Like a will-o’-the-wisp, Earth Day captures media attention periodically before fading into the background again.

Media focus on environmental issues is somewhat like a will-'o-the-wisp.
Media focus on environmental issues is somewhat like a will-o’-the-wisp. (Source: Kikasz via Compfight cc)

Why does this happen? Thomas Hayden has some ideas about why media focus on environmental topics waxes and wanes. He mapped out the coverage of environmental topics in The New York Times and found a gradual upward trend over the decades, punctuated by wild fluctuations.

These fluctuations – the jagged peaks on his graph – happen to coincide with our collective moments of excitement about environmentalism, which I have renamed:

  • “hippies and whales”
  • “tropical rainforests”
  • “temperate rainforests”
  • “climate change science”
  • “climate change movie”
  • “climate change reality” 

Although journalists’ interest in environmental issues may be growing over time, it is based on short-term events and catastrophes.

Do other people forget about environmentalism as often as journalists do? It’s hard to say. But an article on fads and the environment suggests social trends need to build on deeper underlying values in society to succeed.

This is an important point. If you want to build a successful environmental trend or meme, you need to speak to what already matters to people – their existing cultures and priorities.

Should environmentalists try to catch people’s attention with a series of trends and hot topics? Maybe that is not enough.

Like dieting, environmental change has to be more than a fad to succeed. If environmentalists want to achieve long-term, successful social change, that will require making structural changes to our everyday lifestyles so positive choices will lead to rewards. These rewards do not all have to be financial; they can be social. They can even involve saving time or simplifying our lives. 

Maybe environmentalists need to augment those will-o’-the-wisps of media coverage with solid structural changes behind the scenes.

Sometimes a picture is worth 200 Twitter follows. That’s what Ceres‘s online communications director, Brian Sant, learned when he ran a campaign to stop natural gas flares in North Dakota. Oil companies use these flares to burn away unwanted natural gas they do not plan to save or sell.

North Dakota’s natural gas flares are visible from the night sky and rival major cities in their brightness. Sant circulated the following photo of the night landscape of North America via social media and email. The response was electric. Writers picked up the story.

North Dakota gas flares light the night sky
A photo from Ceres’s campaign to stop natural gas flares in North Dakota.

Sant showed the results of this campaign at New England Women in Energy and the Environment‘s March 14 panel discussion, Social Media Success in the Energy and Environmental Sectors. He also described how he uses podcasts, videos and infographics to make data attractive for social media distribution.

Sarah Finnie Robinson, founding partner at Practically Green, talked about her exploration of the nuances of behavior change. Working with an enthusiastic group of interns and staff, she develops social software that companies and individuals can use to alter their environmental behavior.

Practically Green is building on the current wave of interest in gamification – making activities more like computer games – and integrating that approach with social media. The resulting product makes conserving water and other resources less like doing a chore and more like using Facebook.

“You’re not alone,” one of Robinson’s slides said. Robinson wants her software to engage people in communication, not just give them tasks to do in isolation. Based on the rapid expansion of demand for her product, this approach is certainly working.

Cindy Jolicoeur, vice president of Marketing Drive, used a different tactic in her work with the Mass Save energy efficiency program. She leveraged consumer interest in sharing information about deals and taking advantage of discounts to build the fan base for the Mass Save Facebook page from around 2,000 to over 15,000. These likes came as a result of targeted promotions and advertising across multiple media. Consumers developed a relationship with Mass Save and used the page to ask questions about energy efficiency.

“People want to connect with people,” said Cindy Hoots, corporate social responsibility account director at Cone Communications. She encouraged the audience to be informal on social media. Being able to respond on the fly is crucial, she said. She recommended keeping an unofficial FAQ on hand to use in response to stakeholder comments.

“Not all these stakeholders are friendly,” Hoots said. “Some can be a thorn in your side. Others may have an activist bent.”

Building relationships with stakeholders is a complex process, Hoots said. First, one needs to identify who they are. Second, one needs to understand their values and priorities. Third, one needs to learn how to reach them. And that’s just the first phase of action. One also needs to prioritize influencers, reach out to them, and offer them resources they want.

