It’s the 21st century and it’s high time that environmental organisations (and those out there scrabbling around in the muck like myself) stopped behaving like Luddites and get media savvy. The PR war is one of the areas in which we can truly make inroads into the public conscious. With the amount of time we all spend in front of screens now, we have so many avenues (twitter, ‘viral’ campaigns, targeted advertising etc.) to inveigle ourselves into the nether regions of our audience’s minds. But just because we can, does it mean that we should? Do we risk losing sight of what our ultimate objectives are?
Marketing is playing an ever-increasing part in conservation. Not only for disseminating environmental arguments to layman audiences and gaining support for them, but also for the all important role of bringing in funds. With a shrinking pot of potential resources to draw from and an increasingly competitive green charity market, it is not surprising an obsession with ‘selling’ nature has developed recently.
Gone are the quiet, polite request for funds and the discrete membership links on websites. Pick an environmental charity and you can probably see the subtle hand of PR and marketing departments behind many of their activities.
Some are savvier, or more cynical if you would prefer. The ‘Vote Bob’ campaign has appeared recently, dressing itself up as an independent red squirrel intent on saving our natural world by gaining twitter followers, facebook ‘likes’ and selling fluffy toys. Cute. There’s no big message behind it beyond ‘nature is great, vote for nature’ and no particular issue or project it is supporting. Harmless and well intentioned you might say, but it only takes a little digging to find out that Bob is not such an independent little underdog, he has the whole might of the RSPB behind him. Though they are described as ‘Bob’s biggest supporter’, if you want to buy that fluffy ‘Bob’ toy, then it’s the RSPB shop you link through to.
But yet Bob and the RSPB have kept each other at one remove, though not quite arms length, and it is this dishonesty that one might find unbecoming and perhaps unnecessary. It’s a sign of subtle and stealthy High Street sales tactics seeping into our charities. And the question has to be, do we really want this? Is it beneficial for what we are trying to achieve? Yes, we cannot possibly achieve anything without a solid financial strategy, but we also cannot achieve anything without the support and goodwill of the public and our local communities. Some of the tactics that environmental charities have used risk alienating our traditional supporters. These are likely to provoke questions over just where membership fees and donations are going.
You Forgot the Birds
Take the recent ‘You Forgot the Birds’ furore. If you have not been keeping track, this has been a hatchet job on the RSPB perpetrated by a cabal of hunting and shooting types fronted, bizarrely, by Ian Botham. The campaign is inaccurate, snide and misguided and you could therefore easily dismiss it, as just about everyone connected with the RSPB has. However, it attempts, in a hamfisted fashion, to raise some relevant points about the exactly how donations are spent. It would be wrong to dismiss these concerns just because of the wrapping they are presented in, and one only has to look at a number of the responses from RSPB members on Twitter and in comments sections to see that this has struck a chord.
This speaks of the concern that many within the industry have about the future direction of our environmental charities (and the very use of the word ‘industry’ here rather highlights my point about how we are coming to view ourselves). Is a more business-like model always desirable and what we should be aiming for?
My opinions come mainly from the perspective of one working within environmental charities. There can be real concerns that marketing and PR departments are outgrowing (and usually out earning) the coalface staff that undertake the important activities charities are actually known for. The primacy of fundraising and marketing departments within some environmental charities above the job of actually conserving wildlife, is a pet peeve of mine. There is something about campaigns like #VoteBob that smacks of a creative team given free reign, unhindered by the need to actually do something. Like the otherwise admirable Project Wild Thing, there is the distasteful notion that we need to set about commodifying our wildlife.
It’s about time we started to push our agenda forward using all the technology available to us, but when we allow people to believe that habitats and species can be saved at the click of a button, we have failed in our objectives to engage and inspire. Some of the marketing techniques we use now are focused around the sole purpose of getting people to part with their cash, rather than educating and informing. We are involved in campaigns that have revenue generation at their heart and not much in the way of an environmental message. We risk monetising the process of enjoying and discovering wildlife, and for me that can only be a bad thing.