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Best Practices for Interpreting Critical Issues

Best Practices and Attitudes for Interpreting Critical Issues

The following practices can serve as guidelines for communicating with the public about critical issues such as climate change, civil rights or other politically charged and potentially controversial topics.

Be respectful – respectfully acknowledge someone’s right to hold a different perspective – you cannot force anyone to change their mind and should never attempt to do so.

Remember the Visitor Bill of Rights.

All park visitors have a right to:
• Have their privacy and independence respected
• Retain and express their own values
• Be treated with courtesy and consideration
• Receive accurate and balanced information
• Have a meaningful experience with park resources

Be provisional – acknowledge that this issue is dynamic, research is on-going, some aspects are uncertain – although the information we present is based on current prevailing scientific findings and projections, we don’t know all the answers.

Be apolitical – parks belong to all citizens – and so do the critical issues that threaten park resources – stay away from political references or innuendos – do not get pulled into arguments or debates – remember that visitors often care about parks for different reasons – adopt an attitude, and set a tone, that assumes that everyone cares about preserving parks for future generations and therefore the issues that threaten park resources are not political issues.

Be informed – develop deep KA (knowledge of the audience) and KR (knowledge of the resource) – understand the range of potential meanings for various audiences – keep abreast of the latest research, developments and changes.

Be professional – even though critical resource interpretation has an agenda, it is an agency agenda with an agency perspective that supports the agency mission – be careful not to impose your personal perspectives and passions so that audience members can develop their own.

Be strategic – help your park develop a comprehensive communication strategy for the critical issue — tie the goals and objectives of your interpretive products to the site’s interpretive, management, and visitor experience goals – plan strategically to address the critical issue through a range of interpretive and information services to reach a broad audience – plan for formal and informal evaluation of communication strategies.

Be interpretive – connect the critical resource issue to audience-relevant meanings – use a variety of appropriate interpretive techniques to appeal to different learning styles and audience interests – develop opportunities for both intellectual and emotional connections – use relevant and compelling themes and frames – interpret multiple perspectives.

Be a facilitator – use a conversational style and develop the art and skill of facilitation, rather than a didactic lecture style – learn effective questioning strategies to engage the audience in discussion and dialog – learn techniques to diffuse tensions and differences and put the audience at ease — interpret with park audiences rather than for them.

Be site-specific – use the power of tangible, observable park resources as much as possible throughout the program – provide experiential opportunities that engage visitors with their surroundings, and especially resources and landscapes that are most at risk or threatened by the critical issue – know when to stop talking and let the resource speak for itself – make the resource the center of attention, rather than yourself.

Be appropriate – engage in a level of interpretive influence and impact that is appropriate for your audience and for the type of program – don’t preach preservation – try to gauge audience interest and comfort level to know when it may be counter-productive to attempt to move toward stewardship advocacy – sometimes it’s enough to just raise awareness – in all cases, interpreters must “earn” the right to promote a call to action by first allowing visitors to make their own connections to resource meanings.

Be positive – present a forward thinking, proactive outlook and tone – be honest about the seriousness of the issue but avoid “doom and gloom” characterizations – promote the notion that individual actions can make a huge difference – encourage the idea that national parks are set aside for enjoyment by current and future generations – they are places to experience beauty, wonder and humility, and to learn from the past in order to make the future a better place — they are inherently places of hope.

Download a PDF version of this list as a handout or desk reference.

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