The Common Sense Colloquy: Q&A with Collin O’Mara of the National Wildlife Federation
In this, our 20th Common Sense Colloquy blog Q&A, we’ve asked the National Wildlife Federation President and Chief Executive Officer Collin O’Mara to share his thoughts about communications, the challenge of making wildlife conversation relevant to a broader conversation, the lessons he’s learned in his career and our usual questions on the best common sense communications advice he’s received and given.
Collin leads the nation’s largest wildlife conservation organization: the National Wildlife Federation includes 52 state and territorial affiliates and has nearly 6 million members representing a range of interests from hunting and fishing to conservation and recreation. In this role, he regularly testifies before Congress and helps to drive the organization’s policy and communications goals.
Before joining the National Wildlife Federation in 2014, Collin became the youngest state cabinet official in the nation when he was appointed Cabinet Secretary of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control in 2009. In that position, Collin was the state’s top natural resource official and led a broad-based program focused on environmental protection, natural resources stewardship and wildlife habitat restoration and conservation.
We’ve had the pleasure of working with Collin’s colleagues through the Federation’s participation in the Carbon Capture Coalition (a RENEWPR client). We’re grateful to Collin and his team for participating in this series and sharing insight into their work. Collin is an inspiring leader in wildlife and environmental advocacy and we’re fortunate to be able to share his perspective and to learn from him.
Our BIG thanks to Collin for sharing his time and insight with us – and you.
Q: You lead the nation's largest wildlife conservation nonprofit organization. How important is communications to your overall goals? What role does communications play in advancing your agenda?
A: The ability to communicate will millions of Americans — with different backgrounds in every corner of our country — is critical to achieving our mission: uniting all Americans to ensure wildlife thrive in a rapidly changing world. Through our multi-channel outreach — online, on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and our magazines, as well as through earned media on television, radio, online, and print publications — we’re connecting people with the simple, but powerful idea, that we must stand up, speak out, and take action for wildlife, if species are to survive in our rapidly changing world — and that each of us can take concrete actions, whether restoring habitat in our backyard gardens and schools, or advocating for action in city halls, state legislatures, or the U.S. Capitol.
Q: The concept of protecting wildlife seems like a pretty simple idea for most people to understand. Is it more of a challenge to make the linkages between wildlife protection and broader issues that affect and are affected by wildlife? How do you do that?
A: When we save wildlife, we save ourselves. Wildlife conservation isn’t simply about altruism, there’s a huge amount of self-interest. When wildlife species have healthy habitat — clean water, clean air, healthy forests — the adjacent communities also have better public health outcomes: lower rates of respiratory illness, heart disease, and even cancer. Our health outcomes improve dramatically by spending just 30-60 minutes a day in nature. Communities with healthy natural resources — forests, wetlands, grasslands — are much more resilient to extreme weather events. Abundant wildlife populations and healthy natural resources provide the foundation of our nation’s $887-billion outdoor economy. Healthy pollinator populations are essential to our entire food system and our trillion-dollar agriculture economy.
Re-establishing the human connection with wildlife and natural resources is more important and more difficult than ever, because we’re living in a period when we’re trading time in the natural world for time in a virtual world. Reconnecting current and future generations with nature is essential. Doing so helps create lifelong champions for wildlife, public health, and our natural resources. We make it easy for kids and families to make these connections through events like Great American Campout, and even virtually through our award-winning Ranger Rick magazines. From coast to coast, we provide opportunities for people to engage with local initiatives such as Baltimore Wildlife Week and Urban Wildlife Week in Los Angeles.
Q: In your career, you have advised elected officials and served as Secretary of a state Department of Natural Resources along with your service as President and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. What have these roles taught you about communications, policy and advocacy? How have you applied those lessons to your role at the National Wildlife Federation?
A: Scripture tells us that where there is no vision, the people perish. It’s no different in trying to make a difference through policy advocacy. Having clear goals and the ability to communicate how life will be better if you’re successful are the keys to enacting lasting change. In Delaware, we spent a lot of time convincing people that restoring natural resources is good for both the local economy, as well as public health — they’re not mutually exclusive — and as a result we were able to make transformative changes to our energy system, reducing emissions more than any other state and improving health outcomes, while also reducing energy prices.
At the National Wildlife Federation, right now, we’re working to bring together Republicans and Democrats, during the most bitterly partisan era of my lifetime, to save America’s remarkable wildlife. Right now, more than one-third of all species are at heightened risk of extinction in the coming decades. More than 1 million species are at-risk globally. According to a recent report, bird populations in North America have declined by nearly 30 percent — 3 billion fewer birds — since 1970. So the science is clear. The key step is to find innovative ways to communicate to the public and convince public officials that this should be a priority and has actionable solutions that match the magnitude of the crisis. Our solution, The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, proposes a bipartisan path forward by investing in proactive, collaborative conservation efforts on-the-ground in every state and territory and tribal lands. It’s this recipe of sound science, clear problem definition, politically feasible and bipartisan solutions, and strategic communications that allows the National Wildlife Federation to repeatedly make significant progress for wildlife, despite the gridlock in Washington.
Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you’ve received?
A: Never underestimate your audience. Whether listening to a speech or reading something you’ve written, people are giving you the greatest gifts they have — their time and attention. Don’t disrespect it. Don’t waste it. It’s easy to go through the motions and resort to generic soundbites. But what people crave more than anything else in this increasingly virtual world is authentic communications that engage them at a human level, present them with a clear vision, and provide actionable steps for how they can make a difference. People have phenomenal capacity when inspired to act.
Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you've given to others?
A: Never miss an opportunity. With the constant barrage of information bombarding people every minute of the day, capturing someone’s attention — even just for a moment — can be the difference between success and failure. As they said in Boy Scouts, always be prepared. When an opportunity presents itself, go for it!