Conservation Realist
Conservation Realist Podcast
Communication. Is. Everything.

Communication. Is. Everything.

With Brooke Tully, Conservation Marketing Expert & Trainer


Today is Episode 3! For this, I had a fantastic conversation with Brooke Tully. She is a specialist in conservation marketing and brings expertise from the corporate advertising world to the conservation realm, first with Rare and now independently. I really learned a lot from this conversation, and I'm confident you will, too.

I first learned about Brooke when I was on the Society for Conservation Biology's Disciplinary Inclusion Task Force. Unfortunately, I had to fade away my involvement toward the end of last year, before the project completed, but it was a great project to examine how SCB could increase its inclusion of different disciplines, among other forms of identity. I was fortunate that the group I was in got to meet with Brooke, who was working on another aspect of the project. When I kind of cold emailed her, saying, "Hi, I was one of many little faces on a group Zoom call over a year ago, could I interview you for this little podcast that I'm starting?" she graciously said yes.

She has an excellent website,, and there is a treasure trove of blog posts sharing different insights and ideas related to conservation marketing. I've really enjoyed reading through them. And there is also information on various workshops and courses that she leads, including the "Making Moves" course which is closed for this year, but keep your eyes peeled for 2024.

I really appreciated speaking with Brooke, in particular because I've been very uncomfortable for a long time with how the conservation community talks about "behavior change." I've always felt like there's a tinge of a paternalistic, condescending note to it, and I wish that there were more thought as to: who is in power here, who is the one deciding what the "proper" behavior is, and what right do these people have to impose these beliefs on others or to manipulate others into following those beliefs.

At the same time, I'm not naive - I do know that behavior change is necessary in pretty much every conservation instance. So I've sat with that discomfort; I try to avoid using the term "behavior change" with that connotation and to be mindful of it. I really appreciated this conversation with Brooke because she was able to acknowledge the kind of icky feeling I had whenever I was in a conversation about behavior change, and she was able to reframe it in a way that made me a lot more comfortable and more properly represented what we are actually trying to do when we talk about convincing people in other countries to change their behavior.

I also really enjoyed that this conversation touched on capitalism! And while we might not all be thrilled with what capitalism, unfettered, has wrought on modern society, there are many valuable lessons to be learned from it. This is something that Brooke has first-hand experience with as her work has brought her into the corporate realm as well as into the conservation nonprofit and government agency realms. Something that really resonated with me was how, in the corporate world, well-rounded skillsets are really important, and having those project- and people-management skills are part of a smooth-running operation that she's not seen often in conservation.

It also made me think about the book "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," by William Easterly. And in this book, he touches on how humanitarian and development nonprofit and intergovernmental groups can improve how they operate by approaching projects more how corporate entities do in several ways (among many other major points). I'll actually be talking at greater length about another one of his books, Tyranny of Experts, later in the season.

We also talked about how conservation could learn from public health experiences in marketing, for better or for worse, and of course we touched on the US experience with COVID pandemic messaging. I was really interested to hear from Brooke on her thoughts on what she learned from that.

I think that the theme of this conversation would be: "Communication. Is. Everything." (said in the same tone as "Hair. Is. Everything" from the salon scene toward the end of the second season of Phoebe Waller-Bridge's show Fleabag). It's hard to think of an aspect of a conservation project that wouldn't benefit from better communication. And that falls within the purview of what Brooke thinks about in her work!

So, here's a clip from the Green Touch by Soe Moe Thwin, Zyan Htet, and Min Min in Myanmar, and then let's dive in!


Tara: Thank you again for spending time and sharing with me and others some of the valuable lessons and insights you have to offer.

I'll be really candid: I kind of ignored the field of conservation marketing for a long time. My background was in ecology and then social-ecological research, and then as I got more into working with communities on the ground... For me, I always thought conservation markets was slick pamphlets and kind of that side of the conservation field that I would roll my eyes at. But then I realized: oh no, this is really, really important, and has great potential to be very powerful and useful on the ground.

