Effective Environmental Messaging in the COVID-19 Era

With the effects of COVID-19 spreading across the globe and the entire state of California required to stay at home as much as possible, we are living in a truly challenging and unprecedented situation. What does this mean for Gigantic’s clients, mostly local government agencies and non-profits involved in environmental behavior change? Business as usual seems a little unrealistic. How can we live into the needs of our audiences to provide information and encouragement while still living our mission?

Local Government has a particular opportunity to choose a friendly and positive tone with messaging:

  • “We do real, important stuff.” Emphasize essential services like waste collection that are ongoing, rain or shine. Point to specific workers who are getting it done.
  • “We are your neighbors.” We live here, too, and want the best for the community.
  • “We’re In This Together.” Has never been more true. While this message does not move everyone (no message does), now is the time to stress universal cooperation, as no one is immune or untouched by COVID-19’s effects.

Communicating with the public via websites, email or social media posts is still a possibility and an opportunity. Of course, the tone of the messages is important and may need to be adjusted during this period. We all know this is a high-stress, challenging time. This is no time for playing the blame game (e.g., asking people to avoid excess packaging by ordering online). We need to put aside some of our favorite themes (such as promoting the use of reusable cups).

Messaging is more important than ever, and already we are seeing how poor messaging can have consequences. For example, we hear a lot about “social distancing” — an accepted term in epidemiological circles — that is not immediately understandable or resonant with the general public. Social what? One could assume it means “staying off social media” rather than “staying six feet apart.” Perhaps “physical distancing” would be more appropriate. In these times we want to encourage stronger social bonds – checking on neighbors and families online, for example – while maintaining a physical distance.  The group March for Science recently summarized tips in a Facebook post:

The communication best practices of clarity, specificity and simple language apply now more than ever. The WHO’s recent ad on Google’s home page does a good job:

One thing we know is that people are turning to social media as an alternative to chatting by the office coffee maker. It is still a good time to converse with our constituents! Topics for posts revolve around our “new normal” here in California:

What AREN’T people doing?

  • Going out to bars, clubs and restaurants
  • Spending time at the office
  • Planning trips/parties/picnics

What ARE people doing?

  • Cooking
  • Working from home
  • Home schooling the kids
  • Gardening
  • Spring Cleaning
  • Shopping online
  • Using products, such as wipes and gloves, that they may not have used before (see image below.)

There are plenty of ideas for messages now:

  • Yard waste goes in the green cart
  • Avoid garden chemicals – hand weeding can be very soothing
  • Planning meals (so many meals!) to avoid food waste
  • Wipes belong in the trash
  • Take time to sort
  • Appreciation for waste haulers and others working during this crisis
  • Calming pictures of local landmarks and nature
This Facebook post gives a relevant environmental action for a now-common behavior: the use of disinfectant wipes.

Of course, if COVID-19 becomes even more dire, there may come a time when cheerful posts about recycling gin bottles strike a false note. As always, those of us who communicate with the public need to live into what our audiences are experiencing and choose when or if it’s appropriate to communicate about particular topics.

From the whole team at Gigantic Idea Studio: Be well!

Communicating Climate Urgency Through Art

mural of Greta Thunberg in San Francisco
Greta is watching us…

At Gigantic, we understand that facts and figures are important for advancing science and for communicating about issues such as the impact of climate change. But plainly presented facts are not always ideal for inspiring action and behavior change.  Visual and performing arts can be very useful for helping people see the larger picture, grasp relationships through story and create an emotional response that will reinforce action. Two Bay Area examples show the way.

In downtown San Francisco, a 60-foot-high mural of climate activist – and TIME Person of the Year – Greta Thunberg fixes passersby in Union Square with an implacable look. The mural is a project of the nonprofit One Atmosphere and Argentine artist Cobre. Ms. Thunberg is an icon of climate resistance and the single-minded passion of young climate activists all over the world. This 16 year old has become a heroic and still very human and vulnerable face of the climate movement; the mural’s unavoidable stare serves as a prominent reminder of the need to raise climate awareness.

