Do We Need to Sell Nature?

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.

#VoteBob#VoteBob

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

YFTB Logo - I am still at a loss to explain the tagline

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.

Botham Takes on the RSPB (and I Can’t Even Think of a Good Cricket Pun)

It’s not often my twin interests of cricket and conservation combine. So, given Ian Botham’s criticism of the RSPB this week, I couldn’t give up the chance to comment.

Given that I have recently criticised the RSPB (well, the Vote Bob campaign, behind which it lurks and skulks like a group of foxes (learn your collective nouns, people)), this is a tricky issue and it’s going to take a bit of unpicking.

Botham is commenting on behalf of the ‘You Forgot the Birds’ (YFTB) campaign, and they raise some concerns that I have previously expressed. It raises the issue, and it is one I do keep harping on about, regarding the adoption of a business focus by many of our environmental charities. This has seen them diversify and become more centred on generating money through fundraising than actual conservation work. The figures touted (if to be believed) are a spend of £32M on fundraising against £29M on conservation operations by the RSPB. This is, genuinely, a reason for concern. Not just the disparity between public perception and actual activities, but the huge sums involved. Can charities come under the scrutiny of the Monopolies Commission? But these issues are lost beneath the sheer fug of bone-headed, imbecilic points made by the YFTB, thus losing any semblance of relevance.

YFTB Logo - I am still at a loss to explain the tagline

YFTB Logo – I am still at a loss to explain the tagline

Martin Harper has already responded, pretty well, although he has missed some of the key points and relied too heavily on RSPB’s vaunted past as a defence rather than addressing current issues. I could also do without the horrendous crowbarring of god-awful cricket clichés and metaphors into every paragraph. But I think the campaign could do with a much more comprehensive dissection. So lets pick out a few phrases from the website and highlight some of the cretinous asininity behind the campaign:

Firstly, lets look at the three big heads behind the ‘YFTB’ campaign. They are listed as:

Sir Ian Botham
Martyn Howat, former Director of Natural England
Sir Johnny Scott, BBC TV presenter

Where to start with that trio? As a contrarion, I think I’ll start in the middle. Martyn Howat, former Director of Natural England. Yes, indeed he was. But more relevantly, he is also the current (I have been trying to confirm this, but it is not clear on the website, I only know he was as of July 2014) Chairman of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation. Why is he not described as such? Why is he described by his former role? Anyone with half a brain can probably work out why they are keeping this association quiet.

Sir Johhny Scott. Well, just look at that CV. A man more steeped in the noble pursuits of hunting or blowing the face off game birds bred for the purpose of having their faces blown off you would struggle to find. He is described here as a ‘TV presenter’, and not the centenary patron of the BASC or any of the other patronages he has to hunting organisations. I flagged up the Vote Bob campaign for being an RSPB money-spinner by stealth, but this deliberate subterfuge much greater in its venality. As for Botham, a man who runs his own shoot, he is an irrelevance in this instance, a big, lumbering figurehead for a plodding, old-fashioned movement (insert your own joke about his later England career here). It’s sad to see a man who railed against the tie and blazers of the MCC become such an ingrained part of the same set. He’s an embarrassment.

Now for some of the loaded language used on the website. In reference to the RSPB using certain ‘box-office’ species for advertising, they say:

‘The wrong type of bird includes chickens (too frumpy)…’ – Chickens? Why the hell would the RSPB be using chickens, the most common bird on the planet, to advertise its work in protecting our dwindling bird species? Unless it was with regards to the horrendous condition battery hens endure, but that would involve lobbying, and, well…

‘How much “conservation money” is being spent on political lobbying on climate change?’ “Conservation money”? I’m pretty certain climate change is the main conservation issue at the moment. Unless you are denying it. You’re not denying climate change, are you YFTB? The YFTB campaign takes aim at the RSPB spending money on lobbying, education and research. These are core areas we need to be spending money on if we are to protect our natural environment.

