Still Kicking: The Importance of Media Releases as Storytelling Workhorses

That's the title of the presentation I'll be giving to the Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS) in Vancouver next week. If you're interested in attending, you can register here. I'll be talking about media releases not just as tools of media relations, but also as tools for organizing and empowering organizations and communities. Here's a preview of what I'll be discussing:

Biosocial Theory and Environmental Communication

Just read a very cool article by David Backes where he proposes using biosocial theory as a framework for studying environmental communication.

Biosocial theory is just a formalized version of the widespread recognition that there are reciprocal relationships between society and the environment. Bonnicksen summarizes this formalized theory as follows:

The coadaptation of social systems with their physical environments is predicated on the reciprocal operation of two processes: the first of these consists of innovations and successive adjustments in the structure, behavior, and resource use practices of organizations in response to changes in the material, energy, and information they receive from other organizations and their physical environments; the second consists of successive adjustments in the structure and function of ecological systems in response to the material, energy, and information that is transferred to them through the resource use practices employed by organizations. (Bonnicksen & Lee, 1982, p. 52)

Backes further and more simply reduces Bonnicksen's summary as follows, "Individuals and groups in society intentionally or unintentionally affect their physical environments, which respond to these actions in some manner, and this response when perceived by individuals and organizations, encourages them to continue or change their actions."(Backes, p.150)

Backes sees biosocial theory as a useful framework for researchers wishing to explore the relationships between mass communication (part of the social system) and ecosystems through the linkages of human perceptions and behaviour. It also has a useful open-ended predictive function: "Biosocial theory predicts that effects may be expected not only in the direction of mass communication-human perceptions/ behavior-ecosystem, but also in the reverse direction." (P.150).

To test the use of biosocial theory for mass communication research, Backes uses a case study reviewing environmental communication over 50 years as it pertains to a wilderness area (the Quetico-Superior) straddling the border of Ontario and Northern Minnesota. Based on his review, Backes derives five empirical generalizations that he provides evidence for, with important implications for environmental communicators:

G1: Mass media construct images of place and disseminate them to audiences.

G2: The more dependent a person is on the mass media for information about a place, the more important the mass media will be in shaping the person's images of that place.

G3: The images people have of a place will affect that place’s biophysical environment.

G4: The level of social conflict over use and management of a place varies according to the extent that the dominant media images of the place contradict each other.

Among other interesting findings, Backes found considerable social conflict over the issue of controlled burns. In an effort to "balance" the ecosystem (following protections that banned logging) conservationists advocated controlled burns, while the general public, heavily influenced by the U.S. Forest Service's own highly successful "Smokey the Bear" fire prevention campaigns, felt that forest fires were a negative phenomenon to be avoided, let alone intentionally produced.

Backes also found a correlation between mass media depictions of the area as a fishing paradise, a subsequent rise in fishing tourism, and a subsequent crash in fish populations. Backes also found conflict between mass media depictions of the area as the aforementioned fishing paradise and later as a spiritual wilderness area (as communicated by groups like the Sierra Club). Ultimately the mass media depictions of the area as a quiet, spiritual place to be protected grew dominant, with the area eventually protected from logging and motorized water recreation, with fishing lodges purchased and torn down.

While mass media couldn't be the sole determinant of the areas' transformation, it has undoubtedly been one of the most powerful, especially considering that society's knowledge and beliefs about acceptable practices in the area (given its remote location), and subsequent utilizations, were mostly derived from media depictions.

A biosocial approach to evaluating Canada's own domestic and international social conflicts with respect to environmental land-use decisions in the tar sands might be useful to those advocating for a slower, cleaner approach to their development. It also explains why mass media depictions of the tar sands, are so important, and why environmentalists need to shift from images that demonize, towards images and symbols that chart a new future for the area.

'Avatar' as environmental story telling - What's wrong with telling the "same story?"