Brooke: Yeah, and there is a difference between non-profit marketing - which can be slick, promoting the non-profit organization itself (it can be very donor-centric, which gets even more slick) - and conservation marketing, which is really community engagement and outreach. It falls under so many alternate names, too, whether it's behavior change communications or social marketing. "Conservation marketing" is probably one of the newer terms, which adds to a little bit of the confusion and the fact that people are maybe introduced to it a little bit later.

T: So one thing that I struggle with is the connotation of certain terms that we use in conservation, and one that comes up a lot is "behavior change." I struggle with it because I know there's value to it. I know that's actually what's happening, it's what the goal is. But there's this power dynamic, this kind of neo-colonial air to it, kind of like we're environmental missionaries. So I'd love to hear your thoughts on how conservation can approach "behavior change" in a respectful way and a responsible way.

B: I appreciate you bringing that up, because it's a term I've struggled with too, especially more recently in my career. I definitely think of our studies - the academic side, the theoretical side - as understanding the process of behavior change. How humans go through it, why humans go through it, what tends to be the patterns of that process. But I don't like to think about the implementation of it being "we are changing people's behaviors."

And I wonder if maybe we've just connected those terms or those aspects of the work maybe too closely. I tend to think of it a lot more as motivating people to take action, or start that process or journey of changing behaviors. And I think you'll see that my website and a lot of my work reflects that language.

Because you're right: the "behavior change" term is very top-down, very heavy-handed, and it's kind of what enforcement has been trying to do in our field for decades, and it doesn't really work. So I like to think of it much more as making compelling, persuasive arguments for why it is worth one's time and energy to try to do something different, and guiding the audience in a direction where they can make better choices if they, upon their own agency, choose to make those choices or start that process or journey.

So it's not by force, it's not heavy-handed, it's doing a better job of presenting these options to make them interesting, compelling, exciting, even fun if we can.

T: I like that! It definitely shifts it more from propaganda to information, and I love that you use the word "agency." And presenting the information and hopefully some kind of pathway to action that the audience can choose to follow if they deem it the path that they would like to take or that seems prudent or productive for them to take.

B: Study after study is showing us that, increasingly, people know that there's an issue and know of the issues, or at more extreme levels are feeling extreme anxiety about the issues. But they're not sure what to do with that energy, with that information, with that knowledge, or even with those emotions that they're feeling. And I don't know that we've done enough to chart that path for them. And I feel that's where we need to start doing more of our work: we know you're feeling these things, we know you want to channel these feelings toward something that's real, that'll have impact, that's going to make a difference, and these are the things you can do to achieve those goals.

T: Absolutely. And that's one thing that I've found in my work with communities, which is pretty heavily interview-based, I've found that the communities are much more sentient and aware than conservation projects (some conservation projects, at a certain level) often give them credit for. They're not these empty vessels who are ignorant who need to be shown the light. They often are more aware of the problems in a more nuanced way than any external actor could be.

My area of focus has often been marine megafauna conservation, dolphins and sea turtles and so on. And they care! In a lot of places, they care - they like these animals, even if they don't directly derive any economic benefit from them. They're not these kind of basic, primitive beings who only think about "how much fish I can catch." They are people with rich lives, rich thoughts, just like anyone else, and I think that taking that into account is a huge step toward more effective and more engagement communication with them.

B: We definitely - and I say "we" as in "conservation" - have a history of almost demonizing our audiences. And not even thinking of them as "audiences," but as if they're the problem. There's been all this focus on fixing this problem, addressing this problem, which are... humans! And yet we also need humans to get to the solutions, to make things better, to innovate new solutions. Even just having that shift in how we view the communities that we work with as partners in solutions I think will immediately go a longer way in engagement, in traction, in buy-in, and in sustainability of the programs.

