VCU professors’ study aims to encourage actions to protect the James River

Public relations and advertising faculty have received a grant to examine how digital media messaging could more effectively promote public action to improve the river’s water quality.
bridge traversing the james river

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has awarded a grant to three Virginia Commonwealth University advertising and public relations faculty members to study how digital media messaging could more effectively engage the public and promote actions that improve the water quality of the James River.

The grant, a 2020 Chesapeake Bay Implementation Grant, was awarded to Nicole O’Donnell, Ph.D., an assistant professor of public relations, Jeanine Guidry, Ph.D., assistant professor of public relations, and Jay Adams, an assistant professor of advertising. All are faculty members in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

“There are many environmental actions that can help protect the James River, including individuals securing their trash can lids, cleaning up after their pets, reducing the use of pesticides and fertilizers, planting native plants, taking part in local advocacy efforts like river cleanup days, and supporting public policies that prioritize water quality,” O’Donnell said.

In their research, however, the faculty members have found a “value-action gap,” meaning that while people express a desire for clean and safe water, they are not engaging in conservation actions that support their values.

“A big-picture objective for our grant is to investigate the types of messages that may decrease this gap and motivate environmental action,” O’Donnell said.

Adams said it is in everyone’s interest to preserve natural resources like the James River.

“Every year, millions of people visit the James River to fish, kayak, boat, swim and enjoy the water. The James is the longest river in Virginia and it is the state’s largest source of drinking water,” Adams said. “In order to maintain the health and beauty of the James, it’s imperative that actions are taken to protect our river for this generation and the next.”

Guidry added that even in times of crisis, it is important to get out messaging about the importance of protecting the river.

“In this time of the COVID-19 pandemic (and our team does quite a bit of research on COVID-19 as well), it is easy to not focus as much on some of the other really important things in our society,” she said. “Clean and safe water is such a crucial issue.”

jeanine guidry, jay adams, and nicole o'donnell
Jeanine Guidry, Ph.D., assistant professor of public relations, Jay Adams, an assistant professor of advertising, and Nicole O’Donnell, Ph.D., an assistant professor of public relations.

The grant follows a similar award last year in which the professors developed and researched a digital communications campaign, called Protect Your River, that aimed to raise awareness of ways the public could help protect the James.

As part of last year’s project, the researchers conducted a message testing experiment with 400 Virginia residents to understand how to promote river-friendly behaviors, hosted roundtable discussions with local water-quality stakeholders, and worked with VCU students to plan the communications campaign.

“A key takeaway from our research was that it’s important to promote environmental behaviors, but messages should not solely place responsibility for water quality protection on individual citizens,” O’Donnell said. “Our research found that when messages discussed government efforts, like Virginia’s Watershed Implementation Plan, people were more likely to want to take part in local conservation activities, compared to individuals who viewed messages that solely emphasized personal responsibility.”

In light of last year’s findings, the team is planning to conduct a second survey and in-depth interviews that will more closely investigate the effectiveness of collective responsibility messages.

“Many people think of pollution as only toxic chemicals, yet excess nitrogen and phosphorus are critical concerns for the James. These nutrients frequently come from litter, fertilizers, pesticides and pet waste,” O’Donnell said. “Overall, our main objective is to increase ways that people can advocate for a healthier river and awareness of these issues is an important first step.”

For last year’s project, students in the Robertson School’s Public Relations for Social Media course helped the team create digital content for the Protect Your River campaign and provided ideas for reaching local residents on social media.

“For example, they helped us launch a series of photo contests on Facebook and Instagram,” O’Donnell said. “People were encouraged to share photos that they’ve taken of the James River and their personal conservation stories for a chance to win reusable water bottles.”

Students in the course also worked with the RVA Environmental Film Festival to help cross-promote the social media contests and received more than 150 entries.

The faculty members plan to continue their work on the campaign with students this year and have grant funds for a graduate research assistant to help with the survey and interview data collection.

Also in the year ahead, the team plans to continue gathering its roundtable of stakeholders, including representatives from the Crater Planning District Commission, James River Soil and Water Conservation District, Plan RVA, Colonial Soil and Water Conservation District, Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, James River Association, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, VCU Rice Rivers Center, Friends of the James River Park and the RVA Environmental Film Festival.

“One thing we hope to do with our roundtable, and the Protect Your River campaign, is find new ways to engage citizens in local events and promote greater consciousness of the importance of protecting the James River,” O’Donnell said.

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