Also in San Francisco, the Climate Music Project seeks to “ tell the urgent story of climate change to broad and diverse audiences in a way that resonates, educates, and motivates.” A collaboration of world-class scientists and musicians, the Project supports science-guided music and visual experiences to inspire people to engage actively on the issue of climate change.

I recently saw a concert of pieces inspired by climate change data by San Francisco Conservatory of Music composition students and was impressed by the different creative approaches the students took to portray the grim statistics.

Artists around the world are grappling with how to express the enormity of the emergencies of climate and biodiversity loss. Their work can inform and enhance our outreach efforts and remind us of the importance of vivid communication in all our environmental work.

For Environmental Challenges, We’re All in This Together

We face a lot of challenges in our work at Gigantic, as we encourage, cajole and persuade folks to recycle, reduce waste, use less water or reject chemical products. The problems of pollution, waste and climate change are so immense that the actions of one individual seem unimportant, even useless. Recently we are seeing this message amplified even by those on the “right side” – environmental activists. 

demonstrators with signs asking for systems change
Both individual and group actions matter in the face of environmental challenges.

A recent article getting a lot of attention was headlined: “I work in the environmental movement. I don’t care if you recycle.” The article itself was a balanced call to action, outlining that while individual actions matter, change must also be initiated at the government, policy and corporate levels in order to avoid catastrophe. But the headline really bothered me. I worried for the huge percent of readers who might see the headline (it spread through social media) and absorb its message without reading the article. The last thing we need at this point is for individuals to give up, thinking they can’t make a difference. The intertwined threats of climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss need technological fixes and legal intervention, but they also need the understanding, support and commitment of every individual, be they an inventor, a lawyer, a CEO, a mother and/or an artist.

Social change can only come with individual change. Major positive change throughout history —  abolition, civil rights, workers’ rights — came through a combination of channels, including popular entertainment, lobbying, advertising, media, organizing, protesting, boycotts and, all of the one-on-one conversations and commitments initiated by people who care. 

Technological fixes, viral memes, policy change – there is a panoply of responses to immense environmental challenges. There is no single solution; every step must be a “yes, and” – we need this AND that. In our work with public agencies, we always encourage a multi-touch, multi-directional approach – top-down and bottom-up – for the most effective campaigns.

I’m an environmental activist. I want systemic change at every level. I want government and business to step up and take steps that are not going to be easy or pain free. I want everyone to consider the consequences of their actions. AND…I care if you recycle.

Plastic Free July, Take 2: Lessons for Behavior Change Campaigns

Plastic Free July turtle logo
The Plastic Free July campaign uses norming and pledges to encourage behavior change.

I just completed my second Plastic-Free July! This is a worldwide event that draws attention to the enormous, and enormously damaging, place that single-use plastic holds in our daily life.

While a single person’s actions may not seem to make much impact on the 8,000,000 tons of plastic that enter the ocean each year, we’ve got to start somewhere! And, it is possible to draw some lessons from the month-long discipline to help us think about behavior change.

Don’t Let Perfect Be the Enemy of Good

As with any behavior change, it’s important not to punish yourself – or your target audience – if /when you fall off the wagon. I searched and searched for a non-plastic toothpaste tube, to no avail. I finally found a glass jar of toothpaste in a homeopathic shop. Yes, it had a plastic lid, but I decided the compromise was acceptable. And I got used to the taste! 

In our campaigns, we avoid showing super heroes – because the behavior change we are after doesn’t require super powers to do the right thing. “Regular” people can make a big difference. We steer clear of messages like “Can you get all your waste for the year into a peanut butter jar? No? What’s wrong with you?” Instead, we try to make the desired behavior attractive and achievable.

Boundaries Bring Freedom

Supermarket shopping gets a whole lot faster when single-use plastics are off limits. Entire aisles of cookies, chips and crackers are forbidden to the plastic avoider. How relaxing! I can avoid temptation and adhere to good plastic-free consumption and nutrition habits at the same time.

