Increasing Awareness of and Support for the Pennsylvania Game Commission: Communications Recommendations
Enhancing the Relevancy of the Pennsylvania Game Commission
New research shows the Game Commission has a high level of credibility and enjoys public support for its efforts and programs, but connecting urban residents to nature remains a challenge.
State fish and wildlife agencies were initially created with a specific purpose—to manage the fish and wildlife populations that were being fished and hunted without restraint when America was a more rural country. The primary mission of the agencies was to conserve fish and game species while ensuring opportunities for the traditional outdoor recreation activities of fishing, hunting, and trapping. Since they were established, state fish and wildlife agencies have been fulfilling this mission through the development of game laws, enforcement of those laws, and habitat acquisition and management, as well as through biological and ecological studies. As a result, management efforts have successfully restored many game species from rarity to abundance. The many successes of restoration include wild turkey, white-tailed deer, and waterfowl populations, as well as non-game species like the iconic bald eagle.
While state fish and wildlife agencies, including the Pennsylvania Game Commission, have been successfully managing game species—and, to a lesser extent, non-game species when funding exists—over the decades, the human population, both nationwide and in Pennsylvania specifically, has been changing demographically and culturally. Since the state agencies were established, the U.S. population has been growing in general. Our society is also becoming more urbanized, with increases in the number of people living in urban areas. Finally, the age structure of the population has been changing, and the population is more diverse culturally.
In addition to the demographic and cultural changes, as well as changes due to modernization, in the U.S. that are distancing people from nature and wildlife, significant conservation and environmental issues have emerged, such as loss of habitat to urbanization, endangered species, and climate change. These growing demographic and environmental changes present state fish and wildlife agencies with important challenges that impact their mission and efforts.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission has recognized these challenges and is proactively developing a roadmap to transform the agency for the modern era, with the guiding ambition to increase agency relevancy for the public—that is, to engage and serve broader constituencies. However, the agency transformation itself presents another challenge: funding. The Commission is funded almost exclusively through hunting licenses and federal aid based on license sales. With declining hunting participation and license sales, the Commission is striving to balance its continued traditional efforts and meeting modern challenges without increased or additional funding. The Commission endeavors to meet the new challenges through a comprehensive understanding of the changes occurring among the public.
The first step in meeting the challenges is to explore the impact of demographic and cultural changes through social research studies. Colorado State University, in cooperation with Ohio State University and Responsive Management, recently conducted a study to examine changes in the general population’s opinions and values related to wildlife. While the study was nationwide, the Pennsylvania Game Commission participated to specifically study the wildlife values of Pennsylvania residents with a close look at the differences in rural and urban areas of the commonwealth.
Next, Responsive Management conducted a major study of Pennsylvania residents’ attitudes toward wildlife management and the Commission. The research was a multi-phase study conducted for the Commission to develop an agency-wide communications plan. The study assessed awareness of and attitudes toward the Commission as well as agency funding, opinions on the importance of wildlife issues, attitudes toward the Commission’s programs, and participation in outdoor recreation activities. The study consisted of the following components: a review and meta-analysis of existing data, a scientific survey of Pennsylvania general population residents, and focus groups with Pennsylvania general population residents. The research culminated in a communications plan for the Commission.
The survey found that the Pennsylvania Game Commission is widely perceived as a credible source of information on wildlife and outdoor recreation, with 86% of Pennsylvania residents indicating that they consider the Commission a very or somewhat credible source (see graph below).
Likewise, the majority of residents expressed satisfaction with the Commission: 68% of Pennsylvania residents are very or somewhat satisfied with the Commission (see graph below). Note that the level of dissatisfaction among residents is very low; those who did not indicate they are satisfied typically selected neither or don’t know rather than expressing dissatisfaction. Urban residents in the Philadelphia metro area have a substantially lower percentage of those who are satisfied and higher percentages of neither or don’t know responses than residents of the rest of the state.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission also enjoys a high level of support, with overall positive ratings of the Commission’s efforts. Residents were asked to rate the importance of 16 major program areas of the Commission; they were then asked to also rate the performance of the Commission in each of those same areas. The ratings suggest there is very high support among the public for the Commission’s ecological efforts, particularly protecting and preserving wildlife habitat and protecting endangered species of wildlife. The Commission’s effort for enforcing game laws also has strong support. (See graph below.)
To further demonstrate support for the Commission’s efforts, it is noteworthy that a large majority of Pennsylvania residents (72%) agree that elected officials should explore options for new funding sources for wildlife management (see graph below).
While credibility of, satisfaction with, and support for the Commission among residents are high, there is a lower level of awareness of the Commission in general. About a third of Pennsylvania residents (32%) are not aware of or familiar with the Commission. In fact, 11% have never heard of the Commission at all.* (See graph below.)
*Note that survey results are not necessarily shown in the same order questions were asked. For this study, respondents were initially asked whether they have heard of the Pennsylvania Game Commission and how familiar they are with it prior to any other survey questions or information. Next, respondents were provided information about the Commission and its mission. After providing this information, respondents were then asked to rate their satisfaction with and given their opinion on the credibility of the Commission. Therefore, respondents who were not initially familiar with the Commission and/or its name could still potentially have an opinion on satisfaction and credibility once they were able to connect the agency name to its work.
Although residents clearly believe the work of the Commission is important, they do not necessarily view it as relevant to them personally. Residents were asked to rate how much the work of the Commission affects them, on a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 means it does not affect the respondent at all and 10 means it affects him or her a great deal. The mean (average) rating of how much the Commission’s work affects residents personally was a 5; the median rating was also a 5.
Those who are more likely to feel the Commission’s work affects them tend to be rural residents, younger, white, and hunters. Conversely, those who feel the Commission’s work does not affect them tend to be urban or suburban residents, non-white, and non-hunters (see graph below).
The survey results show that although the Commission enjoys high levels of support and that the public considers its work important, the challenges before the agency are going to be increasing awareness of its existence and its relevance, particularly to those who reside in urban areas and those who do not have strong ties to hunting and other outdoor and wildlife-related activities, as well as those with more diverse cultural or ethnic backgrounds.
This research study culminated with a communications plan, which can be accessed here, to enhance the Commission’s programs and to help the agency become more relevant to all Pennsylvania residents. The plan serves as guidance for the Commission in its communications with the public about the work that it does. The Commission has invested in this research study, as well as other recent studies, such as the aforementioned study on wildlife values and a statewide study on residents’ opinions on big game management in Pennsylvania, in an effort to better understand and better communicate with the public.
To enhance the Commission’s communications with the public, the plan provides detailed research results and analyses, with specific strategies and recommendations for the Commission. Some key general recommendations from the plan include the following:
- Recognize that all Commission staff are potential agency spokespersons and provide them with appropriate support and training.
- Maintain continuous communication with the public.
- Educate the public on agency funding mechanisms through wider messages and build into all messages key information on true revenue sources.
- Develop communications specific to key constituent groups and ensure that constituent groups are aware of Commission programs relevant to them.
- Use wildlife viewing as an entry point for more detailed communications about agency efforts among non-hunters.
Note that the communications plan report describes in detail the strategies for conducting successful communications with the public and the Commission’s constituents, including hunters and other outdoor recreationists who use Commission-managed lands. The plan also includes demographic and attitudinal summaries of numerous groups of interest to support targeted marketing. The strategies and recommendations are based on the scientifically rigorous research that has been conducted by Responsive Management for the Commission. The communications plan report may be accessed here (PDF).