Glance at the websites of major U.S.-based environmental NGOs and you’ll see a pattern. These bright and often busy websites frequently are stamped with a simple logo: a heron, an egret, a polar bear, or a leaf.
The contrast is instructive. These organizations founded in the ethics of 20th century conservation are trying to harness the power of 21st century media. The results are mixed.
Pressures on these organizations, and specifically what might be called the environmental “G8” – National Audubon Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, World Resources Institute, Greenpeace, The Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense Fund and World Wildlife Fund – have been both varied and immense in recent years as they constantly adapt to new political and economic realities, emerging issues, and financial stresses. Mounting scientific evidence of the loss of biodiversity, of global climate change, and of resource depletion on land and in the oceans have lent credibility and urgency to these organizations.
At the same time, the inaction of the Bush years now has transitioned into the optimism about and enthusiasm over the Obama administration’s opening moves. U.S. environmental NGOs are receiving more attention. The recession may have dampened their resources, but not their long-term relevance. Instead, the pressure has been consistent, if not consistently mounting.
The media landscape has gone through similar dramatic changes. So firmly established in our daily routines are blogs, social networks and other forms of modern media that to talk about the damage to print feels nearly nostalgic. For NGOs, like other organizations and businesses, it has meant a shift away from the one-dimensional press release to a multi-dimensional network in which news isn’t simply released, but shaped and re-shaped by the networks it travels through. The means of communication are more personal, and ultimately more labor-intensive and less controllable. At least, you might say, environmental staffers can tweet along with the birds they’re working to protect.
That’s not to be flippant. As a result of these pressures, environmental NGOs have been updating their websites, trying to adapt and stay relevant to increasingly large audiences. For those who care, the success of these NGOs in effectively communicating their messages will play a role in determining directions on critical contemporary environmental debates, certainly including those addressing climate change.
So how are they doing? Specifically, how well are they mixing social networking with communication through tools like blogs, video, Twitter, Facebook, Digg, and Stumbleupon?
The Current Landscape
In reviewing the websites of environmental NGOs, one finds a veritable orchard in spring. Some fruits have ripened ahead of others, some are withering on the vine.
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Three websites stand out. The first is The Nature Conservancy’s blog Cool Green Science which, but for its feeble name, is a strong site. Its content is varied and informative, its navigation simple. The same is true for Greenpeace USA, whose staff blogs are similarly simple but substantive, if even a bit more interactive.
NRDC’s Switchboard is also quite good. It’s updated constantly, with a range of professional commentary to match other sites.
Other websites raise questions. WRI’s site, with content generally of exceptional quality, is plagued by confusing categories (What’s the difference between blogs and stories, for instance?).
With its typical, and normally welcome enthusiasm, the Sierra Club has launched a series of blogs. Some of them are quite good. The Climate Crossroads blog is bright, and content rich, for instance. And yet, in reading it, one fears it’s too distant from Sierra’s experts, and that a lot of the other content gets lost. For instance, see here for a list of the Sierra Club blogs. It’s not that there’s too much, but that too little is integrated into a bigger picture.
Meanwhile, EDF’s Climate 411 blog seems to have great potential, but it has all the character of Microsoft in the Apple v. Microsoft ads.
What has separated these two groups? Perhaps a few pressures, and a few opportunities.
Media Moles: Obstacles to More Effective Media Action
- Media distrust. Scientists, lawyers, lobbyists – that is, the staff of the leading environmental NGOs – traditionally distrust the established media, in part because the media are built on a different model of establishing credibility. Scientists often build evidence incrementally and environmental lawyers working with NGOs often seek to construct consensus on specific issues. Both processes take time.
Some in the media, on the other hand, seem more attracted to controversy in the short-term. As media academic and researcher Max Boykoff has argued, this situation sometimes creates an illusion of more debate on a subject than actually may exist.
This dynamic partly explains why mutuallly dependent interests – for instance environmental NGOs and environmental scientists – are themselves mutually distrusting and in many cases ignorant of or oblivious to the other’s field and culture.
- Specialization. Staff at environmental NGOs have built careers in highly specialized fields. Senior staffers often have been trained as lawyers, engineers, or biologists – not as writers or communicators. A quickly changing media landscape, in which messages are personal and quickly disseminated, can often challenge professional standards across different disciplines. For lawyers, for instance, blogging challenges notions of authorship and of confidentiality. For scientists, moving beyond the data to broader messaging can similarly upset long-held professional norms and practices.
- Time and budgetary constraints. NGO staffs are traditionally severely limited in their budgets, and routinely over-worked. For some, blogging appears just one more demand on an already packed schedule (a situation many daily reporters say applies also to them).
- Immeasurable Return On Investment. A concern common to professional staffs of many environmental NGOs: How to measure the return on investment in social media? How to measure its impacts and cost effectiveness? There of course are a few quantifiable metrics, such as page views and links, but hard, fact-based conclusions remain elusive.
- Audience expansion. Global environmental problems increasingly are no longer promoted solely by a core of activist devotees, but rather are in many ways an increasingly core aspect of domestic and international politics, economics, and community development.
As NGOs expand to include once marginalized audiences, such as the Latina, African American and youth communities, there is concern that they may be spreading themselves thin. Where once they were issue-specific, environmental NGOs now seek increasingly to be broadly relevant. Reach more people while maintaining the quality and the specialization on which they’ve sought to build their reputations will be a challenge for years to come.
Media Moguls: Where there are Opportunities
- Personality. One of the problems of effectively communicating environmental stories is that they pose long-term abstract threats. The personal narrative afforded by blogs, video, and social media may be better suited for provoking a personal response to the communal, localized impacts of global degradation.
- Passionate people. The staff of environmental NGOs in many cases are passionate, dedicated people, often with years of experience. Blogs and videos provide ideal platforms for showcasing these traits.
- Simplicity. Environmental issues are massively complex; but websites addressing them need not be in all cases, or at least can be designed to reach diverse audience groups.
- Global reach. The potential audience of a well-spoken blog and compelling social media can be magnitudes larger than that for a traditional press release, which few may actually read and which few media might report on. Potential returns likewise can be huge.
- Increased relevance. For environmental NGOs, capturing the interests of a younger audience is critical. But many face aging memberships. Comfort with contemporary communication platforms is crucial as part of organizations’ expanding their relevance to younger audiences.
- Clean. Paper consumption and waste is greatly reduced, allowing outreach to larger numbers at less cost and with fewer resources.
Overall, leading U.S. environmental nongovernmental organizations have done a remarkably good job in a quickly changing communications environment.
Compared to other mainstream but often marginalized movements addressing issues like child poverty and education, the environmental community has shown remarkable agility in adapting from 20th century roots to a 21st century media landscape.
And yet, to the extent that their websites reflect an understanding of each NGO’s culture, and working environment, the field remains highly varied in quality. As with government, business, academic, media and other interests tilling these fields, much important work remains to be done.
The organized and professional environmental movement in the U.S. over the decades has shown itself to be largely responsive and adaptable to changing times. It will need to stay that way if it is to meet its worthwhile objectives.
Ben Carmichael, currently studying on a Marshall Scholarship at Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute, has written extensively on environmental issues. He blogs regularly for NRDC’s “On Earth” but has had no role in building the organization’s website.