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the messenger

Lisa Benenson believes issues must be transformed into narratives.

true stories A seasoned journalist turned advocate emphasizes the need for crafting a clear, resonant message



by emily cousins

isa benenson, chief Communications

officer of NRDC, has lived and worked in the New York area for two decades, but she still names as home the rugged mountains of the West. Benenson grew up outside Denver, where her father worked for the U.S. Geological Survey; every summer he brought his wife and four children out into the field with him. That meant summers in a ramshackle rancher’s cabin in Idaho or on a deserted dude ranch in Montana’s Gallatin Valley. The latter had no running water but plenty of rocky ridges to explore. (It also had bears, and Lisa and her siblings were required to wear clanking cowbells when they played outside in an attempt to keep the animals away.) “Maybe it’s being a geologist’s daughter, but I believe places tell

who we are

what we do

stories,” Benenson says. “No matter where we’re from, there are markers in the landscape that let us know we are home.” In her role as NRDC’s communications chief, which she assumed in October 2013, she is learning just how important these stories—so deeply rooted in our individual senses of “home”—are to the broader mission of environmental advocacy. “With this job I feel like I’m coming full circle,” she adds. “To protect the places I have held dear in my life, and to better understand the role NRDC has played in keeping those places safe for my children, and their children—that means so much to me.” Benenson brings to her new job an expertise as deep as it is varied. Right out of college, she became a reporter at the Denver Post because she admired the way journalism could prompt people to take action. Later, after being offered a job at Newsday, she moved east, where she met her husband, Joel Benenson. After giving birth to a daughter and a son, she worked as an editor at Good Housekeeping, Working Mother, and Working Woman magazines. In 2006 she orchestrated the launch of Hallmark’s first magazine, ushering it close to the one-million-reader mark within the publication’s first year. Benenson was working for Newsweek and the Daily Beast in 2011 when the U.S. Fund for UNICEF asked her to run its marketing and communications division. She welcomed the chance to work for a nonprofit devoted to children’s survival and seized the opportunity to apply valuable lessons she had learned as a journalist. “The only way to make complex issues matter to people is by telling stories,” she says. “Not just

with words or pictures, but with an alchemy of the two. That’s what you have to do as an editor. And that’s what you have to do in an advocacy organization too.” Benenson believes NRDC can tell powerful stories that connect environmental issues to people’s everyday lives. By way of example, she cites her neighbors in tiny Twin Bridges, Montana, where she and her family have a home. They care about climate change every bit as much as her neighbors in New York do— albeit for different reasons. The best way to engage her Twin Bridges friends on the issue, she says, is to talk about what climate change means for Montana: its water, wildlife, and energy costs. The adage “all politics is local” has long served to remind elected officials that they cannot afford to ignore the bread-and-butter concerns of their constituents. Environmental groups would do well, Benenson suggests, to find a new and more “localized” language for framing global issues like climate change, so that these issues feel more urgent to individuals within their own communities. “NRDC has done amazing work,” Benenson says. “We know how to persuade juries, and inform members of Congress, and move businesses. The final frontier is engaging the broader population.” NRDC, she says, is now poised to mobilize a standing army of advocates by making sure they understand that the fight for a safe and healthy planet isn’t someone else’s story. It’s their story too. “The environmental movement has long benefited from the intensive activity of an impassioned few,” she adds. But to take us to the next level, “we need a passionate many.”

spring 2014

onearth 6 3

OnEarth Spring 2014  

Hog Wild, by Ted Genoways

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