Florida is a BIG state. Twenty million residents and growing. If you overlay a map of Florida’s heavily populated metropolitan counties with a map of the big nursery production areas, they match. Miami, Orlando, Palm Beach, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale are five of Florida’s biggest cities, and they are also the five largest nursery business centers. So, this presents the Florida Nursery, Growers & Landscape Association (FNGLA), and the $15.3 billion nursery/landscape industry we represent, with a tremendous opportunity to know our consumers and audiences up close and personal. This routinely allows us to make the right investments to position our industry. To craft and tailor winning messages. To hit home runs every time we deliver our messages. Right? Well, clearly, it’s not that easy.

We can all spout oodles of scientific facts, figures and data to position our philosophical principles and public policy objectives in a deliberate effort to win the day. Will we be taken seriously? Perhaps. Will we prevail? Probably not.

I used to believe putting science squarely out front would always get us where or what we needed. This was taking the high road. Lay out the rigorous findings of sound science and everyone then rallies around and embraces our position. It was straightforward. Steeped in rational, proven science. The data is there for all to see. The facts are what the facts are. Right? Well, not anymore. Not in today’s world. Today’s world is vastly different.

Putting science out front and center as our initial message is no longer getting us where or what we need.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying abandon the ship of science. To the contrary, science must be the absolute core foundation on which public policy is ultimately enacted. The bedrock of FNGLA’s public policy positions has always been grounded in sound science. FNGLA stands behind the science even when, and especially when, it may not support what we think our position ought to be. This is one of the reasons why FNGLA has earned the integrity it has. Science is the ultimate trump card. It is our deal clincher. Our deal closer. It’s just no longer the initial way to attract our audience.

Here’s what I’m saying: There is a critical need for our industry to change our language and tactics, to shape our initial messages to draw in our audiences. Why? So we stand a chance to influence their embryonic understanding and earliest appreciation of the messages we want them to eventually embrace. Many groups have effectively deployed, and even mastered, the art of sound bites as their opening salvos. “Melting ice – a hot topic!” “Less pollution is the best solution!” “A good planet is hard to find!” “Give a hoot. Don’t pollute!” These sound bites grab our emotions. They attract our attention and cause us to be receptive to follow-up messages. These are the types of elusive magical pieces so often missing in our industry’s communications today.

Sometimes we need attention-grabbing door openers to resonate with people simply to get them to hesitate before they jump to conclusions shaped by someone else’s clever tagline or sensational slogan. Let me give you two examples dealing with water.

I’ve long said that, as a state with an annual average rainfall of 50+ inches, Florida’s challenge is not water shortage. It’s water storage. How can water be stored in plentiful years to be available in dry years? Down the road, this may help soften landscape irrigation restrictions during droughts. FNGLA is gratified to report water storage has indeed become a key focal point for Florida water policy. In fact, the South Florida Water Management District recently announced a doubling of its overall water retention capacity, adding a total potential of nearly 96,000 acre-feet of storage. That’s roughly 36 billion gallons annually or 1.5 inches of water in the entire 730 square mile Lake Okeechobee – the heart of South Florida’s water management system. The District encourages large private landowners not to drain water on their land but to retain it through cost-share cooperative projects, easements or payment for environmental services. Our “it’s not shortage, it’s storage” message is finding firm footing in Florida’s sandy soils.

Next, let’s take the controversial EPA proposal expanding its authority over Waters of the United States, affectionately known as WOTUS. EPA says its purpose is to clarify which waters are and are not covered by the Clean Water Act. EPA also says its regulations will not significantly change what are currently considered waters of the U.S. However, an analysis of the proposal indicates otherwise. Under the proposal, the definition of “waters” includes: man-made ditches and canals; stormwater ponds in both agricultural and urban settings; wetlands situated across a watershed or floodplain; and waters that share a so-called shallow subsurface connection.

Folks, Florida is flat. When you combine Florida’s flat topography with EPA’s proposed changes, virtually all of Florida’s water could become subject to federal rules. In turn, this could mean having to apply for federal permits for all sorts of things.

Try explaining this federal murkiness to everyday citizens. In all likelihood, they will latch onto one phrase they hear – the one phrase with which they already connect – “Clean Water.” All of the other points you try to make will be lost. So, FNGLA has been using the following initial phrase: “There are wetlands and there are lands that are sometimes wet.” People get that. They understand the rationale. Right upfront we acknowledge their emotional tie to clean water. We also tap into their likely preconceived belief of an out-of-control federal government. The feds are seen as going overboard by wanting to regulate lands that just happen to be sometimes wet. People get this. We’re messaging to frame initial impressions.

Candor, honesty and openness must be the hallmarks of long term, sustained message campaigns rather than spin, slogans and propaganda. Yet, the window to capture people’s attention is swiftly closing. Communications are no longer delivered once each evening with the network news or delivered quaintly with the morning paper. Speed is today’s measure of communication success. We have faster computers, faster networks and faster connectivity. Faster news, faster communications and faster delivery. We are living in this digital age of real time news thanks to competitive 24-hour news channels and the explosive influence of social media and citizen journalism. Today’s communications are immediate and interactive.

Our industry’s ultimate challenge is to help our audiences find reasons to care about what we want them to care about. In today’s life punctuated with the barrage of constant communications, we must move faster. Our messaging must be sharpened with powerful opening salvos so we actually catch our audience’s ears and eyes for those fleetingly impressionable early nanoseconds.

Remember the old saying? We don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.

Time to retake the high ground – just in new, fiercely fast ways.