T: That's exactly it. So this touches on another question that I have for you. We've talked about some of them, but: what are some of the top missteps you've seen in conservation messaging?

B: Well, I did write some down, otherwise it would just take up the rest of our time here! I think the first one is: not keeping our audience in mind. And this is pretty much a common misstep in any form of communication. "I'm just saying what I want to say, in a way that I want to say it" and not taking that pause to consider, "Who am I saying this to? And how can I reframe what I want to say in a way that's going to resonate with them most powerfully or most compellingly?" Again, just not taking that pause of "who am I talking to?" in mind before you launch into something.

The second one comes back to charting that path forward. I feel like we still spend too much time teaching and not enough time guiding. Maybe there's a fine line between those two, but I think on the receiver end it's a big difference. "I'm not just disseminating information or telling you all the details of an ecosystem or a species, but I'm telling you and sharing with you what you can be doing to help this ecosystem or this species."

And I think, connected to this, my third misstep is: we don't think about long-term engagement with our audience quite enough. When we think about conservation messages, they sort of feel like one-offs. But the real strategy and the real success in this work comes in thinking about long-term, potentially forever, sustained communication and outreach plans that build upon themselves, bring a new audiences on a consistent basis, evolve as those interactions evolve, as we learn new things, as we interact with new audience member. And having that plan for it to be super long-term, and not just a message here, a sign there, a social media post over there, but have it be really comprehensive and holistic.

T: That resonates a lot with what I've seen in the field, where the go-to or almost the checkbox on the list for communication is "we'll make pamphlets or vinyl posters."  I've worked a group that actually interviews people on-the-ground about how we can reach them better, and they're like, "No more pamphlets please. We don't actually read them."

B: I'm sure they're tired of it!

T: And also, what you were saying about communication and going back to that idea of just checking a box without investigating how meaningful that action was: people think that broadcasting a message is communication, but that's just the first part of communication. You also have to make sure it's received, or at least receivable.

B: There's a lot of partners that I've worked with, especially government agencies, who love signs. And signs play an important role. We need them. They're a great medium to have. But they cannot be the beginning, middle, and end of the story that we're sharing. They're one piece of our communication effort. But it tends to be like 'all the eggs in a basket' with those signs, and then there's frustration when people aren't following the rules.

This needs to be bigger than a sign! How do we engage the audience even before they get to that sign? Are there other ways to engage when they're at the moment of the sign? And then what happens later - can we keep it going from there?

That's where storytelling comes into this. Not just the literal "what is the story" but how do we think about the beginning, middle, and end of our communication efforts almost as if it's a story.

T: I love that. I think like many other aspects of conservation, where there are certain elements of projects that would be really helpful if they were funded properly or given enough time, I often see communication as an afterthought in the structure of funded projects or donor requirements. What do you see as the practical barriers to better communication and to implementing these more long-term, nuanced approaches that you're talking about?

B: I think you hit a lot of nails on the head right there. At the core to me - the positions don't exist. These communication roles aren't embedded in the project or the program teams, so then it ends up often being someone who already has a full-time job being tasked with now also being a communicator or outreach coordinator or community liaison. It's hard to do this work effectively when it's like the twelfth bullet point on your job description. It requires much more energy and effort than that to be truly successful and effective.

Or sometimes the role is still in this general comms team who are trying to communicate for a dozen things as part of the organization. Again, having it just be this small little piece isn't what's really needed to have it be really integrated with the project and not that afterthought. To have it be part of the upfront planning strategy, but also have it be part of that long-term sustained approach.

A lot of that does come down to funding. I know funders aren't necessarily fans of communications roles or outreach roles. It's considered as overhead when it's such an integral piece of strategy, planning, and implementation. So I think that's some of the biggest barriers: funders seem like they're not yet really willing to pay for these positions, which results in them not being added as part of that project team. And boy, would I love to see that change in the near future! I think that would be so hugely impactful to have more conservation communicators, behavior change communicators, social marketers, any of those - outreach coordinators, whatever, having them being part of these larger implementation teams.

