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Thinking Outside the Firebreak: Using Communication to Serve a Broader Goal for a Better World

By Kristen Kunkle

The late July sun blanketed the landscape of Tall Timbers Research Station in thick summer heat. Though the humidity of inland Florida can be oppressive, energy and enthusiasm buzzed within the crisply air conditioned walls of the conference room. The smell of fresh coffee drifted amidst a sea of welcoming faces and friendly “good mornings.” While some folks reacquainted with longtime colleagues and friends, others were welcomed to the group with a handshake and a smile. Having a background in estuarine ecology and conservation behavior, I walked into the 2015 Prescribed Fire Communications Summit simply as a note-taker. I quickly learned that although my area of professional specialization was different, I was among a passionate group of like-minded individuals, all working toward the same broader goal—to effectively communicate the importance of conservation objectives and to increase participation in achieving them.

As I prepared to write this blog post, I initially set out to summarize the vast amount of important information I recorded throughout the two-day workshop. But how valuable would that be? Would I really be effectively communicating? What tools could I use to craft a more memorable and meaningful message? My graduate advisor once taught me about Miller’s Magic Number 7. The 1956 study in cognitive psychology suggests that most adults can store between 5 and 9 items in their short-term memory. In order to maximize the amount of information you wish to communicate and mitigate the possibility that you may overshoot your audience’s short-term memory capacity, communicators should remember the magic number 7. So here is my opportunity—a practical application of lessons learned in effective communication.

7 Summaries of Notes (and some of my personal thoughts 🙂 ) Collected from the 2015 Prescribed Fire Communications Summit

  1. You know your stuff. The cumulative knowledge of the fire community is immensely impressive and valuable. In one workshop alone we learned about current trends in prescribed fire throughout the region, methods for increasing participation in burn programs, strategies for enhancing communication, and case study successes and failures. As an outsider looking in, I hope you will be empowered and motivated by the depth of your experiences and the potential of your collective knowledge.
  2. Capitalize on your collective capacity. Stay in contact. Maintain the conversation among the diverse community of people working to increase fire on the ground. Who can help you craft a message for your intended audience? Do you need data about their reported management objectives? A refresher on the antecedents to behavior change? Information about landowners’ legal protections? I bet someone from the Summit has it!
  3. Work together and help landowners work together. We identified the importance of creating a central repository of fire resources and information, designing and facilitating coordinated communication strategies, and encouraging peer-to-peer training and communication among forest landowners. Build partnerships. Host events together. Pool your resources. Foster and maintain a working community.
  4. Use a variety of strategies. Communicating with diverse audiences requires diverse messaging. Consider multiple methods for reaching target audiences. What are trusted sources of information? Which communication channels might they access? Remember that one message or one strategy is likely to miss key audiences.
  5. Think both short-term and long-term. We can pretty much unanimously agree that focusing on the low-hanging fruit is an important first step in increasing fire on the ground. But as an outsider with an admittedly biased background, I can’t ignore the opportunity to chime in about the importance, practicality, and sustainability of incremental change. When we think about human nature, small wins are important, and long-term thinking, such as increasing education among youth, will be an important step in fostering a lasting impact.
  6. Focus on The Big 3. We identified the primary impediments that prevent landowners from using prescribed fire as a management tool as: 1) financial concerns, 2) liability issues, and 3) insufficient technical assistance or capacity. Understanding how to circumvent or mitigate these challenges will be key to increasing fire on the ground.
  7. Think outside the firebreak. We consistently agreed that our end goal is to increase fire on the ground. But to serve what purpose? What is the ultimate benefit of increasing fire on the ground? What are the goals of your audience that may not, from their perspective, align with using prescribed fire as a management tool? Is there an intersection between your goals and theirs? Where do those goals overlap, and what resources or strategies will enhance the message that prescribed fire can help to meet them?

So there you have it. The 7 things an “outsider” took home from the 2015 Prescribed Fire Communications Summit. Thank you for so graciously welcoming me at such an interesting and valuable event, and for helping me feel like an insider in spite of my unaffiliated background. My hope is that you will remember what a passionate, committed, and inspiring group you are both individually and collectively. I am eager to see what you do next!

Kristen Kunkle is a highly motivated, conservation-minded professional with a passion for place-based education and the environment and proficiency in the research, development, and evaluation of environmental education (EE) programs; effective communication strategies; social science; community and public engagement in conservation issues and stewardship; and the psychology of conservation behavior.

Archived presentations from the Summit, landowner resources, communicator resources, and more can be found here