It’s Simple, but Bad News Can Be Good News

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In last month’s column we discussed why the Greens win more public relations battles than the forest products industry and other advocates of the ‘wise use’ of natural resources.

I polled some acquaintances: Why do the Greens win so often? What must we do to gain more victories in the court of public opinion?

They answered that the Greens hire more public relations people, English majors and former journalists. We need to do the same thing. Having your own full-time people building relationships with reporters is critical. If you ensure that even unfriendly reporters get what they need by deadline, that will result in a better story 95% of the time. We need more public relations professionals.

They said the media likes simplicity, even over-simplification. Maybe environmental reporters are watching too many sit-coms, where all of life is overly simplified. Every night millions of couch potatoes observe how life’s difficulties and pains can be mollified in 30 minutes, no problem.

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An uncomplicated, highly persuasive and utterly illogical argument for global warming can be made using a compelling picture of melting polar ice caps putting Manhattan 20 feet under water. Regardless of global warming, the image of Manhattan under water captures the imagination — like Hercules cleaning the Aegean stables.

The effective use of strong images could help the forest products industry to take advantage of the media’s need for simplicity. John P. Zapel, President of Holly Mountain Resources Ltd., may have hit upon the most effective image: forest fires. The focus should be forest health, not forest products. The public should see the connection between forest management and outdoor recreation, and between fire and the elimination of opportunities for outdoor recreation.

John suggested a television spot like this.

Visual:A little girl, face covered with ash. She clutches a doll and runs wildly in her yard. Behind her we see a woodland home surrounded by a forest exploding in flames. Audio: The fire roars. The terrified girl screams for her mother.

Narrator: “No logging is allowed here. The forest has grown thicker each year. There is more underbrush in the fuel load than ever before. So this year, the government’s controlled burn got a little out of hand.” Cut to another scene.

Visual: Hikers in expensive (yuppie) gear flee the raging flames. They get tangled in a blow-down. A young woman trips. She struggles and screams for help. No one hears her. She disappears in flames and swirling smoke.

Audio: The audience hears her friends calling her. “Mary! Mary! Did anyone see Mary?”

Narrator: “It didn’t have to be this way. Managed forest thinning could have prevented this tragedy. But no logging is allowed here. It didn’t have to be this way.” Cut to another scene.

Visual: A brisk spring day in the woods. A forwarder and a harvester remove a blow-down. Audience sees the same urban hikers, but without the young woman lost in the previous visual.

Audio: Hikers talking. “The forest is beautiful. Mary would really love being out here today.”

Narrator:”Mary was passionate about hiking. She paid the ultimate price for her passion. In a professionally managed forest, she could have escaped the fire, if there had even been a fire at all.” More audio: “A female hiker says, “I think I’ve been wrong about loggers and foresters. I’m glad they’re clearing the brush and fallen trees. This is a better, safer place to hike now. A managed forest is definitely better.”

It may be melodramatic and sentimental, but it’s definitely going in the right direction.

Zapel’s idea underscores another Green public relations advantage. In the news business, you must give people what they crave: bad news. Greens offer the bad news that people really want. The general public likes the Green panic for the same reasons they read Steven King or watch the films of Caesar Romero: They like panic and disaster. Maybe Green public relations is entertainment.

If you think people want to hear good news, remember that once upon
a time, in Sacramento, California, someone published a paper called the Good News Times. After only 36 months of printing only good news, it went belly up.

The Greens have a bonanza of bad news. Most of our bad news lacks the same high stakes. Our bad news is about losing jobs, the destruction of logging families and their traditions. Our bad news just doesn’t cut the mustard. It seems that you must promise planetary cataclysm and wholesale death if you really want good environmental news coverage.

The good news for us is that last year’s forest fires still are really bad news. Catastrophic wildfires meet the requirements for over-simplification and devastating news. We just need a way to put our bad news to good use.

It’s not long before the summer fire season will begin. Anyone inclined to argue publicly for better managed forests could do the following, preferably close to the anniversary of your fire of choice. The media love anniversaries. You might use some of these facts, as reported in the Washington Post: “Cerro Grande is the name of a hill in the Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico near Los Alamos, where a prescribed fire was ignited May 4. High, erratic winds drove the fire beyond the control area toward the city and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Before the fire was finally contained, it destroyed 235 homes in Los Alamos and burned 47,650 acres.”

1) Write letters to the editor in favor of forestry management. Mention the fact that more acreage burned in the West in 2000 than the entire acreage of Connecticut. Say that little or poor management has left our forests “in the balance.”

2) Call any radio talk show and remind the host of the anniversary of your chosen fire, its devastating effects, and the underlying cause — little or no forest management.

3) Organize an event with a group of wise-use minded youngsters that will provide visuals for television and newspaper photographers and interviews for tape-recorder-toting radio news folk. If you have one teenager who is confident enough to explain to a reporter that sound forest management promotes better outdoor recreation, saves lives and homes, get that young person to the microphone. If you want your event to have added news value, invite elected officials you can trust to say something in support of forest management.

The Greens will say, “We just don’t believe in forest thinning. Mother Nature should be left alone,” and they will look uninformed. It would be nice to give them the opportunity to look that way.

The Washington Post also reported that: “According to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, there were 84,960 wildfires that burned almost 7 million acres of land across the United States between Jan. 1 and Oct. 21. A total of 852 structures were destroyed by the fires, which cost almost $878 million to suppress.”

“Idaho was the hardest-hit state. It experienced 1,598 fires that burned 1.2 million acres of land, according to data compiled by the center. The next hardest-hit state was Montana, where 2,366 fires scorched 947,819 acres. In Nevada, wildfires covered more than 600,000 acres of land.”

I recommend that you reach out to local television, newspaper, radio and reliable Internet reporters. Media in the larger Western markets — Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles — will bend over backwards to provide “environmental balance” to your story; you could end up doing all the work while the opposition steals the day.

Your news release should dwell on the ways that wildfires destroy forests and take away opportunities for outdoor recreation.

Send me copies of published letters or news reports about events you generate.

(Rich Jefferson may be reached via e-mail at