By Mike Beacom
Forestry Notes Q&A: Will Novy-Hildesley
Executive Director, North American Forest Partnership
Will Novy-Hildesley has extensive experience with the forest sector, developing new initiatives, and leading multi-stakeholder brand initiatives that bridge for-profit/non-profit and government. He joined the North American Forest Partnership (NAFP) recognizing a tremendous opportunity to bring together many diverse interests with a fresh and compelling story to help shape the future of forests. Recently he shared some time with NACD to discuss NAFP’s mission and its national conference last fall.
By all accounts, your November meeting in Portland, “From Communications to Engagement,” was well received by industry attendees. What was the driving force behind the decision to organize the two-day meeting?
(There are) two goals that reflect our core strategy: One, bring a broad cross section of the sector together to take a hard look at the current ‘narrative’ about the sector out there and how we can start to shift it: To elevate and cement our reputation as innovative, responsible stewards addressing big societal challenges. Two, see what happens when you bring together a truly diverse cross section of leaders and give them time to eat donuts and interact.
We had more women, young people and unusual players in the room together than you often see and that creates a tangibly different energy and buzz. We hoped to see that excitement in the room, a sense of shared purpose and fresh thinking. On the day, people were consistently commenting on ‘the energy in this room.’ It’s that community, the forward-looking thinkers who are excited to engage and act as ambassadors that we are here to connect, foster and amplify.
What did you take away from the meeting that you didn’t expect going in?
That this energized, forward-looking community already exists and is actually poised to take off. I’ve spent 20 years watching this dynamic play out in other sectors and organizations. I distinctly remember looking out from the stage and seeing one of the youngest emerging female leaders in the room having an animated exchange with one of the oldest male leaders between sessions, and the thought that struck me was ‘this train is getting ready to move.’
I had to stay up and rewrite my speech that night to talk about the adoption curve and the crucial role of early adopters, because I wanted to acknowledge all the people ready to show up and engage like that. The truth is the innovators and early adopters can be young, old, well-versed in the nuances of the sector, or bringing an entirely new perspective to it. But what I think they all share is an essential perspective. This sector has an amazing story to tell about where we are now and where we are headed, and that it’s time we took full ownership of that message.
One popular session covered storytelling techniques. Explain why you believe the forestry community needs to do a better job telling stories.
Well, first of all this sector already has some incredible storytellers and many amazing stories to tell. Amplifying their efforts, giving those folks more air time and reach is going to be at least as effective as any training we can provide. I think perhaps the most important lessons shared on storytelling were the universal truths that have particular relevance to the sector; telling great stories that engage people demands that you are vulnerable, that you are authentic, and that you don’t just show up with all the answers. Starting from a position of entrenched defense is unlikely to be the best place to effectively engage an audience.
As a sector, we’re not attracting the kind of talent we could into the workforce because we aren’t being recognized as essential, innovative and responsible stewards of that resource. Policymakers aren’t as receptive to our community’s priorities as they might be because we show up independently, not as a coordinated whole. And all the people working in, playing in or just plain excited about forests—the very people who should be our proudest, most passionate advocates—remain largely silent on the issues we care about and aren’t armed to tell our story.
In this media-saturated world, we are going to need to build trust in the sector and we are going to do it by telling great stories first and then adding the details. The data is impressive and important, but it’s always ‘hearts then minds.’ Stories prepare people to listen and create the permission to engage in a real conversation about the future of forests and the sector. We need to do a better job of storytelling if people are going to start making stronger connections. Connections between forests and how forests make their lives better; connections between the need to manage forests for different benefits and outcomes; connections between forests and solving big societal challenges, like wildfire, protecting watersheds, and protecting essential wildlife habitat; and connecting this sector in people’s minds with spectacular innovation and exciting and diverse careers.
We know forestry does not always sell well to decision makers, but things like clean water, wildlife habitat and viewshed do sell well. What must the forestry community do to help the general public begin to make these connections?
I think that connecting the dots so people think of forests and then connect them to the ways forests and forest products touch on and improve their lives is the challenge. How forests and forest products touch every part of our life. How they can solve big societal challenges. How those solutions are rooted in effective forest management. How the people, our people, need to be trusted to manage them. And how valuing forests, including using forest products and recognizing where they come from, is how we keep forests as forests.