T: It's similar to other elements of projects that I think are disregarded. The focus [of funding] is on the main activities, but then there's often not a lot of thought to how are we paying the people who are doing those activities, how are we communicating those activities, how are we evaluating them or designing them with communities to be ethical.

B: In my involvement with conservation projects, there are very few activities that aren't interacting with community members. Every single one of those activities, whether it's qualitative research, quantitative research, monitoring and evaluation of species and ecosystems - being able to incorporate elements of more effective, more persuasive, clearer communication and better engagement with the audience is going to make all of those individual pieces more successful too.

We hear these stories of hitting roadblocks during quantitative research, during technical interventions like fish catch monitoring. And that's because some of the groundwork of engagement and communication hasn't been put into place prior to that. An entire project - the technical side, the monitoring side, the governance side, the community engagement side - would all benefit from having more of this work embedded in the program.

T: Absolutely. So, despite all of these barriers, what are some of your favorite examples of great conservation messaging?

B: Two I want to mention, and I'm mentioning them in particular because I think listeners can follow them on social media and gain some insight from what they're doing. One is not conservation related, and that's Charity: Water. It is cause-based. I would look to them to gain insight on sharing impact, showing impact of the work, and taking a more optimistic approach to their work. Essentially, their work is providing water to more communities who don't have clean water. They do a great job of continuing to say, "This is what your money is going to, this is the success that we're having - and help us have more!" and bringing it to that optimistic approach without sugar-coating the realities of what's happening in the communities they're working in.

The other one I've been really following more recently is the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation - I don't know if you've been on their Instagram or Twitter, but they're hilarious! And they do such a great job of having fun with conservation, having fun with different species in a way that will engage people beyond your traditional conservationist that would likely follow this social media handle in the first place. They just take a nice, light, youthful fun approach without avoiding the big issues, but being a lot more real and authentic yet fun with it. I think we can learn a lot from both those groups.

T: I love that! And speaking to what you said about the Charity Water Group, and how they're able to have this optimistic outlook without toxic positivity... I personally don't resonate with hugely optimistic messaging, and I also understand that pessimistic messaging is depressing. I like to operate in that in-between - I'm okay with receiving pretty realistic messaging. I realize that might not be terribly common, and that's part of why I named this podcast Conservation Realist. I was getting tired of the #OceanOptimism and "hope spots" and I understand why they're there, but I felt like in embracing those, we were glossing over some of the realities of what's happening.

So that's a long-winded way of asking you, based on your experience: do you ever see this middle approach of just being realistic and "this is a complicated situation, there's a lot of nuance, there's a lot of bad stuff happening, there's some hope and it's going to be a lot of work to get to where those hopes are realized" - do you think that's an effective way at all to message, or is it more effective to go with more polarized emotions?

B: I think there's absolutely room for that realistic, nuanced message. I think it comes down to the time, the place, and the who. And depending on the audience that you're trying to reach, maybe that more nuanced reality check message is a bit further down the rabbit hole that they go down. So they've been engaged on something fun, something interesting, something new and interesting that they didn't know before, and then they get carried to a place of "Hey, this is what's going on, this is the real deal, this is what we're worried about" and hopefully still channel to "this is how you can play a role and support it."

Some audiences, like if you're speaking to other conservationists, other scientists, I think you can lean into that "real deal" approach. I think they're open to that, I think they're interested in that. I get your point in terms of being turned off by the optimism, and I do think we have to be careful about optimism and hope not becoming daydreaming. That's not the point, that we can just wish for a better future. But for, the optimism and positivity needs to be about: there is still room to change the course that we're on, or to adjust the course so that it's not apocalyptic and these sort of things that we have done before to make a difference are things that we can do. It's almost like optimism is countering the doom and gloom where we've been for so long.

