One of the emerging themes from the 2013 Small Log Conference earlier this year was the growing recognition that the forest products industry is suffering from a poor reputation and public perception, and the negative impact it’s having on the industry’s ability to do business. Things are not getting better on their own. In fact, by following media from across the country, we are witnessing that many facets of our industry are continuing to lose serious ground in the press and in public favor.
One of the fundamental elements of marketing success is the understanding that the public, or consumers, have the ability to provide or deny social permission to conduct business, with potentially severe impact on a company, or even an entire industry. That is why highly successful businesses and industries focus so much energy in nurturing and protecting their reputation.
In the case of the forest products industry, the general public has been influenced over time to believe that cutting down a tree, any tree, is a bad thing and is harmful to the environment. This erroneous belief is fueled by effective communications strategies from small groups of well-funded anti-timber organizations and, perhaps unwittingly, supported by misplaced efforts by many national corporations who want be seen as “green.” Lack of public support, sometimes nearing on outright hostility, has led to gridlock in efforts to actively manage our nation’s forest resources.
Our professional public land managers are consistently blocked in their efforts to release public timber sales, stewardship contracts, and even salvage harvests. Forest management professionals and scientists recognize that we are currently harvesting at a much slower rate than the forest are growing leading to overgrown, crowded, and unhealthy forests. The industry’s inability to remove excess fiber from our public land forests is a major contributing factor to the severely declining health of these resources. Factor in climate change, disease, pests, wildfire, and other factors, and our forest resources, along with the people, families, communities, and wildlife that depend upon them are increasingly at risk.
Fundamental change in the way our forest resources are managed is needed. Unfortunately there is very little political will in Washington to implement change.
Why? Because the general public, or voters, believe cutting down trees is bad for the environment.
Changing public understanding of active forest management and perception of the forest products industry is required to effectively address the problem. And while there have been numerous efforts to do this over the years, no one has experienced very much success in the past.
The good news? The need for a comprehensive forest health communications strategy is gaining traction among a wide variety of forest health stakeholders. We hear more and more about various industry groups making communications a high priority agenda item at industry gatherings around the country. In addition, various non-forest product stakeholders are also beginning to support the need to educate the general public on the issues of forest health including mainstream environmental and conservation groups, forest scientists and educators, federal and state forest managers, sportsmen’s organizations, and even some progressive politicians who have forest community constituents.
One model of an effective program for managing an industry’s reputation when faced with public image challenges was presented during the 2013 Small Log Conference earlier this year. Representatives from Ketchum Public Relations and The U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance shared their experiences developing and executing a specific communications strategy which is delivering great results for the agriculture industry. FBN believes there are many similarities to the challenges faced by the forest products industry and much that can be learned by studying these efforts more closely.
If you couldn’t make it to the conference or would like to see the presentation again, please check out Ketchum’s PowerPoint presentation. By the way, it just so happened that the Conference keynote presentation by Evan Smith of The Conservation Fund also reinforced the need for the industry to come together and support a strong, comprehensive communications strategy to better manage our reputation. A representative from an advertising agency outside of the forest products industry was in attendance and was so impressed by Evan’s presentation that he posted his thoughts on his company’s blog. His comments tell me that our industry’s message can resonate well with the public, but we need to be strategic and coordinated in our efforts if we’re to succeed on any meaningful level.
The process for turning this situation around won’t be easy, it won’t be cheap, and it won’t be fast. But it also won’t happen until we get started. Every day that goes by, the health of our forests suffer along with the opportunities for those who choose to make a living associated with the forest products industry. The current course is not sustainable. Now is the time to begin the process of changing it.
Do you have an opinion on this issue? Let us hear from you!
Dave Parcell is FBN’s VP of Communications. Dave has over 30 years of experience in marketing and communications including almost 20 years running his own agency providing market research, strategic planning, public relations, advertising, promotions and a variety of other communications related services for a wide array of clients including big brand companies such as Black and Decker, Campbell’s Soup, Kraft General Food, and Pillsbury. In 2005, David took over marketing and communications responsibility for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation where he became engaged in issues related to conservation, forest health, and forest products, which led to his current role at FBN.