Hoots recommended two online tools for identifying influencers: Traackr and SocMetrics. These sites can give one basic information about the behavior of influencers and help one develop a plan for building relationships.

There are many ways communicators can engage stakeholders and build support for sustainable actions. This discussion demonstrated how Twitter, Hootsuite, Facebook, and other social media tools can support energy and environmental organizations in reaching their goals successfully. Sometimes, all it takes is a surprising picture.

“What is the main lesson you’ve learned from trying to target specific audiences in your climate work?” David Minkow, who edits content for Climate Access and the Social Capital Project, asked me this question recently.

In three words, my response is: “Customize your messages.”

Today’s media environment is a crowded place, dense with conflicting demands for our attention. In this climate, the messages that rise to the top are the ones with the greatest relevance and the most effective targeting.

Know your audiences. Read the news publications they read – even if you disagree with them. Understand the jargon they use at work and the casual language they use on the weekends. Find out what they do for fun. Become familiar with their values. Try to think the way they think.

One of the best ways to learn how to customize messages for an audience is through cultural immersion. Go and visit your audiences in person. Go out to dinner with them. Get to know their priorities. Learn how to establish credibility with their organizations. Work with them and talk with them as much as possible.

Then, once you know your audiences, use techniques like community-based social marketing. Find out what constraints prevent them from taking environmental actions. Address these challenges through concise and direct communication. When you talk about benefits, tailor your language to your audiences.

Don’t rely on messages about preserving the environment or saving money. These popular messages may not resonate with your audiences at all. To develop messages that work, you need to know your audiences and understand them as well as people in a small town understand their next-door neighbors.

My neighbors listen to very good music... whether they like it or not.
Get to know your audiences’ cultural preferences as well as you know your neighbors’. (Source: Someecards.com)

What is shibui? It’s a Japanese aesthetic quality described by Wikipedia as a combination of qualities including simplicity, modesty, silence, naturalness, everydayness and imperfection. Objects that display shibui may be functional art. They often have gray mixed into their coloring. People can also show shibui qualities in their character or behavior. For example, someone who contributes to the success of a group without self-promoting is behaving in a shibui way.

In the world of social media, there is a shortage of shibui. We are surrounded by voices clamoring for attention. Some organizations advocate creating memes and telling stories to break through the noise. Many marketers use a “hard sell” approach in which they repost content often or email audiences many times. I’ve been advised by marketing professionals more than once to send similar emails to people five times to get their attention.

Branding is the hammer behind the nail of marketing. Personal brands are like armor, both asserting and disguising the identity of the professionals behind them. I’ve written about the flaws of personal branding here before – including how creating a personal brand can be challenging for people from underrepresented groups.

In this noisy and overly assertive climate, some shibui would help diffuse the pressure. Here are some thoughts on how qualities of shibui can alter the climate of heavy self-promotion that seems to be so common in social media and communications in the northeastern United States.

Simplicity is underrated in some circles. But describing things clearly, accurately and straightforwardly breaks down many communication barriers. Simplicity can help one reach audiences of different class, work and educational backgrounds. It can also help media-saturated readers relax and focus on the essential information one’s trying to communicate. In recent years, web designers have gravitated toward simple, unobtrusive layouts; writers can do the same with their copy.

Silence is a very intriguing tool for communicators. Pausing while conducting an interview can lead to unexpected revelations. Choosing what to leave unsaid is part of a journalist’s craft; these choices can make or break an article. For content curators, choosing what to omit is as important as choosing what to include. Advertisers are aware of the power of these qualities and sometimes leave their audiences guessing on purpose. Taking time to listen and watch what others are doing is important for social media managers.

Modesty, everydayness and naturalness are qualities that can win respect but are often ignored in high-visibility fields. Many people view salespeople and publicists with mistrust because they believe there is a lack of authenticity in their communication. In some cultures and fields, there is a real distrust of salesmanship. I grew up around many people who were influenced by Mexican culture. They told me modesty was valued relatively highly in their families and social circles. In environmentalist social circles, many people mistrust artificiality and self-promotion too. Eco-friendly product marketing often addresses this preference.