I think the middle ground it helpful, but I think what makes it most helpful is saying: This is what we can do. And how we can get people excited about doing those things. So it's not like, "All these terrible things are happening, send $5" because that's what's going to set skepticism flags off with our audience, like "How is $5 going to help this issue? You've told me all these nuances, you've told me it's complicated, what can I actually do?" If it's to sign a petition: what's the point of that petition? Where is it going? Who is it affecting? What have been the impacts of previous petitions that you have done? I want to know if it's worth my time and energy.

So I think there is a space for it. I think it's finding a balance and still always connecting it to a "what's next" kind of answer.

T: I like that. And I'm trying to be more patient with the optimistic outlook. I definitely have been called grumpy by some of my colleagues when we're at conferences and I'm like, "Ugh this hashtag again!"

Taking a bit of a step back, I'd love to hear more about your work in other sectors and maybe, if you don't mind, a little bit about how you ended up working in conservation and what's been similar and what's been different across these different experiences.

B: Professionally, I started in the commercial advertising field, so I was working for ad agencies in the corporate world in Manhattan. I did that for about a decade, and truthfully really enjoyed it. I thought I was doing fun and cool stuff, but did hit a point in my life where I felt like, "Is there a bigger purpose to all of this? Where do I want to put my energy toward in this life?" Advertising work is (a) we're just selling stuff, and we're selling a lot stuff that people don't need or want, and (b) it's a lot of work, it's very stressful, it's long hours, it's weekends, it can be grueling. And that prompted that question for me: is this what I want to put my energy toward? And the answer was no, so I had to figure out what I wanted to put my energy toward, and wildlife conservation emerged as something that I'd always had a passion for, but didn't necessarily know that I had that passion.

At that time, I made a career shift to work at Rare, which is a social marketing organization for conservation. Over my 9 year tenure at Rare, I really got to understand conservation and community-based social marketing a lot more, and to see that it was not so much a career change and more of an evolution. Taking the advertising principles and the audience understanding and engagement principles from advertising, and saying how do we build that into community-based social marketing approaches? That had just been a joy. It opened so many doors cognitively and professionally for me.

So, over a handful of years ago, I decided I want to take it on my own and explore some different methodologies for doing this work, some different avenues for working with other conservation practitioners. So that brings me to where I am today. I'm very focused on the capacity building element of it. I don't just want to do it myself, I want everyone to be doing this! So how do I teach as many people as I can how to incorporate behavioral insights and communication strategies into their work.

And I'm now forgetting your question now that I've gone through all of that!

T: I combined a few in there! I'm curious how your work in conservation differs from working in advertising before and any work you might be doing for other sorts of clients.

B: There are some really stark differences between those two worlds, and some things where work can just be work no matter what. I'm always struck in the conservation, sustainability, environmental fields at the drive and determination of the folks working in it. We talk about purpose and passion, and it exists at such high levels in that work. And if you go to so many other fields, people don't think of work that way. It's their 9 to 5, it's the thing that pays the bills, and it's not as closely tied to their identity as it is in the field of conservation. And there are positives and negatives to that! There's good sides and downsides in being so emotionally invested in the work that we do. But certainly that's something that I didn't really see in advertising that I saw a lot more of in conservation.

I have also seen, and this is sort of a wish I had for the conservation and nonprofit world: in advertising, I think throughout the corporate world, there is an emphasis on having a 360 degree set of skills that lets you wear many different hats. So maybe you're a creative person in advertising, so creativity is your expertise... you also need to some project management, some budget and finance stuff, some internal communication, and be able to have all these different hats on at the same time. What I've seen on conservation is that there is an emphasis on expertise, which is needed in a lot of cases, but almost at the expense of other really important job-related skills. And I think improving things like project management skills, teamwork skills, communication skills would go a long way in individuals being successful in whatever career path they choose and in organizations altogether being successful. Again, we were talking about: I don't know any part of a conservation project that doesn't have communication. I also don't know any part of a conservation project that doesn't have project management, budget management, teamwork, personnel management - all of those different aspects are always there.