Lobbying seems to be the key target for their displeasure and the message this sends out is clear; The YFTB campaign wants the RSPB and the like to stop sticking their nose into the business of landowners and farmers. It comes across as a call for the RSPB to ‘get back in their box’ and behave.

‘Take the hen harrier. It doesn’t just have bankable movie star looks but also a back story of victimisation. So it is the ultimate nice little earner for the RSPB’ – now, when you note that this is preceded by the sentence ‘Ideally there’s a nasty villain to protect it from’, I think anyone with half a brain can put two and two together and see what’s going on here. The plight of Hen Harriers are exactly the kind of thing the RSPB should be promoting and raising awareness about. How could anyone with an interest in bird conservation complain about this? Unless…hang on, do the people behind this campaign have a vested interest in (or think, through some misguided notion, they have a vested interest in) raptor persecution?

The ‘They Shot Bambi’ section added to the website today is equally hypocritical and idiotic (although I can not work out if they are being deliberately obtuse or genuinely are not aware in the contradictions between their aims and their backers). It gives us plenty more statements to pick apart:

‘Last year the RSPB shot dead 1,129 deer along with 273 “Freddy” foxes.’ The BASC (sorry, YFTB) are complaining about this? Well I admire their balls and sheer hypocritical brass-neckery if nothing else. They also ON THE SAME PAGE end the piece with the quote “Rare birds like Golden Plovers thrive when they have rich habitat and are protected from foxes. The RSPB is doing a lousy job at that” from the esteemed conservationist Botham (a man whose last foray in to the public consciousness was this disturbing image).

Botham - a gratuitous cheap shot

Botham – a gratuitous cheap shot

‘It also deliberately suffocated hundreds of unborn chicks by smearing oil around their shells’ – If you are going to throw this kind of emotionally loaded language around, you have to at least give a hint of the reasoning behind it. Control of some species is a vital, important part of nature conservation, which takes on many forms, and for the BASC to get shitty about this…seriously, this is staggeringly ridiculous.

They also ask ‘why its (RSPB’s) executive team is housed in a mansion. Homes for office workers? Or homes for birds?’ This is really childish, and a second’s research elucidates the background of The Lodge at Sandy. It was purchased in 1961, with generous financial help by Tony Norris. I’m not sure how this is relevant to current spending. I’ve been trying to find any evidence of the RSPB supplying homes for office workers (as opposed to, y’know, a place to work), but can’t. Happy to be corrected though if this is the case.

Despite my issues with the RSPB, and the genuine issues the YFTB campaign raises, I can’t help but think that if the RSPB are annoying the people clearly behind YFTB, then they must be doing something right.

YFTB go on to state ‘we are going to examine the accounts of the RSPB and all the 47 Wildlife Trusts and get you the facts’ and ‘It’s time it (the RSPB) was honest about its own approach…’ Well, in the spirit of honesty, I would like the BASC, a-hem, sorry, sorry, I meant the You Forgot the Birds campaign, to be honest about the ‘conservationists or self-confessed birders…farmers and landowners…’ and ‘volunteers from the cities’ behind this ill-thought out campaign. Just who is behind it? It doesn’t take a genius to work it out.

 

 

Project Wild Thing or ‘How Shoreditch invented Environmental Education’

I finally made the Herculean effort to sit through Project Wild Thing or ‘How Shoreditch invented Environmental Education’ for the second time recently. And though with repetition I was perhaps not quite as hostile towards it, there still remained a niggling antipathy and feeling that all was perhaps not to be taken at face value. Why is this? The documentary addresses key issues that I agree with and have worked towards in the past 5 years, yet for some reason I still found something cold and off-putting about it.Project Wild Thing

Perhaps it is because the focus is most undoubtedly one of a salesman. Talk of ‘marketing’ and ‘product’ is not likely to go down well with many in the sector. These sections of environmental charities and organisations are growing significantly, with improved wages, in comparison with reductions in actual conservation and environmental education staffing. But then consider who is the target audience for this? The Guardian and The National Trust have heavily promoted it, and there will certainly be an element of preaching to the converted here. The real target audience should be those in urban centres on low income, those in areas of deprivation (yes, it focuses on high end products such as I-pads, but these are becoming ubiquitous in all households, and even greater barriers to environmental engagement exist in low income areas, particularly those with high levels of immigrants), but I saw little effort to promote to these groups or engage them. That woolly phrase ‘nature deficit disorder’, presented as a dead-eyed hydra, set on zombifying the next generation, is trotted out repeatedly, but it is ill defined and little energy is expended in actually explaining the scientific or social issues behind the phenomenon.

