Conservation Words That Work: Determining How to Engage the American Public Through the Language of Conservation

Conservation Words That Work: Determining How to Engage the American Public Through the Language of Conservation

The Wildlife Management Institute (WMI) and Responsive Management have just completed a new Multistate Conservation Grant study on the conservation words and phrases that resonate the most with the American public. The study is predicated on the fact that words matter—that the individual terms and phrases used by conservation professionals to describe their work can mean the difference between concern and apathy among everyday U.S. residents.

Responsive Management Report Cover

Persuasive communicators routinely employ specific words and phrases to guarantee maximum impact in the framing of concepts and ideas. Consider the differences between competing terms like “assault rifle” and “modern sporting rifle,” “death tax” and “estate tax,” and “gun control laws” and “gun safety laws.” In each instance, key terms and descriptors are used to elicit the greatest support (or opposition) possible.

The task of the conservation community is no different: when communicating about the purpose and benefits of fish and wildlife management, agency professionals must use language strategically to invest as many Americans as possible in the work of the state agencies. As emphasized in the Fish and Wildlife Relevancy Roadmap developed by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (AFWA) and WMI, effective conservation of fish and wildlife in the United States depends on broader engagement from all Americans.

“In short, words do matter,” notes Steve Williams, president of WMI and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “As our profession strives to broaden support from and engagement with all the American public, it is important to understand what words resonate with that public. The path toward relevancy includes careful and thoughtful messaging using the terms and phrases identified in this report, words that are easily understood and accepted.”

The challenge to communicate persuasively and effectively about conservation is even more important given a rising overall U.S. population, along with increasing populations of urban, older, minority, and immigrant residents. As determined in recent research by Colorado State University, the Ohio State University, and Responsive Management, changing wildlife values—including a decline in Traditionalist values and a rise in Mutualist values—are also influencing perceptions of conservation and natural resources. And the recent rise in sport shooting participation coupled with generally declining participation in hunting mean that the funding base for wildlife conservation in the United States is shifting. All these trends point to a changing audience for conservation messages and communications, thereby underscoring the need for a research study on conservation words and phrases that work.

To conduct the study, Responsive Management, WMI, and Judy Stokes Weber of Wildlife Conservation Partners first completed an inventory of the conservation words and phrases typically used by state fish and wildlife agencies and major NGOs (including in mission statements, websites, and various public outreach materials) to communicate with Americans. Next, the partners conducted a series of focus groups with general population Americans to explore opinions on the full range of conservation terms and phrases in an open-ended manner. Finally, the study team implemented a scientific survey of more than 2,000 U.S. residents to quantify reactions to a multitude of conservation words and phrases. The survey entailed at least 500 completed interviews in each of the four major AFWA regions and included oversamples of Black and Hispanic/Latino residents. The results were analyzed by AFWA region, age, race, gender, and the wildlife values orientations developed in the Colorado State University study (i.e., Traditionalist, Mutualist, Pluralist, and Distanced).

Among the topline findings from the study:

