EXPERT OPINION: Mark Bristow, Communications Adviser at WWF-PNG



Posted on 29 April 2014  | 
Mark Bristow, WWF PNG. Astrolabe Bay, north coast, PNG, checking on a site where leatherback and hawksbill turtles are rumoured to be.
© Mark BristowEnlarge
An environmental science background, and years of experience at a press agency and daily newspapers have led Mark Bristow to Papua New Guinea. In his capacity as Communications Adviser to WWF, he shares frank views on his line of work in the country, and why scientists should leave writing to the experts.

1. What is your background and what got you started in communications rather than another field?

I’m English and initially wanted to be an environmentalist from an early age, inspired by my grandfather and writers like Rachel Carson ‘Silent Spring’ and Marion Shoard.

I studied environmental science at university but quickly realized that I was better at communication than science. I got into newspapers by chance after a stint of work experience at my local weekly paper and being stuck on a snowbound train with the entire cast of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (it’s a long story).

That led to working for a London-based press agency, several daily newspapers, freelancing for national magazines, including BBC Wildlife, and then spending 20 years producing network television programmes, mostly for the BBC. I was never likely to go into accounting.

2. What are your responsibilities at WWF PNG?

Writing compelling stories to raise the profile and promote WWF’s work in PNG, preparing fact sheets and leaflets, updating our website presence and making sure our team sticks to brand guidelines.

But, an increasing proportion of my time is set to be spent on fundraising – drafting and developing proposals so that we have valuable projects in the pipeline. Some people find writing proposals tiresome, but I enjoy the mix of research and the challenge of adopting the often very different styles expected by donors.

3. What are the specific challenges of your line of work in PNG? Which ones are unique to PNG (if any)?

I have a pet hate of the word ‘challenge’ because it is a code word for ‘problem’ or ‘difficulty’. We all know this, but stick to the convention because ‘challenge’ sounds positive and we don’t like using words perceived as negative. Why?

I’ve been in PNG 10 months now and would say it presents two very particular challenges. First is language. Although most media output is in English, nationals commonly speak Tok Psin, a lingua franca originating from the slave trade out of the cane fields in Australia, additionally there are more than 800 entirely different indigenous languages, more than anywhere else in the world, which means many people speak three languages, far more than me. However literacy rates, certainly in English, are the lowest in the Pacific.

Secondly, technology. The majority of people don’t have access to electricity and have never seen a television or used a computer. This means websites and social media have almost zero reach or impact.

On the other hand, mobile phones have been embraced with almost religious zeal and texts are the primary means of all communication, spreading everything from news to rumours, to the extent that a neighbouring NGO (VSO) is sending simple school lessons by SMS.

Both factors mean you have to radically rethink how best to reach your potential audience.

4. So far in PNG, do you have any "lessons learned" that you think should be heeded by conservationists and communicators alike?

Nothing, but nothing, can be achieved in PNG unless you engage with communities and work through the ‘Wontok’ (one talk) system. This is the web of family and village ties that make everything happen or stop anything happening.

This was probably a shock to western conservationists who envisaged setting up conservation areas or Wild Management Areas (WMAs).

Almost all land in the country is clan or tribally owned, isn’t registered and trying to impose a management resource plan is doomed from the outset unless you can negotiate or deal with the traditional owners. Not heeding this can lead to war, literally.

5. What are the 3 key skills that in your opinion are most needed in your line of work and in this part of the world?

(1) Communication – tell people things. There’s an inherent reluctance to communicate in the Pacific, whether it be to tell your colleagues that the office has moved or that a cyclone is about to destroy the building. I’m not sure whether it is power play or simply because people don’t think to communicate. Not communicating on even the most simple thing damages businesses, NGOs, life.

(2) Learn how to take photographs. Most people can’t take photographs and most of the photographs in most publications and presentations are truly dreadful. People persist in taking photographs of the back of people’s heads in workshops under artificial light. Give up, it doesn’t work. It never works.

(3) Write simply and don’t use long words you don’t understand. If you don’t understand them, nobody else will. Implement means ‘to do’ or ‘to carry out’, simple as that.

6. If you look back at the long history of WWF in PNG, what has been the contribution of communications to the conservation programme as it stands today? What needs to change - communication-wise- to make the programme deliver even more in the future?

What needs to improve:

Communicating something real. Proof that something has worked that others can copy. There is a legacy of programs which have led to plenty of analysis and oodles of reports, enough to fill a library, but which are never read or used. This means many have achieved nothing measurable except to boost the profile of the people who wrote them.

What has been done:

Raising awareness of the unique, almost unbelievable variety of life in PNG. It is an incredible place. There are not just a ‘few’ new species to be found here, there are probably hundreds. That’s why the WWF Report ‘Final Frontier’ (2011) was such an eye opener.

What needs to change?

WWF’s profile in PNG needs a dramatic boost. We have done good work here, we have the potential of doing even better, more life-changing work, but people don’t know enough about us. Most people in PNG have difficulty recognizing what a panda is – it is, naturally enough, not an animal they will ever have seen.

7. How can communicators make their work more measurable, and hence demonstrate even more the value of their work?

It is extraordinarily difficult to measure communications work. ‘Hits’ or ‘visits’ to websites are often inaccurate and can’t be accurately judged. You know you have a success when the social media turns your story or your campaign into an epidemic. The recent spate of cancer research ‘selfies’ across Europe and North America is a good example.

You know you have been successful when you meet people who have seen what you have written and are talking about WWF.


Mark Bristow, WWF PNG. Astrolabe Bay, north coast, PNG, checking on a site where leatherback and hawksbill turtles are rumoured to be.
© Mark Bristow Enlarge

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