Freedom is an important value in the American psyche, and is one that environmental campaigns may be able to take more advantage of. Taking a restriction (reducing use of plastic or pesticide or water, for example) and reframing it as freedom can be an effective behavior change message.

Think Before You…Do, Buy, Cook, Toss!

One of the most important benefits of going plastic-free is a growing awareness of how often we cruise through life on auto-pilot. Going plastic-free means remembering every time to say, “No straw, please,” “Please use my reusable cup,” or “Can I get that wrapped in paper, not plastic?”

In behavior change campaigns, we look for ways to ingrain a new behavior, to create a body memory out of increased mindfulness. Several of our campaigns here at Gigantic now emphasize the the intelligence of our community members. “You’re smart about other things in your life, why not be smart about recycling?”

While I have not been able to stay completely plastic free, the search for alternatives to plastic is starting to become a comfortable behavior, and is making me more aware of things I take for granted. Carrying my work into my life, and vice versa, is very rewarding.

One Size Does NOT Fit All: Tailoring Effective Environmental Outreach

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a magic brochure template? Something that we could just pour your content into and, voila! outreach campaign launched. Just stick it in the mail and all will be well. We wish effective environmental behavior change worked like that, but, unfortunately, one “size” of outreach plan, not matter how magical, does not work for all. Each situation is different and requires a custom approach that takes into account the problem, the environment (cultural, social, political, and yes, natural) and the desired and feasible solution.

The Gigantic team’s presentation at the 2018 California Resource Recovery Association Conference gave examples of outreach campaigns that provided tailored approaches to the challenge at hand. Outreach aimed at “everyone” will effectively reach no one. If you want to maximize impact, do your research and start with the best “low hanging fruit” — this will provide immediate results and data for future phases.

Choosing the Right Style for THAT Guy

Kas described our work with a concerned citizens’ coalition in Marin County with a mission of reducing the use of environmental toxins – pesticides – by county residents. The group’s call to action was to encourage the uptake of Integrated Pest Management practices (IPM) to replace toxic chemicals. IPM requires knowledge, planning, special tools, and yes, awareness to become a workable solution. Our survey indicated that the people most likely to use chemical pesticides were males who valued speed and effectiveness over safety. See the presentation below to see how we targeted THAT guy to raise awareness of this smart, if challenging, alternative.

Butting in on Cigarette Butt Litter

Meghan presented two litter-reduction case studies that highlighted the challenge when the desired environmental solution – providing a safe and easy way to dispose properly of cigarette butts – clashes with the public health solution – discouraging smoking by not providing ashtrays at transit shelters. No easy answers there!

Finding A Well-Cut Solution

Nancy presented on Gigantic’s ongoing work with the City of San Rafael to understand and address the very specific needs of a district of the city where illegal dumping had become a big and expensive problem. What at first seemed like a simple brochure need turned into a research project to understand the real barriers that this low-income, high-density community experienced when faced with what to do with a bulky item that was no longer needed.

Here is the CRRA presentation covering the above topics. Please let us know if you have questions or would like to talk about how we can custom-tailor an outreach campaign for you.

Facebook Changes…Panic Time?

Consistent hashtag use, attractive visuals and a clear call to action, as in this post from StopWaste, will help your posts’ reach.

It has always been a challenge for mission-driven Brand Pages, such as public agencies, to reach and grow their followers on Facebook. In January Facebook announced they are “changing the News Feed to prioritize posts from friends, family members and groups over posts from publishers and brands.” The stated reason is to promote a more fulfilling experience with the channel and discourage “passive scrolling” without engagement. The change will favor posts that elicit comments, rather than passive consumption or “likes.” (“Favoring” means that posts will show to more people.)

One impetus for the decision is recent negative press about Facebook, including hosting fake news and being purposely designed to foster addictive behaviors and to keep fans “hooked” on the channel. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has stated his personal commitment to leading these changes, thanks to a new view of his creation’s strengths and weaknesses.