There is certainly the air of back-slappery about the whole thing. Virtually no recognition is given to the vast amount of environmental education work done by the Wildlife Trusts, RSPB etc, which I am sure will not have gone unnoticed, considering their stated involvement in the project. About the only organisation given any screen time is some monkey-tree-net-climbing nonsense, which I am sure is very beneficial for young people, though is still an artificial construct in a natural space. There would have been innumerable better examples at almost any Wildlife Trust or RSPB nature reserve, but maybe this would not have fit in with the narrative. It is almost as if David Bond believes he has stumbled upon this problem himself, and only he and his East London hipsters can save our kids, educate them about the environment and save our environmental spaces.

I will try and ignore my own perceived sleights however, and look at some of the many positives I found in the film. From the perspective of anyone in the sector, almost without exception the most interesting and engaging parts are when somebody other than David Bond is talking, such as Monbiot, excellent as ever expanding on the themes of Feral, and most notably Chris Rose, late of Greenpeace.

Another plus point of the film was the interactions with children and young people and the explanations they gave about the barriers they face in using and being encouraged to use their local green spaces, although the phrasing of some questions by Bond was almost certainly leading and garnered him the response he was hoping for. Even given these opinions and observations, the approach was still to ‘market’ his natural ‘product’, rather than attempt to find a way to breakdown these barriers. Given the background of Bond and the initially stated predisposition to marketing and promotion, I should probably have come to terms with this by now.

I am almost certainly viewing the project through the jaded eyes of an environmental educator, and maybe I am feeling a little under appreciated for the efforts the sector has gone to in broaching the gap between screen and stream almost since TV’s invention, but I’m sure I am not alone. Project Wild Thing comes across as a marketing exercise, a vanity project which focuses on the creative – little mention is given to the science and theory behind these benefits, what nature is, how it is struggling, where you can go and how you can make the most of it. These are the areas where I believe real headway would

Tigers, to my knowledge, still can not be found in Epping Forest. Although there was that business about a Lion on the loose in Essex a few years back, so who know? I digress...

Tigers, to my knowledge, still can not be found in Epping Forest. Although there was that business about a Lion on the loose in Essex a few years back, so who knows? I digress…

be made in inspiring the next generation to get their feet dirty, an overly didactic approach towards screens risks being confrontational and the contrary nature of children is likely to see it fail. Like it or not, screens are here to stay and setting them up as ‘the enemy’ is doomed to fail. Incorporation of screens to some extent may assist, through ID apps etc, but addressing the barriers to green space and why the security, familiarity and insularising effect of screens are preferable to

the wild, rough and tumble of our woodlands might be a better bet. The much pushed ‘wild time’ slogan may work for some, middle-class, cosseted children, but I have spent numerous occasions reassuring children from vastly different backgrounds, that green spaces are in fact safe, and not dangerously infested with poisonous insects and even tigers. No seriously, I have been asked before if there are tigers ‘in there’. And not by a child.

Most of all, my issue (which in fairness, was picked up at one stage) was that the lead should be coming from parents, teachers etc. I am sure I was not the only person thinking that if you don’t want your children to spend so much time in front of screens, then don’t given them ipads; if you want your children to show an interest in the environment, then show some yourself.

Going Viral – Nature moves into the 21st Century

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, all that good social media stuff. It’s a huge part of how most of us live our daily lives in the 21st century. Environmental charities are just about starting to cotton-on to this fact and there have been a range of movements, campaigns and ‘virals’ aimed at pushing the environmental agenda. But do we risk losing sight of what the ultimate objective of these is?

