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Case Study: A Chorus for Wildlife

This article originally appeared in Stanford Social Innovation Review as part of our Case for Communications series.

How World Wildlife Fund helped organize a global clarion call to stop wildlife crime.

One truth has persisted throughout World Wildlife Fund’s(WWF) history—that our work to protect wildlife and the natural systems that support life on Earth requires constant vigilance and evolution. As one threat abates, a new one inevitably emerges, each with the potential to undermine decades of conservation progress.More recently, we’ve witnessed a massive increase in the slaughter of threatened wildlife, driven in large part by an increasingly affluent Asian market hungry for wildlife products. Demand quickly ballooned into a $10 billion black market supported by highly organized criminal syndicates and terrorist groups.

Impacts on wildlife populations tell the story. In South Africa alone, the number of rhinos poached annually skyrocketed from 13 in 2007 to nearly 1,200 in 2015. In Tanzania, the population of elephants has plummeted 60 percent since 2009, reflective of an estimated 30,000 elephants killed for their tusks each year. And across Asia, poaching helped drive global tiger numbers to an all-time low. Between 1900 and 2010, the world lost 97 percent of its wild tigers. The best science in 2010 estimated as few as 3,200 wild tigers remained across their entire range, compared with 100,000 a century ago.

The strategies to tackle a complex global issue like this are multifaceted, but we knew a coordinated communications effort would be essential to drive our local and national policy advocacy goals, and elevate the issue with decision-makers in government, business, and households around the world. Here’s how our communications efforts came together.

1. Develop a global and local message.

To turn the tide on a crisis this complex, a business-as-usual, country-by-country communications approach wasn’t going to work. The entire WWF network, consisting of local organizations spanning more than 100 countries, had to come together with a single voice.

It was challenging to identify one message that would resonate across geographies. An idea that registers with people in Europe or North America might not in Africa or Asia. Ultimately, we reached consensus on a global narrative arc that was consistent in tone and message, but still allowed for customization within different countries. This allowed us to leverage our creative assets across the globe and amplify our collective voice. In 2012, we launched the Stop Wildlife Crime campaign.

2. Understand the race goes to the swift and relevant.

Making an issue rapidly relevant to other priority issues in the public discourse is the secret behind many successful campaigns.  By highlighting the extraordinary degree to which poaching and trafficking revenues financed crime syndicates who also trafficked in drugs, arms, and human slaves, we were able to get the poaching issue on the agenda of global decision-makers working on these issues. We also established a new, internal “rapid response” process where WWF could immediately and publicly comment on relevant news on poaching. (This protocol now covers WWF’s work across all issues.)

3. Break down internal silos.

Prior to the Stop Wildlife Crime effort, we spread much of our communications and advocacy work across different parts of the organization. To be more efficient and consistent, we decided to synchronize messaging across earned media, social media, web content, advocacy outreach, publications, public service advertising, and any other channel we could grab, and to ensure that each piece connected to and built on the others to boost the cumulative effect. This allowed us to develop a much more integrated approach to communications and advocacy, bringing in fresh perspectives across the organization.

4. Form strategic alliances.

We worked closely with peer nonprofit organizations to help raise the alarm. It’s not always easy for communications staff at different organizations to work together—their voices and skillsets can be very different—but, when harmonized, a mix of styles and skills can greatly increase overall impact. This became clear during the historic “ivory crush” we helped organize in Denver, Colorado, in 2013, where more than a dozen NGOs came together with the US Fish & Wildlife Service to publicly destroy nearly six tons of seized illegal ivory. The ivory crush was extensively covered by top-tier news media and was a trending topic on social media. On Twitter, the crush was tweeted more than 25,000 times—including by high-profile celebrities—and reached more than 400,000 on Facebook. The public attention generated during this historic event was possible only because of partnership. We’ve re-applied that lesson to new initiatives, including joint efforts with the Clinton Global Initiative and a subsequent illegal ivory destruction event in Times Square in 2015.

The Power of One Million

In just three years, thanks to a concerted communications plan, we’ve made some significant progress. We helped drive a 270 percent increase in global media coverage of the issue;delivered a record 1 million supporter signatures to US Fish & Wildlife Service asking them to shut down the commercial sale of elephant ivory in the United States; secured a prominent role for WWF on President Obama’s advisory council on wildlife trafficking; helped secure commitments to shut down the illegal ivory trade in Thailand and China; and helped catalyze the destruction of nearly 200 tons of illegal ivory around the world.

When we initially launched the campaign, wildlife trafficking barely registered on the public, private sector, and policy agendas. Today, the world recognizes wildlife crime as a serious threat, not only because it wipes out populations of iconic species, but also because it threatens national and regional economies and security. The job isn’t yet finished, but the campaign created momentum that continues to carry us forward.

This month, we announced that for the first time—after more than a century of constant decline—wild tiger numbers are on the rise globally. According to the most recent data, we believe about 3,900 tigers now exist in the wild. Tiger numbers are up in India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Russia. Our strategies are pointing us in the right direction, and if we can do this for tigers, we can do this for other species as well.

The true test of any major initiative is assessing its long-term impact on the organization. In this case, the effect was transformative. Communications has increasingly become an important part of achieving our conservation goals.

We saw this most recently during the 2015 Paris Climate Conference. Working alongside and collaboratively with our fellow NGOs and the many governments present, we helped achieve a historic global agreement to fight climate change. In the final days of the negotiations, we mobilized all of our communications channels to help secure an important component of the final agreement: a commitment for countries to come back to the table before 2020 with an opportunity to increase their emission reduction targets. Our impact in Paris was underscored in a third-party social media analysis that ranked WWF as the most influential nonprofit brand (and seventh most influential overall brand) at the climate negotiations.

With each new challenge, we strive to build on previous learnings to evolve the way we engage the public and other stakeholders. No single team or organization or even sector can solve the world’s environmental problems alone. We’ve learned just how much communications is a force for change when we join together to marshal more strategic efforts—both internally and externally.

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