How Will Facebook Algorithm Changes Affect Me?

Organizational Facebook pages are reaching just a tiny fraction of their followers with each post. Even before the latest changes, organic reach for Facebook Pages was plummeting, from nearly 100% of fans in 2007 to less than 2% today.

Some immediate predictions include:

  • People will spend less time (but supposedly higher quality time) on Facebook.
  • Posts may become more “shocking” with the goal of eliciting reactions.
  • Comments will be prized, and the longer the better.

Note: this announcement includes no changes to the advertising model, which many critics point to as the fount of toxicity.

What Can I Do?

What is a page manager to do? Like the stock market, it’s probably best to keep calm and carry on, rather than trying to overhaul strategy with every change. There are widely varying predictions of the result of this latest action.

Gigantic recommends to all clients:

  • Continue posting high quality, relevant content.
  • Consider making posts more conversational in style and asking for feedback and responses, including encouraging people to tag your organization.
  • Focus on quality of posts more than quantity; this becomes even more true with the renewed emphasis on posts that promote conversation.
  • Monitor your posts and respond to comments promptly, using a consistent “voice” for your page.
  • Be prepared for decreased reach of videos, which had been highly favored by the Facebook algorithm.  (Facebook’s reasoning is that videos promote passive consumption rather than active dialogue.) Consider incorporating calls for reaction and encouraging dialogue about your video posts.
  • Continue to incorporate ads and boosted posts to increase your messages’ reach.
  • Be a good neighbor: Share and tag other organizations’ content in your posts, as long as they are relevant to you.
  • Don’t Panic!

As always, Gigantic Idea Studio is happy to discuss your social media strategy and make recommendations to enhance your environmental outreach.

 

Make Those Green New Year’s Resolutions Last

Here at Gigantic we often advocate to make public commitments or pledges a part of an environmental behavior change campaign. New Year’s resolutions are a great example of behavior change efforts (even though 80% of them are discarded by February!) The most effective resolutions are made publicly, have specific goals, and are realistic and simple. Going public means you are more likely to keep your resolutions, so, with that in mind, here are some of the Gigantic team’s 2018 resolutions:

Lisa and Jackson fighting food waste

Lisa will be trying a new approach to reducing the large amounts of food waste related to raising her 11-year old son, Jackson. On most days of the current school year, he returned home with an entire lunch uneaten. Applying barriers and benefits research, she talked to Jackson about why it was happening. Barriers included forgetting—he was playing with friends instead of eating—and not finding the food appetizing after it sat in his lunchbox for 3 hours. “Like all moms I worry if my child is eating enough. But the waste is troubling me. In 2018 I’m going to let Jackson choose to purchase the school lunch if he is hungry. We gave him a watch with an alarm to remind him to eat. And to address my worry, I’ll send along a non-perishable snack in case of emergency.” A pilot test run demonstrated that Jackson chose the school lunch every day, so the new year is already looking food-waste free!

Pedal on, Kas!

Kas is back in the saddle this year – bike saddle that is. She starts training in January for the AIDS/LifeCycle; she will ride her bike from San Francisco to Los Angeles during the first week of June. Kas often spots litter and illegal dumping on her Bay Area training rides. Sometimes cyclists themselves are the cause of litter with items that fall out of their overstuffed jersey pockets or, worst of all, those cyclists who purposely discard wrappers along the way. Kas pledges to pick up what trash she can and/or report illegal dumping through the See Click Fix app on her phone… and if by chance she can catch up to someone who has littered, she will take a moment to “educate” them on the finer points of leaving nature better than when they found it.

Stef laboring in her garden

Stef continues her efforts to create a backyard wildlife refuge, in spite of some setbacks in 2017, including relentless weeds and an infestation by some very hungry, non-native caterpillars that killed all 18 bush lupines. “After countless hours of weeding and hand cramps from spraying infested plants with soapy water, the promise of a quick fix with pesticides looked pretty darn tempting,” she admits. But fearing the pain of cognitive dissonance if she were to use chemicals in her all-eco yard, Stef pledged to apply more elbow grease instead. She’ll put down her third layer of sheet-mulching and is set to crowd out weeds with low-water, bee-feeding, bird-harboring California natives early this spring.