Imperfection is powerful. It can humanize people and organizations. Being able to admit flaws, apologize and learn from one’s mistakes can help one build real relationships. Brene Brown has written about how vulnerability and taking risks can make people more empowered. But in high-visibility professions, there can be immense pressure in the other direction – pressure to be perfect, have all the answers, and never have a bad hair day. Media can exacerbate this pressure. It’s impossible for a famous person – even a talented and well-known marketer – to look perfect to everyone. Striving for an illusion of flawlessness reduces one’s ability to connect with people on a human, healthy and real level. When personal branding is based on creating illusions of perfection, it contributes to this problem.

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to be authentic in how I use media and mass communication. This is difficult; there are many pressures in the other direction. But I believe that, in the end, respectful honesty can build credibility and relationships. High-pressure marketing and personal branding can have the opposite effect.

Shibui can empower people and organizations to communicate clearly and sincerely.

How can nonprofits build diversity awareness into their communication? There are no easy answers. But I find it helps to think of diversity-friendly communication as a tapestry. If you weave diversity awareness into each aspect of your outreach, you’ll see better results than you would if you tacked it on at the end.

That’s the approach my former coworker Dr. Sherrill Sellers recommended when we wrote the CIRTL Diversity Resources. Although the Diversity Resources were written for university instructors, nonprofits can use similar approaches. I recommend checking out our case study collection if you are thinking of organizing facilitated conversations about diversity.

When we were producing the Diversity Resources, we sifted through many university workbooks on creating welcoming climates. We found that a band-aid approach to diversity-friendly communication may be a step in the right direction, but it is just a step. More needs to be done.

After the Be the Media! conference in Boston on Dec. 6, I wrote the following list of questions to help organizations communicate inclusively. Items 1, 2 and 6 are partly based on comments by our facilitators, Elena Letona and Kathleen Pequeño.

  1. Whom do you ask for their opinion? If you look at whose voices are absent from your decisions, you may find some gaps. Consider having conversations, surveys and focus groups to include unheard stakeholders. For example, if you are working on an environmental issue in a low-income community, remember to ask for community feedback. This is especially important if there is a language barrier.
  2. Are your communication channels working? Make sure not to rely exclusively on the Internet if you want to reach a diverse base of potential supporters. Consider mobile-friendly websites and phone apps. Low-income young people often browse using their phones. Test drive new approaches to see what works.
  3. Is your communication jargon-free, easy to understand, and interesting? Remember, your audiences are not required to listen to you, even if you’re communicating vital health information about disease prevention or disaster awareness. Think about the style of language you’re using. If you use research language with non-specialists, your message may be ignored or misinterpreted. Ask your audiences for feedback.
  4. Is your message relevant? Why should your audiences care about the issues that matter to your organization? If you get to know them and learn what matters to them, your communication will be much more on target than it would be otherwise.
  5. Have you stepped outside your office to visit your audiences lately? How well do you know them? The more you develop  relationships, the better your communication will be.
  6. Have you considered partnering with or hiring messengers from underrepresented groups? Try crowdsourcing media, inviting people to tell their own stories via videos or blogs, and asking questions to draw out answers. You can use the results to develop stories for funders, decision makers, and media.
  7. Do you ask for constructive criticism? If you only focus on positive stories, you won’t see the roots of problems.
  8. Are your events, jobs and internships accessible to people who earn less than a middle-class income? Holding fundraisers with lower ticket prices, reducing reliance on alumni networks for hiring, and paying interns who can’t afford to take unpaid internships are three steps you can take to make your organization more welcoming.

Weaving ideas like these into your communication and outreach can help you develop real relationships with communities rather than being seen as an outside agency. The more you make your communication two-way – listening, respecting community comments, and taking an interest in others – the better your results are likely to be. Seek to understand before seeking to be understood.


