Oceana effort fights overfishing

Mention the "World Trade Organization" and "subsidies" in the same sentence, and you may well have reporters diving under rocks.

Mention the "World Trade Organization" and "subsidies" in the same sentence, and you may well have reporters diving under rocks.

The challenge, then, for nonprofit organization Oceana, which works to protect the world's oceans, is piquing the interest of the media, US lawmakers, and other decision makers in the rather esoteric subject of fishing subsidies and their relation to overfishing. Fishing subsidies, Oceana and its allies argue, encourage the worldwide fishing industry to overfish when the world's fish supply is already severely depleted.

To bring attention to the issue, Oceana enlisted the help of Armstrong Analytics.

Strategy

With talks among WTO members to cut subsidies currently under way, by promoting the issue now, Oceana and its allies hope to smooth the way to congressional approval of any international agreements. But with so many other topics being fiercely debated on Capitol Hill these days, from the Iraq war to immigration, getting people to care about fishing subsidies isn't easy.

"Frankly, it's a story that's mostly about economics and negotiations in a world body, and it's real tough to get attention," says Ed Armstrong, president of Armstrong Analytics. "The great fear is that if we go up there and try to educate everyone in a week, we'll probably be dead in the water, excuse the pun."

Tactics

In early May, a cartoon character named Finley the Fish began appearing in advertisements in CongressDaily and on the Washington Metro subway system. A 7-foot-tall costume version of Finley then paid a couple of visits to Capitol Hill, strolling first around the Capitol grounds, shaking hands and giving out Swedish Fish candy, and later through some of the congressional buildings to meet with members and their staffs.

Essentially, Finley - who Armstrong says is not a registered lobbyist - aims to generate buzz about the topic, and those wishing to delve deeper into the issues related to the Cut the Bait campaign can visit the organization's Web site.

Apart from Finley's appearances, efforts to promote the cause also include outreach by Oceana members to lawmakers and their staffs, influential public policy groups, and people directly involved in negotiations over the subsidies issues, including new US Trade Representative Susan Schwab.

Results

Finley sang the national anthem on Nightline, whose local camera crew happened to be on the Hill that day for a story on outrage among conservative groups over a Spanish translation of the song. Other media hits include the popular DC blog Wonkette, the International Herald Tribune, and the Financial Times.

Finley has also gotten some face time with former Rep. Bob Livingston and current Rep. John Spratt (D-SC), among others.

Also, traffic to oceana.org has increased, and a bipartisan group of senators declared support for subsidy elimination. But, Armstrong notes: "We won't know how successful Finley has been until or if a vote goes through. It's going to take awhile."

Future

A WTO decision may not occur for at least another four months, so Finley will continue to make select appearances on the Hill, plus Oceana will continue to provide information to public policy groups that could influence lawmakers.

Courtney Sakai, Oceana campaign director, says the nonprofit is reaching out to additional audiences, such as faith-based groups. 

PRWeek's view

A creative approach was essential to bring attention to this complex issue that could easily get lost amid so many others. Finley may not win any best-dressed contests, but a 7-foot orange mascot can't help but get attention.

Yet the effort's success will ultimately depend on how much intrinsic support exists in Congress and how much influence can be brought to bear on more ambivalent members. As Armstrong and Sakai note, lawmakers won't support cutting subsidies just because the fish is cute.

PR team: Oceana (Washington) and Armstrong Analytics (Gaithersburg, MD)

Campaign: Cut the Bait

Duration: May 2006-ongoing

Budget: Less than $300,000

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