Plastics Patrol: Nancy & Moxie

Nancy is keeping the same resolution that she has (more or less!) successfully kept for the last 3 years. She resolves to pick up and properly discard at least 1 piece of plastic trash on every dog walk. Moxie the Pugwiler likes her exercise, so Nancy takes her out around 500 times a year – that’s over 500 pieces of plastic removed from San Francisco’s Sunnyside neighborhood annually. Unfortunately, there is no problem with finding the trash. “I often try to pick up the trash in a place where others see me doing it,” says Nancy, “It’s my attempt to norm litter pickups, to help people see the problem as everyone’s problem and a solution that we all can own.”

 

 

Nicole (left) the Kale Whisperer

Nicole feels inspired by her work on the StopFoodWaste.org campaign to try to waste less by using a shopping list based on the meals she plans to eat each week. Though it’s hard to plan ahead with a busy and spontaneous schedule, it will help her save food and money, and not feel so guilty when feeding that slimy kale to her backyard worms, though it’s better than the landfill. “Food waste is a big problem in America, but there are a lot of helpful tips and tools to plan, store and use up extra food and leftovers,” says Nicole, “It also helps to eat before going shopping!”

We wish everyone a Happy New Year and pledge to work with you for a cleaner, greener 2018. Please let us know if we can help with your environmental behavior change campaigns.

 

Sez Who? Picking the Right Messenger for Environmental Outreach

As we work on environmental behavior change campaigns, we spend a lot of time crafting the perfect look and wording – to get the message right. Choosing the right messenger for that message is essential for its success. The Gigantic team’s presentation at the 2017 California Resource Recovery Association Conference covered several aspects of thinking about the best messenger.

Sometimes a public agency’s message can be strengthened and find traction when delivered in a different voice. The messenger’s “personality” can take several forms and can be delivered live, in print and digitally:

Mascots

Mascots have the power to attract and engage people and make them care about issues such as recycling, waste or water quality. Creating and implementing a mascot messenger takes planning, patience and creativity. We presented examples of recent environmental mascots and talked about the process for creating, naming, scripting and distributing a mascot.

Peers

A message is easier to accept if the viewer identifies with the person delivering the message. Our presentation touched on how to evoke thoughts like “Well, if she can do it, so can I” or “I want to be more like that person” in an environmental campaign, by recruiting community members to deliver the message.

Social Media

It’s easy to treat social media like another advertising channel for promoting your organization’s events and campaigns. But social media can be so much more than a digital bulletin board. We looked at ways to establish a personality on social media that doesn’t just tell folks what to do, but that interacts, observes, and participates in the broader online community. One excellent example is Baltimore’s Mr. Trash Wheel, who demonstrates best practices for tone and engagement.

Here is the CRRA presentation covering the above topics. Please let us know if you have questions or would like to talk about how the right messenger can work for you.

 

Observations from a Plastic-Free July

Expressing gratitude for change is important.

At Gigantic, we work hard to “get inside the heads” of the audiences we try to reach. How difficult is it to get someone to change behavior, even to be aware of that behavior? I experimented on myself last month, when I joined the #PlasticFreeJuly movement, and tried to avoid buying or accepting anything made of plastic for 31 days.

The first thing I noticed was anxiety, and a tendency to over-compensate. Should I stock up on plastic on June 30 so I could get through the month comfortably? What would I have to give up? Just how uncomfortable is this change going to be?

How can a behavior change specialist address her own fears of change and scarcity?