Between advancements in camera technology and CGI, we are now a civilization capable of creating life-like renderings of anything we can imagine. As we've approached this reality, on more than one occasion I've found myself asking about the power, ethics and social advocacy potential of such images - if we can visually create anything, is there the potential to depict more just or sustainable visions of the future that might compel citizens to make them real? Can we harness that so-called post-Avatar "depression" into a force for good? Is it all just entertainment or is there also a new collective meaning that audiences are buying into?

When we reflect on our viewing experience, the meaning that seems paramount, at least in this first round of hyper real images, is immersive reality itself. Word of mouth goes something like, "you have to SEE it!" It's about the visual spectacle. When I first left the theater I felt a disconnect between the immersive power of the images and the relatively straight-forward story, after all, as many folks have pointed out (usually derisively), 'Avatar' is essentially a re-telling of Pocahontas or Fern Gully. With such original landscapes why wasn't the story more original? After chewing this over a bit, and appreciating the fact that I didn't question the story once during my viewing experience, I realized the story didn't need to be revolutionary because it already was, and even if we had seen it before, we'd never really SEEN it before. Every re-telling is richer, more vivid, more emotional, getting closer and closer to making us feel and accept the story's lessons on a visceral level.

It seems to me that certain human stories have been refined, distilled and in short, fine-tuned to a point where their morals and understandings are taught and reinforced in a fashion that resonates with audiences deeply and efficiently. True, there is plenty to criticize in the movie (particularly from a feminist POV) but I also think the bees in the bonnets

of critics like David Brooks and his "white messiah complex" are overwrought and a typical knee-jerk, conservative "white men can't jump," reaction to a story they never liked. Can the story be classified (as Brooks' does) as a "white messiah fable?" Definitely. Is that (or the fact that we've seen this story before) such a bad thing? No. How many people were exposed to the basic story of Pocahontas for the first time because of this film? How many people felt and took in that same story (even if they had experienced it before) more strongly because of this film?

In his list of stereotypes he feels the film perpetuates, Brooks' first and foremost criticism is that the story, "...rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic." On reflection, that statement (problematic because of his own totalizing formulation and Brooks' decision to strangely focus on "athleticism"), is not far off the mark if we recall the real historical examples of colonial domination the movie is meant to emulate: the decimation of indigenous peoples in North and South America (yes, "Pocohontas in space" for the cynical) and the rationalist and technocratic extraction of resources that followed that domination, not to mention rationalist and technocratic institutions of human domination like slavery or more recently, residential schools. Does Brooks think we've already learned the moral antidotes to these recent and disturbing chapters in Western civilization? All evidence is that this is a story and set of morals we haven't learned yet, and given our present course (present human and environmental destruction) there's nothing to say we aren't capable of making the same mistakes hundreds of years from today (minus some of the evil marine play acting).

The power and allure of the "white messiah fable" is the fantasy of turning on one's own morally bankrupt culture and seeking redemption in the culture of the oppressed. I agree that messages suggesting that indigenous people can only rise-up with the help of a "white messiah" are problematic, however I don't think that's the key lesson learned or even the point of the story - the real focus is on showing (sugar-coated in over the top heroics and girl-getting) that it is possible to go against the grain and to adopt new ways of being. I don't think that's such a bad thing...there's a reason the story of Pocahontas still resonates strongly today, and there's a reason Mr. Cameron's movie is shattering box-office records (it's very possible that a similar movie with just as immersive images but less primal storytelling would flop).

From conversations I've had with young adults, it was movies like Pocahontas and Fern Gully that first stoked their social and environmental awareness.

What's wrong with telling the "same story?"

Moms Against Climate Change - Media Digest

Quick photo digest of an event I helped manage media relations for in Vancouver last night. Got some great photos (click them to see full size)! A story also aired on CTV and a Canadian Press photo is still floating around somewhere.

This was a unique angle in the Copenhagen story - something local, emotional and more human - mother's concern for the welfare of their children -  a message we need to see and hear more often.

God Save The Bou: 5000 Emails for 5000 Caribou

Feel Good Click of the Day: 5000 Emails for 5000 Caribou

That's what a new online campaign I'm helping to promote is hoping to achieve in Ontario by December 31, 2009.

