ANALYSIS: Client Profile - The reasonable face of environmentalism - The National Audubon Society is more concerned with nurturing the environmentalists of the future than carrying out PR stunts

When National Audubon Society communications director John Bianchi came aboard in 1996, he was one of the only employees at its New York City headquarters to put his e-mail address on his business cards. He found the Society's media lists in enormous documents rather than databases.

When National Audubon Society communications director John Bianchi came aboard in 1996, he was one of the only employees at its New York City headquarters to put his e-mail address on his business cards. He found the Society's media lists in enormous documents rather than databases.

When National Audubon Society communications director John Bianchi came aboard in 1996, he was one of the only employees at its New York City headquarters to put his e-mail address on his business cards. He found the Society's media lists in enormous documents rather than databases.

'We were in the Stone Age,' Bianchi admits.

Now he gets at least a dozen e-mails a day from reporters and has pushed Audubon's data storage practices into the Information Age. But it's not hard to imagine how it was at Audubon, which a Greenpeace staffer says is perceived in the green community as 'cerebral and wonky.'

Audubon is a conservation group rather than an environmental one, meaning it emphasizes science and education over activism or litigation. Hunters and fishermen are as welcome among its 550,000 members as bird watchers.

After upgrading its Web site about five years ago and overhauling Audubon magazine in 1998, the Society has launched its most ambitious initiative, called 2020 Vision, to build 1,000 wildlife education centers in the 50 states by the year 2020. There are now about 50 centers, which allow people to tour Audubon bird and animal sanctuaries, accompanied by trained guides.

In keeping with programs like Audubon Adventures, which has distributed nature-oriented classroom materials to 16 million grade-schoolers since 1984, the Society hopes centers will especially attract young people.

The 'wow' experience

'What we're hoping to do is create environmental stewards for the 21st century and beyond,' says Bianchi. Youth and environmental activism, he says, once went hand in hand, but much of that commitment has been replaced by lip service. 'They don't do a lot. It's not something they truly understand and take to heart.'

Bianchi says he wants the centers to provide a ''wow' experience' - that instant when nature suddenly reveals one of its wonders. His own 'wow' experience as a child came from discovering spotted turtles in a friend's field. After graduating from Tufts University, near Boston, Bianchi worked in TV news PR for CBS, NBC and CNN before joining Audubon.

He is its de facto media relations director and he spends about 80% of his day on the phone. His four-person department especially cultivates outdoor writers and photo editors. Most of its press is print and, increasingly, online, including Environmental News Network, Outside online and live interview site eYada.com. Audubon attracts less broadcast coverage.

'I have a feeling that the stories we have to tell aren't necessarily stories that can be told in a couple of minutes,' Bianchi says. He adds that he brought some lessons to Audubon from his TV days, including respect for reporters' schedules and a knack for events that both garner publicity and serve the public good. Bianchi also manages Audubon's 80-person speakers bureau, which responds to requests from schools and other groups, and helps train staff from Audubon's 506 nationwide chapters to handle local media.

Bianchi calls his small PR shop typical of conservation groups, and has turned to outside agencies for help with larger projects. CMB Communications of New York City puts together Audubon's periodic fund raising dinners, and New York's Four Corners did PR for Audubon magazine's redesign rollout.

Bianchi hired Andrew Freedman, a New London, CT, practitioner, to publicize the 1997 launch of the Great Backyard Bird Count, which drew 73,000 people across the country into fields, parks and yards to count birds as they began their midwinter migration northward.

Bianchi says 95% of those who participated learned about the bird count through media placement. Because Audubon was looking for volunteers, he says, not money or members, many reporters covered preparation for the count as a public service. It has continued yearly since then.

Same goals, different methods

Since its founding in 1905, Audubon's focus has been birds. Although its not-for-profit tax status precludes Audubon from taking overtly political stands, it enthusiastically backs conservation initiatives. 'We'll work with anyone interested in advancing our issues,' Bianchi says.

When New York City and surrounding towns began spraying insecticide to fight mosquitoes carrying West Nile Virus, Audubon contributed to state health department PSAs advocating non-chemical means, like draining standing water, that were less harmful to birds and humans. One member even took the un-Audubon-like step of filming people on the street being hit with spray - footage that was run by the local NBC affiliate.

Audubon works well with its more confrontational peers in the conservation community. 'We tend to travel in different circles,' says Greenpeace press officer Craig Culp, 'but our net goals of preserving our waterways and our forests are in concert.'

'We're not Greenpeace,' says Bianchi. 'We're not going to have somebody parachute off the Golden Gate Bridge with an Audubon banner.'

'They're less political,' agrees Detroit News environmental reporter Jeremy Pearce, 'which can be rather refreshing.' Audubon's largest chapter is in Michigan, whose central Great Lakes location makes it a birding hot spot. Pearce calls Audubon 'level-headed and reasonable.'

'There's a place for a quieter approach,' he says. 'Sometimes that quiet voice comes across as being more genuine.'

Leaders of several environmental organizations - including Audubon, Sierra Club and the World Wildlife Fund - have created the Green Group to plot strategy together, leading their PR and communications directors to form an offshoot, called the M Team, to coordinate events and announcements for maximum effect. The Green Group's most significant achievement has been helping propose and push through legislation to restore natural water flow in Florida's Everglades.

Leticia Mederos, legislative assistant to Congresswoman Carrie Meek, who represents Florida's Miami-Dade County, says Audubon was 'instrumental in getting the message out on the link between the environment and the economy in South Florida.'

Part of the reason Audubon can afford to be low-key with the media is that it has its own, although Bianchi says the 466,000-circulation Audubon magazine isn't the organization's mouthpiece. And it's not just for members.

'The magazine is one of the key tools the organization has to get people interested,' says Bianchi. Its editor-in-chief, Lisa Gosselin, recently left to write a book and the magazine is interviewing potential replacements.

Bianchi says Audubon's biggest challenge now is raising funds for its centers. But, he says, the question remains: if we build them, will they come?



The National Audubon Society

PR Budget: dollars 100,000 (annual) Public Affairs: Clare Tully, Sr. VP of marketing and communications, oversees 25 people in internal and external communications. John Bianchi, communications director, manages four people of those 25.

Outside Agencies: CMB Communications on retainer since March 1999 for fund raising events. Other agencies hired for events or promotions as needed.



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