For example, if you want to talk about the importance of managing forests, there’s no more salient conversation right now than talking about wildfire management. So, a conversation about ‘living with wildfire’ and the decisions we are going to have to make as a society is probably a great place to start a conversation about management. When it comes to workforce – helping current employees be strong ambassadors and attracting new talent – I think the angle there is to highlight the innovation happening at every level in the sector. It’s a great way to get folks interested and to showcase the diversity of opportunities out there. If you want to talk about wildlife habitat, as you know, a lot has been said about that already, but I don’t think decision makers really appreciate the true scale of current collaborative efforts, so we are talking scale and cross-cutting partnerships as the angle there.
Fundamentally, we have to approach the conversation from fresh angles. I think you do that by consistently delivering on a core narrative that first creates permission and trust to be listened to, and then delivers fresh and exciting content from new angles and perspectives.
What one piece of advice should organizations consider when determining how best to shape and share external messaging?
Many communicators would answer that question by saying ‘know your audience and their priorities,’ but I’d contend the opposite is true.
The most important thing you can do is to undertake the extremely hard work of discovering what’s at the very core of your organization—what makes you or your contribution unique.
People approach all communications with three questions front of mind, consciously or subconsciously: Who are you? What do you do? Why does it matter to me? If you don’t truly know the answer to those questions, all your communications efforts are going to be pulled in a million different directions. Great communicators and great brands have total confidence in their answers to those questions. ‘Know thyself’ before you start looking at audience and message, then get to know thy audience.
Talk about #forestproud. What other hashtags work well for a diverse forestry audience?
One of the most exciting things that happened around the Portland event was the uptake we saw for #forestproud. People tweeting themselves tagging Portland landmarks with #forestproud stickers, people putting them on their bikes, partners asking for hundreds of stickers for their employees. It’s an experiment—an attempt to capture the spirit of the sector’s emerging ambassadors, and we were excited to see this initial response.
In 2018, all our content and efforts will be used to test out #forestproud as a shorthand for this effort and a focal point for the partnership. But we are also ‘generously branding’ our content, we want to see #forestproud alongside the logos of partners using our original content or in their own communications.
Honestly, what I think is most important about #forestproud is that wherever you sit in the community, whatever it is that brings you to the table, #forestproud works. It means what it means to you. Are you proud to work in this sector? Proud to be a hiker or a hunter? Proud to be a forester or a teacher who talks about forests? Proud to work in a paper mill or for a non-profit? Proud to play a gorgeous wooden guitar or build your own wooden surfboard? Well, we think you should be, that you should be proud to be part of this community, and proud of North America’s forests. Be #forestproud.
NAFP has diverse stakeholders, covering industry, agency, non-profit and professional associations. One likely challenge for you in the coming years will be to balance the needs and interests of all. How do you plan to accomplish this?
Our diversity is one of the things that makes us unique. There are two possible outcomes of maintaining this diversity and engaging this broad a constituency. Either we produce and aggregate highly diluted content and messaging that comes across as ‘lowest common denominator’ thinking, or we use that diversity of opinion to distill ‘highest common denominator thinking’ to produce quality content and messaging that resounds across the sector. That’s certainly not an easy tension to manage, but I believe that tension is a very healthy ‘lens’ to shine on all our efforts.
We were formed to fill a profound gap in the forest sector. As the community managing, harvesting and conserving North America’s forests has become increasingly specialized over time, the voices telling our story have narrowed their focus accordingly. This makes perfect sense, with limited budget and bandwidth, your job is to tell your story. But over time this dynamic creates a vacuum. And in that vacuum the reputation, ‘the brand’ of the forest sector has suffered.
No one organization or person is showing up to tell the whole story of the forest sector, and that’s the story needed to ensure the trust and permission required to deliver on our promise: managing forests and forest-related resources today and into the future in ways that provide many different benefits and needs while addressing some of the key challenges we face as a society: living with wildfire, protecting sources of clean water, conserving essential habitat for wildlife, and managing forest resources sustainably.
This is an ambitious agenda. It’s going to take time. It’s going to take a committed community ready to dig in and work through individual priorities to emerge with a strong, aligned message.