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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Green Focus Groups

Air Date: Week of

In the past, media, politicians and advertisers were the only people using focus groups to refine their public messages. Increasingly, environmental organizations are using polls and small experimental research gatherings to examine their campaign strategies' effectiveness. David Hammond of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium reports on this recent trend.


CURWOOD: Two of the nation's largest environmental groups say they learned an important lesson in Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden's recent razor-thin Senatorial victory over Republican Gordon Smith. The Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters spent nearly $300,000 buying up TV time to attack Mr. Smith's environmental record. The result: exit polls show that of the 130,000 or so people who said the environment was important to them, 3 out of 4 voted for Mr. Wyden. The two groups now say they will use more television ads in crucial campaigns this fall, and use polls and focus groups to help refine their messages. Once used exclusively by politicians and ad agencies, sophisticated polling techniques and focus groups are now being used by more and more environmental groups. But some say these focus groups are a waste of money. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's David Hammond explains.

(People in a focus group; several voices speaking)

HAMMOND: It's early on a Tuesday evening in Detroit, and there's nervous anticipation as 6 women and 4 men gather in a small conference room. They've come here to be part of what they think is a research experiment. In reality, it's a focus group convened by several US and Canadian environmental organizations to help refine their message on Great Lakes water quality. Nancy Belden, a partner in Belden and Associates, a public opinion research firm explains.

BELDEN: They're trying to use focus groups to identify what people already know or don't know about Great Lakes water quality issues, so that we can help the Great Lakes environmental organizations figure out ways to talk effectively to the public.

HAMMOND: One of those organizations is Toronto's Pollution Probe. Bruce Lourie is the group's project manager, and he says the usefulness of focus groups goes beyond simply testing a particular message. He calls them a learning experience for environmentalists.

LOURIE: It's a really significant reality check for people who spend a lot of their time buried deeply in these issues, you know, trying to work out minute details of where a toxic substance enters the water and how it enters the wildlife and humans and what the health effects are. And then you come to a focus group and you find out that people don't even know how many Great Lakes there are. You know, you really realize that we've got to step back, explain our messages more clearly, use the kind of language and terminology that the public understands.

HAMMOND: That's exactly what Chicago's Environmental Law and Policy Center is trying to accomplish in a recent Columbus focus group.

(Woman: I'm going to pass around some cards with some ideas or messages on them...")

HAMMOND: ELPC is developing a TV ad campaign touting the benefits of energy efficiency. The spot is a play on typical laundry detergent commercials, claiming that energy efficiency can bring bluer blues and whiter whites to the environment.

(Music with man's voice-over: "Doesn't the environment deserve the same treatment as your laundry?")

HAMMOND: ELPC's Peter Morman wants to learn 2 things. Will the audience think the ad is funny? And will the underlying message get through?

MORMAN: We're trying not to preach to people on this issue. We're just trying to draw their attention, maybe make them chuckle a little bit, and realize that there are very simple things they can do to help the environment and save themselves money.

(Music with man's voice-over: "Maybe someday we'll live in a world without ring around the city.")

HAMMOND: Around the Great Lakes the popularity of focus groups is rising among larger environmental organizations. During the last year, at least 5 groups spent about $200,000 on 20 sessions. But Pollution Probe's Bruce Lourie says not all environmental groups are embracing the technique.

LOURIE: Particularly, the real grassroots organizations that, you know, these are the tactics used by people marketing running shoes, not the tactics used by environmental organizations who, you know, should be I guess relying more on their instincts.

HAMMOND: Among the skeptics is Steve Blackledge, Field Director for Michigan's Public Interest Research Group, or PIRGM.

BLACKLEDGE: Groups like PIRGM and the PIRGs who are out, we are out canvassing every day, knocking on doors, talking to members, talking to potential members. We don't use them and I think we feel like we're very much in touch with people and don't need the focus groups.

HAMMOND: Of course, cost is also a factor for smaller organizations. A single focus group session usually runs around $4,000 to $5,000 and the average campaign usually convenes 3 to 4 sessions. Add in some quantitative survey work and the tally can run near $35,000. Blackledge says that's just too expensive.

BLACKLEDGE: We wouldn't choose to spend our money that way. We, the money that we're raising from our members, we want to use it for exactly what we're telling them to use it on. What we tell them we're going to use it on. And that is lobbying Congress or doing research or organizing other groups.

HAMMOND: Cost is an issue, admits Mark Van Putten, National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes Field Director. But he says the price of not understanding one's audience is much greater.

VAN PUTTEN: What we've been able to do in the Great Lakes region is to share those costs and share the research among a number of the groups, because we are all working on different aspects of the same problem. So there's no reason for us to reinvent the wheel.

HAMMOND: To that end, National Wildlife and Pollution Probe have been sponsoring a number of workshops and conference calls to share their findings with other environmental groups both large and small. One discovery concerns public attitudes toward government and the environment. According to the research, both liberals and conservatives agree by a 2 to 1 margin that not only has government been responsible for improving the environment, but that a strong governmental role is needed now to protect those gains. The environmental groups say it's this kind of documented information which is invaluable in their efforts to counter Congressional calls for deregulation and budget cuts. For Living on Earth, I'm David Hammond in Ann Arbor, Michigan.



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