  • Fish and wildlife agencies should communicate how their conservation work relates to and affects water quality and the health of rivers, lakes, and streams. Whenever possible, the work of fish and wildlife agencies should be linked to water quality and the health of water resources. Research conducted by Responsive Management over the past three decades, and confirmed once again in this study, has identified water quality and water resource protection to be among the top environmental issues of concern to Americans. It should also be noted that water quantity issues do not appear to be as important as water quality issues: in the survey, “lack of water quantity” and “not enough water” had lower ratings than “water pollution,” “bad water quality in the oceans,” and “bad water quality in streams and rivers” in terms of potential issues affecting fish and wildlife in the United States.
  • Key conservation messages should be phrased as simply and unambiguously as possible. According to the U.S. Department of Education, one in five American adults (about 43 million individuals) have low literacy skills. With this in mind, it is interesting to consider that many of the agency activities that received the highest importance ratings in the survey were phrased using relatively simple words (for example, “making sure waters are clean,” “making sure wildlife is healthy,” and “protecting the places where wild animals, birds, and fish live”). By contrast, the activity “perpetuating species” was ranked much lower among U.S. residents (“perpetuating” being a potentially unfamiliar or vague word to some people). Messages that employ simple, plain language are the most likely to resonate with a wide audience.
  • Fish and wildlife agencies should embrace the word “protect” when communicating about fish and wildlife and conservation. The survey found that, in a ranking of the importance of 55 different phrases denoting various agency actions and activities, 5 of the top 10 highest ranked items use the word “protect.” Additionally, when people are asked to describe in their own words what they see as the most important duties or functions of their state fish and wildlife agency, they use the word “protect” far more often than words like “conserve,” “manage,” or other terms commonly used by agencies and conservation organizations. Some fish and wildlife professionals may feel reticent to use the term and that the term “protect” has a restrictive connotation (for example, “protected” species that cannot be hunted or “protected” areas that cannot be accessed). There may also be a perception in the conservation community that agencies “manage” and/or “conserve” fish and wildlife more than they “protect” them (the concept of “protection” of wildlife is perhaps more often associated with animal rights interests). However, the truth is that fish and wildlife agencies are substantially involved in various protective efforts, such as the protection of habitat, the protection of fish and wildlife populations, and protection of people in terms of the public safety efforts of conservation law enforcement officers. Agencies should not shy away from the word “protection,” as the results of this study make clear that Americans see “protection” (in its various forms) as a key function of state fish and wildlife agencies.
  • Certain terms and phrases may give the impression of an overly controlling approach to fish and wildlife management, which may alienate some audiences. For example, the agency activity “controlling species populations” had a lower importance rating than items like “protecting wild animals” and “conserving fish and wildlife” (the term “control” perhaps suggesting a dominionistic or forceful approach to fish and wildlife management).
  • The term “healthy” resonates well in conservation messages. Previous Responsive Management research has suggested the effectiveness of the term “healthy” when used in the context of the major benefits provided by fish and wildlife agencies (for example, “healthy habitat,” “healthy wildlife,” and “healthy people”). In this study, the item “making sure wildlife is healthy” ranked highly in importance as an agency activity, and “that fish and wildlife species in your state are healthy” ranked highly as a general conservation value.
  • The adjectives “safe” and “clean” are often used by Americans when describing the benefits provided by state fish and wildlife agencies. “Safe” and “clean” are two examples of simple words with wide-ranging applications to outdoor recreation and natural resource management.
  • To build support for solutions to conservation problems, focus on what may be “lost.” “Loss” is another example of a simple, widely understood word with the ability to immediately connect with audiences.
  • The vast majority of Americans believe that, in order to thrive, fish and wildlife need to be managed. Note, however, that they are more likely to say that fish and wildlife need some management rather than active management. By contrast, just 1 in 10 Americans believe that, in order to thrive, fish and wildlife should be left alone. These findings should be kept in mind from a communications perspective.
  • Conservation messages will be more effective when focused on key outcomes rather than the process of “scientific management.” Fish and wildlife agencies routinely stress the fact that their work is guided by science. However, communications aimed at the general public may be most impactful when they focus on the actual benefits and results of agencies’ work rather than the process of “scientific management.” In fact, terms like “scientific practices” and “scientific management” may have ambiguous meanings or implications depending on the audience, whereas clearly described benefits or outcomes (e.g., “that wilderness areas exist,” “that fish and wildlife in your state are healthy,” and “having public lands for recreation”) reduce the risk of misinterpretation by clearly communicating the outcomes of agency efforts.
  • Agencies should consider using the phrase “responsible recreation” when communicating about hunting, fishing, and other activities. In the survey, the phrase with the greatest positive reaction from a large majority of Americans was “responsible recreation.” One of the major benefits of this phrase is that it is encompassing of many different nature-related activities, from hunting, fishing, and sport shooting to activities on the water (such as boating, canoeing, and kayaking) to more general activities like hiking, camping, and wildlife viewing.
  • Terms that evoke shared resources, such as “future generations,” “coexist,” and “balance,” appear to resonate well with general audiences. Each of these three terms had positive reactions from a majority of Americans in the survey, and each would be adaptable to messages conveying the key functions of state fish and wildlife agencies.
  • Many people do not know the difference between “game” and “nongame” wildlife; in fact, more people think they know the meanings of the two terms than actually do. Fish and wildlife agency communications and publications are often full of references to “game” and “nongame” wildlife, but agencies should not assume that general audiences know the meanings of the two terms.
  • Conservation messages that include the words “we” and “our” will be more effective with some audiences than others. Three variations on a basic conservation message were examined in the research: one variation presented the message in a general sense (“Fish and wildlife resources in the United States must be safeguarded for future generations”), another incorporated the use of “we” and “our” in the message framing (“We must safeguard our fish and wildlife resources for future generations”), and the third used “we” and “our” while also specifying “our kids and grandkids” as the beneficiaries instead of “future generations” (“We must safeguard our fish and wildlife resources for our kids and grandkids”). While all three messages were highly rated, certain demographic groups showed a clear preference for one of the three messages (the full report covers the specific audiences that preferred each message).
  • Specificity with population numbers will help to increase concern about imperiled species. Following up on research by Cornell University, survey respondents in this study randomly received one of two sets of questions: in one variation, respondents were told that a species was currently listed as “endangered”; in the other variation, respondents were informed of the specific number of animals estimated to be remaining in the populations of the species. In both scenarios, the information regarding the specific number of animals remaining correlated with an increase in the percentage of respondents who indicated being extremely concerned (as opposed to very, somewhat, or not at all concerned).

The full report includes extensive discussions of other findings as well as detailed communications recommendations based on the research.

May 16, 2022