget about the freelance journalists. They are not attached to any specific newspaper or programme and they are always on the lookout for a story to sell. Don’t forget Internet - don’t forget radio. Ask for help if you can’t find this kind of information by yourself. Other organisations may have more experience in press contacts than you.
  2. When you think of contacting the media, step back and decide for yourself what you want to achieve. Are there particular groups you want to reach (farmers, children, landowners in a certain region, politicians)? Can you reach them in a more direct way? What is the message you want to give? Decide whether a mass media approach is most suitable. If it is, decide which media or journalists will be most interested in you and your news, and which media are most popular with the groups you want to reach.
  3. Do you have News? Journalists want news of some sort. Be aware that what is important to you may not be even the least bit interesting to a journalist. Be self -critical. Is your news really News? The publication of a research report may be a big event to you, but unless it contains shocking new discoveries the media will not be interested. Don't bore journalists with an endless stream of phone calls and press releases about unimportant issues; you will only ruin your good name and credibility. Never complain to journalists if they don’t pay attention to you. What actually is 'news' depends on the journalist. A journalist specialised in environmental issues who regularly contributes to the science section of a major national newspaper will have another definition of news than a reporter working for the breakfast show on a local radio station.
  4. To a certain extent you can make something News. A research report can become News if you present it to a local politician who is then photographed feeding an otter. Invite celebrities to your events - the press will follow.
  5. Try to establish good personal contacts with journalists. Help them even if there is nothing in it for you, for example when they call you to ask for he address of another organisation. Be nice to them - help them do their work - but don’t be humble: remember that in the end they need you as much as you need them.
  6. Prepare for interviews - carefully think about what you want to say. Practice with colleagues or family. Tape it and listen to it to improve your performance. Forget you are a scientist or a policy maker: speak understandably, avoid jargon, and try to think as a member of the audience that you want to reach.
  7. Learn to write good press releases. A good press release should be no longer that 2 pages of A4 typed with 1,5-line spacing. It should have a clear and interesting headline. In the first paragraph of the press release you should answer the questions who, what, where, why, when and how. After reading it, a journalist should know if this press release is interesting for him or not. In the following paragraphs you give the full story. Smaller local newspapers appreciate ready to print articles. Prepare these if necessary or write your press release in such a way that it can be used as an article. Again: avoid jargon, think like a member of the target group. If you have good illustrations (photographs or video) that the press may use, mention that as a footnote in the press release. Also mention in a footnote whom the press can contact for more information. Make sure that this person is available and can be easily reached by phone.
  8. Never leave media contacts to the last minute - start preparing in time. Send out invitations to media events in time so that reporters can plan their work.
  9. Remember that journalists like scoops - to be the only journalist who has a story. If you have established really good relations with a journalist, you can give him or her an exclusive story, but be aware of the effect it may have on your relationship with other journalists.
  10. Don’t ever lie to the press, don’t exaggerate or make promises you can't keep. They will never believe you again.

Even if you follow all these rules, trying to get into the mass media may be very frustrating when these darned journalists just won’t do as you tell them. Remember that good journalists never do as you tell them.


It would be unrealistic to pretend that big changes in the behaviour of stakeholder groups can be achieved through communication alone. People will rarely change their behaviour unless this change offers some clear benefit to them; this benefit does not have to be material (it can also be ethical or moral gratification, or an increase in social prestige and status), but very often financial compensation or benefits are needed to get something done. Sometimes only the pressure of the law can help. Sometimes only a good high fence around a highly sensitive protected area will help. Conservationists should not put all their trust in communication; it is an indispensable tool but it can't solve all conservation problems. Within the whole range of possible ways of communicating, conservationists should not put all their trust in mass media coverage. Again: it is indispensable, but it won't always achieve what you want to achieve.

However, communication in support of otter action plans has one clear advantage. That is the otter itself. Otters are cute, it is not enough to solve the problems, but it helps.

This presentation is based on "Communicating nature conservation’, a manual on using communication in support of conservation policy and action. This book was published by the European Centre for Nature Conservation in February 2000.

Ref: Rientjes, S. (ed.) (2000) Communicating Nature Conservation. Tilburg: European Centre for Nature Conservation. 96 p. ISBN 90-802482-9-0