40 Under 40 2016: Steve Ertel

VP, strategic communications, World Wildlife Fund, 38

The world’s most endangered animal species don’t know it, but Steve Ertel has been working to protect them and their habitats for more than 15 years.

The Washington, DC-based communications strategist oversees a 20-person team for the World Wildlife Fund, a conservation global powerhouse. Credited by his team as an exceptional leader and visionary, he overhauled WWF’s media relations strategy, resulting in a significant increase in the quantity and quality of coverage. He also expanded the scope and influence of communications within the organization, taking on executive communications, social media, influencer engagement, third-party content placement, celebrity and entertainment relations, and managing high-profile events.

And he did so at a critical time for the organization, which was rapidly expanding its mission beyond "just" protecting critical species toward some of the biggest problems facing the planet like climate change, sustainable food production, and habitat destruction.

Whether working with a community, NGO, corporation, or the media, he found ways to make connections on critical issues. Last year, when the UN climate talks in Paris (COP21) brought together 200 governments and resulted in a climate action agreement, Ertel went to work. He kept WWF, its mission, and those it protects top of mind during the negotiations, securing 5,500 news stories and a first place Twitter influence ranking among U.S. nonprofits.

Recently, he ramped-up a decade-old Earth Hour program to get people across the world to turn off their lights for an hour with a social execution that resulted in 2 billion uses of #EarthHour across social channels.

Ertel has dedicated much of his career to protecting nature. As a Rutgers University undergraduate, he earned a degree in communication with a specialization in human ecology and completed a certificate in social strategies for environmental protection.

Prior to WWF, he was the director of media relations at The Nature Conservancy where he built an international media relations team. He held the same title at the Environmental Defense Fund before that.

- He established WWF’s first full U.S. bilingual communications in English and Spanish, which led to new efforts to engage Latinos on climate change.

- Ertel led external communications around an Earth Day 2016 collaboration with Apple, AppsForEarth, that raised awareness for core WWF issues, including forests, oceans and wildlife.

- He is also a musical theater fan and sits on the board of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival.

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