The same Woodland Caribou that appears on the quarter in your pocket is quickly disappearing from the southern Boreal Forest of Ontario (just 5000 remaining), despite a promise from Premier McGuinty, over two years ago, to protect the animal’s habitat.

Don't Be Shallow

Social media is often accused of being shallow and all about self-affirmation, well why not go deep and affirm the right of Ontario's Woodland caribou to survive by sending an email to Premier McGuinty today, directly from the petition page ( before joining our Facebook community at www.facebook/savethebou and tweeting your good deed (there's the self-affirmation part!) and hopefully re-tweeting the campaign's feed at

Remember to invite interested friends to become fans of the FB page.

Save Caribou and Protect Our Climate

Canada's Boreal Forest is the largest terrestrial storehouse of carbon on earth, making it a vital regulator of global climate. When caribou habitat is logged, carbon is released into the atmosphere. When caribou habitat is preserved, trees and soil can absorb more carbon and keep it in the ground where it belongs. A 50% reduction in logging in the Boreal would reduce global warming pollution equivalent to taking all the passenger cars in Canada off the road. An Early Christmas Present For Ontario's Caribou?

With only 5000 caribou left, and 76 days remaining before the end of 2009, every day that passes without a credible caribou conservation strategy means another flip of the coin for the survival of Ontario's caribou. If Premier McGuinty isn't persuaded to do the right thing by Dec. 31st, new logging plans for caribou habitat will be drafted in the new year and that means more logging and fewer caribou by this time next year. 

Give these critters an early Christmas present.

Every little click helps!

The "Feeling" Social Media

Since revamping my site and choosing to publish content on a more frequent basis, I've spent a lot of time thinking about the value of social media...actually that's not true...I've spent more time feeling about the value of social media. Seeing folks visit from across the country, sparking conversations and building new understandings and a sense of community with old friends and acquaintances, using posts to organize and test out thoughts and feelings about life stories, questions, news, "art" and whatever else tickles my fancy (apologies for that expression) - all of it has been an exercise in feeling. One of the biggest criticisms of blogs and other forms of social media is that everything they do is "meta," that is, after the fact, or in abstraction to some primary piece of news or information. Because of this initial modus operandi (historically and today a lot of blogs still rely on mainstream news to spark their conversations), the mainstream media like to claim (especially when their own relevance is questioned) to be the lifeblood of the "bloggosphere." They caution that the death of newspapers and traditional media outlets will cause social media to dry-up. I'm not sure that's true.

I think we all have some sense that mainstream news is often vacuous - a race to report every societal "car crash" in the most graphic terms as quickly as possible before finding the next one, first. Ambulance chasers etc. A quick example: Yesterday I was on the bus and one of the local news radio stations had a story about 7 people being found dead in a mobile home in the southern U.S. state of Georgia. No context, nothing. Great. Thank you. My life and understanding of the world has been greatly enriched. Now I know it's possible for 7 people to be found dead in a mobile home, in the state of Georgia. God forbid we should actually connect any dots, attempting to explain why this happened. The same holds true for that recent story about the reality TV show participant who murdered his ex-wife before hanging himself in a hotel room in B.C. Any chance the mainstream media entertained a conversation about mental health, or obsessional jealousy? It's not in their DNA to do so (and while there's an argument that perhaps it doesn't need to be, the fact that their license to operate depends on access to public airwaves points to the possibility that as a society we could ask for something more), but that's also why they're becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Reflection has become an end in itself. Demand is at an all time high. As an end in itself, the primary news on which it is predicated is far less important. Fodder for reflection can come from first person experience, second-hand anecdotes, stories from organizations and businesses dealing directly with social issues and transactions, and various other forms of media and sources of information. We don't lack primary news as a's happening all the time, it's what life is. What we're lacking is the means to reflect, to not just make sense of our world, but to make new meaning that makes the world a better place. That's where the feeling part of social media comes in, and that's where I see its value.

The loss of traditional media reporting should concern us as much as the loss of any other stream of social information, but it's not critical.

I'll try and offer more reflection as I continue to feel my way through this new medium.