The Thrill of Failure

My first day was a failure, but also a tremendous success. I went out to lunch and ordered a cocktail (it’s OK, it was a Saturday!) The drink came with a straw – I had forgotten to ask for no straw. Disaster in the first few hours of the experiment! I posted about my personal failure to Facebook and Twitter, tagging the restaurant. I was amazed to see several supportive comments, even from “non-green” people with whom I had not interacted in years, saying they, too, were sick of plastic and that I should keep trying. Then, lo and behold, the restaurant responded to me via Facebook, saying that they, too, loved this particular cocktail and from now on would serve it without a straw. Victory! I took away from this experience that it can be more effective to post about one’s own weakness, to acknowledge error, rather than trying to be a brave and mighty eco-hero.

Challenges kept on coming throughout the month. In some cases there were joyous substitutions – I discovered that bread sliced at the bakery and wrapped in paper did just fine in the freezer, so breakfast was set.

Plastic = Convenience

As the month wore on, I realized that plastic equals convenience, and that I had to re-align my idea of what was convenient. Yes, it takes longer to bring your own containers and use the bulk bins of the market. It takes more effort to go to the cheese shop where the owner was happy to wrap my slices in paper – not an option at the supermarket. On the flip side, I had wonderful conversations with folks behind the counter; some were bemused by my requests, some were delighted. But this was an opportunity to connect with people in my neighborhood whom I had, frankly, barely noticed before. How to translate this greater feeling of community to our work?

When To Give Up

In some cases, going plastic-free meant going without. Tortillas and potato chips, indeed all salty junk food, were not an option, unless ordered in a restaurant. I had to cheat in a couple of instances, choosing less plastic over no plastic for things like toothpaste and olive oil. Luckily I don’t take a lot of medicines, but when I ran out of Vitamin D…I caved and bought more in a plastic bottle. I noticed the feeling of guilt and this time I did not share my “failure.”

It’s August now, and I have relented a bit, but the plastic-free exercise has stuck with me. The main thing I took away from July was a heightened awareness of plastic’s never ending presence in our lives. Entire aisles of the supermarket were off limits – which after a while felt quite restful. Connecting this ubiquity with the fact that of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic ever made, 6.3 billion metric tons have become plastic waste, with no end in sight. After this experiment, I am reminded as we plan campaigns that in many cases we are asking people to change, to give up something, to be inconvenienced. These are big asks. While these changes seem essential and even joyful to those of us in the environmental field, I believe it is essential to integrate humility and understanding into our campaigns, so that people feel understood and supported as we travel together on this journey to more sustainable living.

Top Tips for an Effective Recycling Poster

recycling poster sampleEffective environmental behavior change—like any behavior change—relies on meeting people where they are. This can mean communicating at the point of action, right where and when the behavior is happening. For instance, a recycling flyer sent to a resident’s home is a fine first touch to raise awareness, but placing recycling information directly on the bins or in the area where trash is being disposed of is an important prompt that is likely to get the best results.

What is the most effective way to display recycling/composting information? While each case is different, there are some general rules that will help increase recycling/composting while reducing contamination:

Use consistent language.

Do you say Carts or Bins? Compost or Organics? Make sure the terms you’ve chosen are used consistently in all your print pieces, including posters and bin labels, and also match the content on your website.

Use pictures and words.

Different people learn and remember differently – some people recall words, others, images. Using both will increase your chances of being clear and memorable. Remember that posters are typically viewed from a some distance away, so make sure images and text are sized large enough.

Be selective.

You probably don’t want to list EVERY single item that can go into the recycling or compost. Choose most common items or those often placed incorrectly. The selection of items also depends on where the poster will be used—items recycled in an office are likely different from those recycled in a restaurant kitchen.

Keep it neat.

A clean and simple layout is most likely to keep the focus on proper sorting. If a poster has too much information it may be perceived as too much effort to understand and get ignored. If you’d like to point to details, include your website URL prominently.

Stay up to date!

Did bin colors change with the new hauler contract, or are you now accepting some items for recycling that you weren’t before? Make sure your print and online collateral match your current program.

For further tips on displaying recycling information, see

5 Tips to Turn Your Environmental Outreach from “Meh” to “Magnificent”

 

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