T: As someone from shifted from academia to the applied realm, I struggled with some of the more practical logistics side - I mean, I was used to managing my own research projects. But... I was good friends with the Technical Advisor who was essentially running the project I was on, and we were also neighbors. And one time I was really late in submitting some admin paperwork, and I was like, "I'm sorry! I'll get that to you!" and he was like, "you know what, let's just have so-and-so take care of it," and I was like, "Oh good, I'm just so overwhelmed." And I added, "And I'm just not really good at it anyway," and he said, "Yeah, I was going to say that, but..." [laughs]

But all the most valuable skills and insights I've gained in conservation, apart from the core of technical expertise (which, of course, you benefit from getting a PhD, there's a reason people do that), the more valuable insights I've gained about how to apply that knowledge have been happenstance. I've picked them up from the people I've happened to be very fortunate to work with, from the situations I've happened to be in. It would be amazing for those things to be taught in a more systematic way. Just like you're trying to do with your trainings on communication to professionals.

B: Unfortunately, it leaves every practitioner having to really start with a blank page and learn those things as they go, ad hoc, based on being lucky enough to great teachers  around you to help provide that. And it doesn't have to be such a loner approach. These things have been done before. We can take best practices from other industries, and help everyone acquire those skills from the beginning so it's not such a cumbersome journey that we ask everyone to go through.

Same with management. Managing people - that's such a transition in a career, and everyone ends up trying to figure it out on their own, and they don't have to. There are training programs out there that organizations can incorporate in-house. It makes it so much less stressful for each staff member to feel like, "I'm being supported in this transition, in this next career phase, and that means they're investing in me just as much as I've been investing in them."

T: That's really important. I think that conservation - maybe this is inaccurate - but my sense is that conservation, for a long time, has seen itself as sort of a different field, like immune to the processes that govern other sectors. Because we're trying to save animals and plants, because of that good intention, the phenomenon that govern other sectors of work don't apply to us somehow. Like learning how to properly implement a project from the logistics point of view, for example. Just touching on so much of what we've been talking about, it's not this kind of "unicorn" sector, because it's being run by people, and it's involving people, it relies on people. So I think paying more attention to that reality will yield so much in terms of the effect that the field can have.

B: Yeah, and, you know - capitalism gets a bad rap, for sure. But all those corporations - a lot of their financial success is built on having well-run internal systems and machines, and I don't mean equipment machines but teams that work seamlessly together in the most efficient way possible, in the most effective and impactful way possible. And yes, they're doing it to make more money for shareholders and whatnot. But the internal workings can be amazing! Some of the teams I've worked on in advertising were just a joy to work with. They were organized, we knew who was doing what, we had weekly check-ins, we were able to support one another if somebody was behind on their things. That sort of seamless teamwork approach I have yet to see in the conservation nonprofit or government agency space.

T: That's a really interesting observation! I do want to ask you, briefly - in your training of conservation professionals, is there something that often seems like a moment of surprise or something that your students learn that prompts a big shift or a dawning or realization? Is there one or a few areas where people are like, "Oh my gosh, I never thought of it that way before?" I'm not elucidating it well, but do you understand what I'm trying to get at?

B: Yes, the "Ah ha!" moments.

T: Yes, thank you!

B: I love "Ah ha!" moments. There are probably three junctures where I get them. I'm thinking of them sequentially of when they happen in my trainings and in my course.

The first one happens around the behavior change goal, and that we have to break down each of these goals into smaller steps that people are likely to take in their journey to achieve that goal. This is also a mindset shift. We'll take an example of we want people to eat more plant-based meals instead of beef-based meals, and that seems like: okay, that's the behavior change goal. Boom! That's what we're going to work on: "eat more plant-based meals."

