Getting the message across

10 November 2011 | News story

Art is one of the most cross-cultural communications tools, writes Kristen Carusos on day three of Asia-Pacific Forest Week. The day started with a mesmerizing sand painting performance by Zhang Xiaoyu, who drew scenes of natural landscapes by sprinkling and moving sand on a light box with her bare hands.

The morning was followed by two keynote presentations by Frances Seymour of the Centre for International Forestry Research and Keith Wheeler of IUCN’s Commission on Education and Communication.

Frances Seymour talked about how foresters can successfully surf the wave of evolution in environmental communications. In light of the increasing complexity of forest topics, and the fact that the urban public is becoming more remote from forests, the challenges of communicating forests, among other environmental issues, is not at all simple. Seymour invited the audience to rethink communications in way that people can relate to and that is effective.

Seymour described the old and the new way of communications in terms of making a ripple to making a hurricane. While in the past, messages came from fewer sources and took longer to reach people, today, sources are multiple and the combined influence forms a boundless hurricane.

Seymour also gave some useful tips for communicating environmental messages: Think more broadly about the functions of forests and how closely they relate to our lives, their key roles in climate mediation, food security and poverty reduction rather than trying to create news. It is often more effective to anticipate news and respond quickly to it, reach outside the forest sector, communicate with new audiences, Seymour recommends that organizations should also understand that good communications requires vigilant maintenance and financial commitment.

Keith Wheeler is chair of IUCN’s Commission for Education and Communications. His presentation on “New Media—New Messages” also highlighted the need for change in environmental communications. Have we done enough in communicating environmental issues? How do our messages reach seven billion people? How do we reach people outside the sector? How do we get people to change? Can we embrace the process of change as in the business world? Can scientists make their cases to non-scientists? These were the key questions Wheeler presented to the audience.

Wheeler draws upon a study showing that when people see the benefits of their own contribution, they are more inclined to change. Therefore, it is critical that our messages reflect individual’s actions and consequences, and touches people’s “hearts, guts and groins”. The messages need to be personalized, humanized, and publicized.

Wheeler suggests that at this point, “We don’t need more research. We need better PR.” In his view, it is more effective by taking the “Love, not lost” approach. With positive mobilization of the public, we will see policy and behavioral changes. “There is no silver bullet for communications. Continuous involvement is key,” says Wheeler.


This image shows the courtship behavior of Indian Bull frogs (Holobatrachus tigerinus). During the monsoon, the breeding males become bright yellow in color, while females remain dull. The prominent blue vocal sacs of male produce strong nasal mating call.