This post won’t be complete until I invite you to follow me on Twitter and like my Facebook page.

Are your audiences reading your newsletter? Or are they using it to make Halloween costumes? Are they recycling it into shellacked paper coasters? If it’s electronic, are they deleting it? Questions like these preoccupy communications specialists.

The book Your Attention, Please describes how it’s becoming difficult to attract sustained interest from readers. Before the Internet, people were likely to take their time reading mail. Now, we’re deluged with hundreds of e-mails. Many of them are newsletters.

How can you bring your moribund newsletter to life and make it stand out from the mass of spam and other undesirable messages? Here are a few guidelines to help you revive your copy. (A great way to bring your newsletter back from the dead is to hire me as a consultant. I specialize in bringing science-related newsletters to life.)

Zombie
A zombie peeks out from behind a long newsletter. (Actually, this graphic is from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s zombie apocalypse blog post.)

Your newsletter’s vital signs may fizzle if:

  1. Your newsletter is focused on your organization, not your readers. One reason your newsletters are gathering dust may be that they are not speaking to the needs and interests of your audiences. Think about how your organization can be a good conversationalist. Don’t be the person at the cocktail party who bores everyone by holding forth about uninteresting topics. Cut out the content that won’t interest your audiences. If it’s necessary to keep it for other reasons, bury it behind a link.
  2. Your content is too text-heavy. Are you requiring readers to wade through long paragraphs of text to find buried nuggets of valuable information? They probably won’t. When reading online, your audiences will skim the content. Use short paragraphs, straightforward language, and links. Use bold font to emphasize key points.
  3. Your newsletter is not in the right medium. Do your audiences adore Pinterest but ignore snail mail? Do they avoid social media in favor of sifting through their email? If you choose the right delivery medium for your newsletter, that can increase readers’ interest.
  4. You need to work on your messaging and engagement strategies. If you’re promoting events that no one attends or recommending actions that no one takes, you may have a messaging problem. You may not be communicating the benefits of taking action. The actions may be too difficult for your readers. If you provide easy-to-take actions and communicate their benefits clearly, you may get better results.
  5. Your most interesting content is buried. Where are those bits of gold – the most valuable information in your existing newsletter? Dig them out and bring them to the beginning. Think of your newsletter as a newspaper article. Journalists typically begin an article with the most important information, if they’re using the inverted pyramid style of writing.

Keep your newsletter simple, useful, concise and interesting. Your readers shouldn’t have to get out a shovel to dig out your most valuable content. If you make your readers’ lives easier, they will appreciate it. Redesigning your approach to newsletter writing can turn a yawn into a smile. Even dead newsletters can be revived.

A recent article from NetSquared profiles best practices from environmental nonprofits’ Facebook pages. The article quotes researchers who recommend using photos (with or without overlay text), sharing links to other websites, and experimenting to find out what succeeds or fails.

Here are a few tips from my own experiences with Facebook page management. I maintain pages for multiple nonprofits and am perennially looking for new tools and resources to improve our content and engagement. Since many people are working on building reputations as social media professionals, there are plenty of publications out there on this subject.

  1. Be inspiring. Consistently, my posts that get the best responses are inspiring. They may be visually striking images or inspirational messages that speak to the imaginations of my audiences. For example, one of my audiences includes people who are in a stressful profession. Posting tips on relaxation and mindfulness caught their interest.
  2. Ask simple questions. Questions pique readers’ curiosity, but asking people to engage at a high level too quickly may discourage them. Asking questions on Facebook is like dating: would you bring out a diamond ring on the second date? Of course not. Similarly, with social media, you need to build rapport before making major requests.
  3. Leverage your e-mail list and website. Use e-mail to direct people to your Facebook page by mentioning exclusive content that is only available on Facebook. You can also use your website to point people toward your Facebook content.
  4. Have the scoop. What information do you know that your audience might want to learn? What resources are at your fingertips – or sitting in your in-box, gathering dust? What tips and ideas can you add to your social media content to make it valuable to readers?
  5. Be newsworthy. Tie your Facebook content in with current events, major news stories, and local announcements that will be of interest to your visitors. Keep your content timely, interesting and relevant.