But in that behavior journey process, there's all these steps that someone is likely to go through. Understanding where to get a plant-based meal, how to cook a plant-based, what on earth is a plant-based meal and what isn't a plant-based meal - and part of our communication job is taking them through that journey. So our messaging may not start with "eat more plant-based meals"; it may start with, "hey, here are the restaurants near you offering  vegetarian meals." That's usually the first ah-ha moment: you don't have to do it all at once - you can actually have a communication journey that matches the behavior change journey.

The second ah-ha moment is around audiences, which we've talked about a little bit already. And really that ah-ha moment is: you don't have to try to reach everyone, all the time. You should start with a term that I took from Seth Godin, who's a marketing guy: start with our minimum viable audience. A small-ish number of people that we can realistically reach and persuade, that would actually start making an impact. So we always go big, you know - we want the general public, we want everyone to do this!

And this sort of takes from that piloting to scale approach: what's the smallest group that we can realistically see some results among? Let's spend our energy there. Let's start that process of social change, social movements, and then grow it from there. It ends up being a better use of our resources, and it helps us really wrap our heads around who is this audience. The general public is just too massive - we can't really conceptualize it, and certainly can't tailor messages to this amorphous general public.

And the third ah-ha is probably around the different motivators we can use to spark action and change. Where I tend to see the most excitement is this idea that we can have some fun with it. We can make these things experiential, social, even just kind of fun through an engagement mechanism that brings more people in. And then our job is to keep them in once they've come in.

But to first bring people into the conversation, into the work that we're doing, into the species we're trying to save. And I don't think enough people have felt like they had permission to have some fun with it. And not only does it help engage their audience, but it helps them feel a little bit refreshed about the work they've been doing.

T: Those are three great ah-ha moments, which I'm sure for the participants are included in a vast sea of things they're learning from the training.

B: Those are the ones that I definitely see being like, "Woah! Okay! I'm going to think about this differently now, oh my goodness!"

T: That's really cool! So we've talked a little bit about learning from other sectors, which is something that I've really been interested in pretty much for as long as I've been interested in conservation. There are many other fields where there is data scarcity and uncertainty and a sense of urgency. Public health is one of those. I am really curious to hear your thoughts about what the conservation field could learn from the experience in the US around messaging during the pandemic, which struck me as really confusing, involving a lot of shame and fear (which you've written about on your website and I've really enjoyed reading).

B: It's definitely a lot to unpack in pandemic, coronavirus messaging, and it continues to be a lot to unpack. I will just plug - I did write two blogs in March 2021 about "pandemic musings," so if anyone's interested in checking those out, there's more depth on what we're learning about the approach to all that.

Public health is a field that has been using social marketing and behavior change techniques for a very long time. So I do think it's a field we should be looking to, as conservation is much newer to using these concepts and tools, to look at how they've been using it and what they've done well (and what they haven't done well). Public health has some differences to be mindful of, in that personal health is very... personal, which means it can be very emotional because it's about our health. It's something that conservation has struggled with, to make that personal connection. So why do I care about the forest in Borneo when I'm over here in New York? So I do think there's more we can learn, and it involves creativity: how do we make connections between what's happening in the world and how it affects you personally? Without scaring people that they're going to die! And that's the thing that would be nice to not do, which public healthy sometimes does.

I think smoking campaigns are the worst examples of getting into how this is going to affect you in the worst way possible. A lot of those ads don't work because people are very skeptical or cynical - like "My smoking habit's not going to result in that, and I'm going to counter this with my 104-year old grandmother who smoked 2 packs a day her entire life."

T: These ads are treated like a scolding elder, like it's too earnest. So it's very easy to poke ridicule at it.

