Messaging ecosystems services – huh?

October 19, 2016

Ecosystem services is a powerful, but extraordinarily wonky, way of describing the benefits that natural systems provide to human communities. Think basic stuff. You know: drinking water, air to breathe, beaches to take your kids where they won’t catch E. Coli.

What does this look like in practice, and perhaps more importantly, in policy? Keeping headwaters forests healthy because city water will be cleaner, protecting coastal wetlands so that cities are safer from storm surges, that kind of thing.

Ecosystem services is a phrase that we’ve been wrestling with for many years even as it’s gotten traction in some influential policy circles. It’s important for conservation advocates to be able to talk about the benefits of healthy ecosystems in ways that resonate, not only with policy-wonk folks, but with key audiences on the ground in our communities.

Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a ton of research on ecosystem services messaging. But the pollsters Lori Weigel and David Metz, whose work we have long admired, have done more than anyone else to explore how to talk about ecosystem services in polls and focus groups.

Luckily for all of us, last year Lori and Dave integrated many of their recommendations for The Nature Conservancy and shared them with the conservation community more broadly.

Their recommendations are straightforward, tremendously helpful, and grounded in solid research. And there are a lot of them! 10, to be precise.

So please consult the research synthesis for the details, but to whet your appetite, we’ll share our three favorite recommendations:

  1. Do call this concept “nature-based solutions.” The phrase itself is only slightly more positive than others Lori and Dave tested in the survey to describe this concept, but after respondents hear more about this issue they tend to believe that “nature –based solutions” best describes the actual concept. We’ve also seen this point powerfully illustrated when solutions are described specifically, and with sensory language that gives a feel for the beauty and protection that nature for provides people.
  2. Do not say “green.” Lori and Dave continue to see that many voters think of “green” as over-used and related to marketing products. While some certainly have positive associations, the divisions in reactions clearly mean that using this word risks turning off and alienating these voters. The most positive reception to “green”came from journalists they interviewed, but the word was still viewed less favorably among the other thought leaders.
  3. Do position nature-based solutions as complementary to engineered solutions like bigger pipes or new treatment plants. Lori and Dave consistently saw a more positive response when they talked about the way nature-based solutions could complement and work with engineered solutions or existing man-made infrastructure. This dynamic was evident when they asked survey respondents to choose whether they would prefer investing in nature-based solutions, engineered solutions or both, and a majority chose “both.”

Belinda Griswold