Dale Carnegie’s advice holds true for social media managers: if you want to earn the respect, interest and trust of your audiences, be a good listener. Don’t talk about yourself or your organization continually. Talk about other topics of mutual interest. Share other articles. Be a good conversationalist and social media will reward you.

My father could have been a great social media professional. He is over 80 and still does not have an e-mail address. But he is an excellent networker. He keeps index cards with the contact information of people he has met, sends them news clippings that interest them, and engages in long conversations. He does all of this by snail mail and phone after an opening conversation where he learns what their interests are.

This is exactly the same approach one should take toward building connections on social media. Figure out what you can offer your audience. Share stories with them. Develop relationships through communicating about ideas, asking questions, and sharing news. Add value to their lives. Don’t assume that your organization’s updates have intrinsic interest for all your readers. Make your conversation two-way. And don’t get out the diamond ring too soon.

Ring
“Will you share my Facebook page with all 200 of your friends?”

When I was a college student, I felt free to explore different interests and groups without worrying about how that would affect my personal brand. Now, recent graduates sit through workshops like “Careers, Beers and the Brand Called You.” Although I promoted this workshop via NetSquared Boston, I didn’t attend it – for a reason.

Although I understand the value of personal branding from a business standpoint, I believe business values have infiltrated the personal and creative spheres of people who are seeking to market themselves. In some ways, this is a good thing; in other ways, it can be destructive.

Vintage mirror and jewelryYou are not your image. (Source: stock.xchng)

You Are Not Your Career

Recent evidence from the recession shows that economic downturns can lead to suicides. The people most likely to commit suicide in Europe seem to be those with strong career aspirations – the upwardly mobile and entrepreneurial people who are most likely to engage in personal branding.

Think about it. If you are your brand and you suffer economic hardship, what does that say about your worth as a human being? What does that say about your marketability? It’s not a surprise that people who overidentify with their careers become hopeless in these situations.

I’m a fan of the Seven Habits series and believe that having a strong source of internal purpose and mission is important to career survival and happiness. This means that one’s purpose is not the same as one’s brand.

One’s purpose is like a compass; one’s brand is like a vehicle that gets one to the next destination. Building a brand is useful, but it is no substitute for having a source of self-worth that is independent from how one makes a living.

You Have the Right to Experiment

I had a long e-mail conversation with Bill Lascher last year about how branding one’s writing can limit one’s creative freedom. For example, if a woman who’s been writing chick lit for 10 years decides to produce a novel about the Vietnam War, her web presence will need a makeover.

It took me a long time to develop the brand for this blog. The urban environmental version of this blog did a great job of encapsulating my journalism interests. But it didn’t convey most of what I do for a living. There are two halves to my work – the freelance journalism and the work I do for established environmental, science and/or technology organizations. I updated my website to include both of these sides of my writing.

My interests are multifaceted and do not distill down into a sound bite easily. Luckily, environmental issues and technology are such broad topics that I have no shortage of ideas to explore. I have a genre, but it’s not a very limiting genre.

Still, even with this relatively flexible definition, I still am not my brand. In my free time, I do a lot of dancing. The type of dance I do combines martial arts, yoga, jazz dance and modern dance. There are many other things I do that don’t fit into my brand neatly either.

You Don’t Owe the Internet an Explanation

If you’re trying to maintain a consistent brand, you may police your online presence. This is an overrated activity. It is not fun; also, it can limit your participation in activities you enjoy because you are too busy watching your paper trail.

Idealistically speaking, as long as whatever you are doing is legal and reasonably ethical, it shouldn’t matter if it comes up on the first page of a search. However, there may be some types of material – for example, your memoir about your years as a bartender – that fall into a gray area. Employers exclude applicants based on evidence of alcohol consumption and may not appreciate the candid nature and literary quality of your writing. Appearance discrimination is also alive and well online, so simple hairstyle changes can become stressful choices.