#VoteBob

Bob: Fluffy idealist or sinister tat peddler?

#VoteBob – it’s the latest in a line of marketing exercises dreamt up by PR departments of our environmental charities. It’s about time the sector embraced the 21st century, it really is. And I do admire the sentiment, but I have definite reservations about the aims behind it.

It does not take long to figure out that Bob is no independent squirrel, working for the good of nature. Behind him he has the might of one of the largest charities in the country, the RSPB. I’ve no issue with this being an RSPB campaign, but the disingenuous way it is portrayed as some kind of grass roots movement alarms me. It smacks of a stealthy attempt at spreading its tentacles into other areas, such as with the recent ‘Giving Nature a Home’ move they have made away from mere bird fanciers to defenders of nature everywhere. Why not say straight up that Bob works for the RSPB?

Having said this, the links to the RSPB site are all over the Vote Bob website as it proudly displays itself as his biggest supporter. But I think the most telling issue I have with this campaign is the merchandise. Right there, next to the button that you can click to ‘Vote for Bob’ is the shop. Support Bob by buying a fluffy toy, T-Shirt or mug! And of course these redirect straight to the RSPB shop.

Just to get this straight, I’m completely behind the move of environmental charities into the world of online marketing and viral campaigns. I’m not a complete luddite. I’m expressing this opinion in a blog for Christ sake. But I do query the motive behind #VoteBob and some of the other recent campaigns. The aim of marketing is unquestionably to bring in more revenue and the primacy of fundraising and marketing departments within some environmental charities above the job of, y’know, actually conserving wildlife, is a pet peeve of mine, and one I’m sure I will return to soon. There is something about the #VoteBob campaign that smacks of a creative team given free reign, unhindered by the need to actually do something. And I think this is my main issue with Bob, beyond my obvious concerns that it is merely a way to drive yet more cash to RSPB. It’s a missed opportunity. Vote for Bob and vote for nature…and that’s it. Click a button, show your support. You don’t even have to actually go outside and embrace nature, support any specific measure or policy, or even understand any of the problems the environment currently faces. It is the equivalent of having a huge ‘like’ button for nature.

So what can it achieve? Bobs stated aim is that a Vote for Bob is a vote for nature. I laudable message, certainly. But where’s the meat? How will he support nature? What methods will he use? Bob believes that by getting lots of people to ‘like’ nature he can get it on the political agenda. And indeed, MPs can also sign up and back Bob. But how does getting MPs to sign up actually push the many different agendas and issues on the environmental spectrum? I asked Bob (through the medium of Twitter, he’s a very technology-savvy squirrel) how it all worked. He replied:

So far, so vague. If you were a politician and you found a nice campaign with a groundswell of support and no actual solid commitments and agendas, wouldn’t you sign up for it? It is a no lose situation. There is nothing here to hold them to or to call them out on at a later date.

Yes, there is a place for this kind of marketing to promote the work of charities, but it cannot replace policy. But Bob is a very cute and fluffy figurehead, and I’m sure he will sell a lot of merchandise for the RSPB. Is Bob anymore than a vote to salve your conscience, a sop for your principles and ethics without having to actually leave your desktop? Is this environmental activism for the 21st century – to battle fracking, habitat destruction and development one twitter follower at a time? 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.

This all reminds me that I need to rewatch ‘Project Wild Thing’, a recent documentary about reconnecting children with nature and the danger of screen time. It’s probably the most ‘successful’ of the recent media led campaigns in terms of people signing up online (I don’t think I need to highlight the irony of this point, though it appears I just did). I will post about that hopefully next week.

*Authors note – Red Squirrels have it tough. If habitat loss, squirrelpox and invasive species weren’t bad enough, they’ve now got leprosy to deal with. Bob, why not make the first item in your manifesto signing MPs up to back methods for your own protection, such as removing disease vectors?