State of the Planet

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Students Design Communications Plan for Conservation Organization

The students created a strategic map of their recommendations.
The students created a strategic map of their recommendations.


by Alyxandra Pikus

A student team in the MPA in Environmental and Science program completed their studies by helping the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a wildlife conservation organization better communicate its work and influence policy.

African elephant Source: Wikimedia Commons, nickandmel2006
African elephant Source: Wikimedia Commons, nickandmel2006

DSWT is best known for the Orphans’ Project, which rescues and rehabilitates elephants and rhinos. The Trust has successfully raised over 200 elephants and rhinos, and has a long record of reintegrating orphans back into the wild. The organization sought the students to raise awareness of the Orphans’ Project, and to expand its leadership in conservation management and policy. Projects like this one for a real-world client is an integral part of the Environmental Science and Policy program.

Students combined in-depth interviews, data analysis, literature reviews, and a gap analysis to determine areas of improvement in the Trust’s current communication efforts. Their goal was to produce a communications plan that could raise awareness and influence policy, helping to identify stakeholders and prioritize platforms to direct the Trust’s conservation management message.

Students combined in-depth interviews, data analysis, literature reviews and gap analysis to determine areas of improvement in the Trust’s current communication efforts. The project was not without setbacks. For example, the team was not able to generate some analytical data, such as long term trends from Instagram postings. Without certain analytical data about DSWT’s current communications approach, it was difficult to determine how clearly their message was getting out to intended audiences.

In their report to the Trust, the students examined the Trust’s current communications in the United States and the United Kingdom, examining communication channels, audience, and messaging. The report assessed current awareness levels of all conservation initiatives that the Trust is pursuing. By understanding current communication strategies and reach, and analyzing successful communication strategies of other conservation organizations, the team was able to recommend ways to gain a broader recognition for its work.

social media analysis
DSWT social media platform analysis

The team’s analysis indicated that the Trust expertly used social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, as well as mass media publications, including articles in The New York Times, The Guardian, and National Geographic. These communications have garnered international recognition of the organization. But the students found that the Trust has overlooked certain important audiences: millennials, other NGO leaders, politicians, and academics.

The team also made recommendations, ranging from better use of social media to starting student chapters in the United States and the United Kingdom to raise awareness. The team also recommended organizing public events to promote the Trust’s work and to forge partnerships with other nongovernmental organizations and academic institutions, which could assist the Trust in research and conservation initiatives.

The students working on this project are all conservation enthusiasts, who through this work have gained a deeper understanding of the intricacies of conservation and the need for a holistic approach to conservation initiatives. Lisa Kubotera, one of the managers for the project, said that “working on this project with the Trust helped us understand the hard work that goes on behind-the-scenes in a conservation organization… this experience has been one full of immense learning. We also learned that communications are a critical aspect of any organization’s work, especially when they are trying to influence policy and create scalable models of their work.”

Alyxandra Pikus (MA Conservation Biology, 2017) is an intern with the Earth Institute. This piece is a summary of the work done by graduate students Saumya Mehrotra, Sayoko Lisa Kubotera, Merav Cohen, Peter Qiu, Hantian Rong, Tiffany Sieler, Arina Susijo, Mauricio Child, and Shira Yashphe.

Students in the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program enroll in a year-long, 54-credit program offered at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, in partnership with the Earth Institute.

Since it began in 2002, the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program has given students the hands-on experience, and the analytical and decision-making tools to implement effective environmental and sustainable management policies. The program’s 741 graduates have advanced to jobs in domestic and international environmental policy, working in government, private and non-profit sectors. Their work involves issues of sustainability, resource use and global change, in fields focused on air, water, climate, energy efficiency, food, agriculture, transportation and waste management. They work as consultants, advisers, project managers, program directors, policy analysts, teachers, researchers and environmental scientists and engineers.

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