B: There's a lot of talking down to the audience, and shame and fear. I do think some of the things that we can learn from the US messaging and communication around the pandemic is: in terms of the things they did well, there was often a nice balance between how you benefit personally from taking action (wearing a mask, getting a vaccine, or standing 6 feet away), you benefit personally and you're doing something good for your neighbors, community, and family. So they combined this altruistic "do it for others" with personally meaningful "do it for you" approach. By having both in a message, everyone can take away what means most for them. I may be more motivated by saving myself, and that message spoke to me. I may be more motivated by saving my aging parents, and the message still spoke to me as well. It helped bring more people into that message by not doing one or the other.

I think we can also be prepared for the backlash effect. The social science term is "reactance effect": "Don't tell me what to do!" And that's essentially the core of that human truth. We don't like being told what to do. And some people are fine with it, and some won't be. So when our messages are very directed, expect that we'll have some backlash. So either that message has to be that strong, and then we have to figure out how do we manage that backlash effect? Or we can find a way to have it not be so heavy-handed.

I do think some of the other things we can learn, and some of them are sort of silly: I've worked on a lot of wildlife viewing projects, like stay 50 feet back from sea turtles, or 100 feet away from dolphins. And humans can't get 6 feet right! We could not figure out how to be 6 feet away from another human being. There were so many materials explaining what 6 feet looked like, to the point where we just put stickers on the ground and said, "Just stand here, and the other human has to stand on that other sticky dot on the ground."

And that's just reality. So when we are talking about distances, we're going to have to make it so easy to understand what that distance truly means in the real world. Because if we can't get 6 feet, forget about 150 feet.

The other thing that I saw is fatigue. We got really tired of the messaging, and even those sending the messages got tired of sending the messages. We've had 2, 3 years of it. I don't know the perfect solution for that, but I think if we have to do something that focused over that sustained period of time, fatigue has to be on our mind. How do we not exhaust people to the point where they're not turning our messages off entirely and claiming that it's over way before it's over because they're just tired of it?

In our work, we're going to encounter that, because we're at the first stages of probably exhausting people with talking about climate change. So how do we keep this conversation, this pressure going without exhausting people so much that they no longer want to be in that conservation? Lots to unpack from the pandemic - I could go on - but those are the highlights.

T: Thanks for sharing those! As I mentioned to you in your email, I was revisiting your website, and I was like, "I want to read everything! I want to read all of these blog posts at once!"

B: It's a lot of content.

T: It is, and it's good content, too. Well, thank you so much, Brooke - I really enjoyed this, and really appreciate your time. I very rarely become such a vocal fan of someone (again, maybe going back to my grumpy tendencies); I'm always like, "okay, when am I going to learn something about this person's work that I don't like?" But everything I've seen about your work has been really instructive and interesting, and presented in a really fun way. It's been really fun to chat.

B: Thank you! I really appreciate you reaching out and inviting me on this podcast. I'm excited to see what you continue to develop from here. And if do ever discover something about my work that you don't like, please let me know - it's probably just something that I've missed.

T: I don't know that that will happen, but... noted!

B: Thank you, take care!


Brooke Tully helps conservationists use behavioral insights and communication strategies to motivate audiences to take action and change behaviors. She does this by bringing together best practices from her work in commercial advertising, insights from the behavioral and social sciences, and her first-hand experience implementing conservation programs. Brooke spent the first decade of her career working in ad agencies, such as Ogilvy, helping clients reach target audiences to build brand awareness, change preferences, and sell products. In 2007, she joined the NGO Rare where she designed and implemented behavior change campaigns that inspired local communities in Mongolia, Thailand, Laos, and The Philippines to adopt more sustainable fishing and hunting behaviors. Operating independently since 2016, Brooke offers online courses, training workshops, and consulting services that provide practical steps for designing communication and outreach plans that create conservation movements.

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Realities in Environmental Conservation - Newsletter & Podcast by Dr. Tara Sayuri Whitty. Featuring diverse voices & meaningful, pragmatic ideas for actually making a difference.