The advice “to thine own self be true” is difficult to follow if you are a writer engaging in personal branding. If you’re a real estate agent who has never written a controversial blog post in her life, then personal branding is easy – get a headshot and you’re done. I suspect most writers find this process difficult.

Ironically, although writers are encouraged to focus on marketing and branding, authenticity is what fuels good writing. Being able to sit with a pen or computer and face exactly what one wants to say is part of the creative process. Personal branding can short-circuit that experience, substituting image maintenance for real self-expression.

You Aren’t in Charge of Your Image

Personal branding requires writers and other creative content producers to take a hard look in the mirror. Now, more than ever, we are subjected to the whims of search engines and online conversations. Most of this is completely outside our control.

Personal brand advocates seem to downplay the following point: as marketers of our own work, we are not in charge of how other people respond to us. We are only responsible for what we say. We are not responsible for whether or not people like us. If people photograph us in an unflattering way, that is outside our control.

In the world of branding and social media, it’s important to recognize that we do not control our images. We can create them and shape them. We can alter them. But they are a collaborative creation – and some of that creation is done by our audience. Studies show that people will misread much of what we post online.

We can’t hold ourselves responsible for how people see us; we are only responsible for what we say and do. In a world where people may not judge us by our actions, we can continue to hold that standard for ourselves and others. We can keep our self-images separate from our personal brands. And we can recognize image evaluation is a weak substitute for assessment of character.

In a stopgap solution to an international health crisis, a program called ColaLife is about to use Coca-Cola’s distribution system to bring digestive medicine to places in sub-Saharan Africa where one can buy Coca-Cola but not basic medicines. “One in five children were dying of dehydration in places where you could always have a Coke and a smile,” said Alison Craiglow Hockenberry in a news story for Changemakers.com.

The anti-diarrhea kits will fit into spaces between the bottles in the classic-style red Coca-Cola boxes that are shipped around the world. Zambia is the first country to begin the program, which will start in January.

Coca-Cola
Coca-Cola advertising (country unknown) (Source: stock.xchng)

Over three years of public-private partnership building took place before these kits were ready to send out to Zambia. The process has been highly collaborative. Package designers changed their plans after hearing feedback from women who wanted reusable and not biodegradable bottles. The program developers also did local market research while developing the name of the package.

To forestall criticism of packaging medicine together with sugary drinks, Hockenberry commented that buying Coca-Cola is not required to receive the medicine. At this stage, the soft drink’s popularity could provide a logical route for sending medication overseas.

Obviously, this program does not change the larger health issues that plague sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the world, but it is an interesting example of social innovation and resourceful thinking.

The phrase “smart grid” might intimidate some audiences. Do we want an intelligent power grid? For some people, the idea might be reminiscent of The Matrix or even 1984. Utility customers may say that futuristic plus costly does not equal appealing.

Defined simply, a smart grid is a modernized, efficient system of power equipment that is responsive to customer energy needs. It’s flexible and decentralized and supports local installations of renewable energy.

A smart grid could reduce power losses due to electrical resistance, but consumer resistance could still pose a problem. Fortunately, one of the main advantages of a smart grid is that it can support local self-sufficiency and sustainable energy choices. It also offers the opportunity to streamline our use of electric power. The cost isn’t trivial, but neither are the benefits. If you’re interested in charging an electric vehicle in your back yard, selling wind power back to your electric company, or saving energy to reduce global warming, the smart grid can be your ally.

Power outlet
The face of the smart grid doesn't have to be forbidding. Credit: somadjinn. Source: Stock.xchng.

It’s important to present smart grid programs as attractive to local stakeholders rather than giving the impression they are a top-down imposition. Smart metering programs have already suffered from a lack of customer-friendly communication. Because some customers believe smart meters benefit utilities more than consumers, programs have met with resistance.

Given the potential savings and autonomy that smart grid technology can provide, it would be disappointing if this technology was portrayed as a burden to utility customers rather than a new and versatile asset.