Can PR & Communications Solve Societal Apathy?
Written by Everett Martin
Note: Part One of this post can be found here.
Does anyone believe that the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge raised millions of dollars due to the disease’s impact on society? To me, it’s obvious that the Challenge succeeded not because of its overall importance, but because of its momentary and intense relevance in the lives of people who watched and participated. Understanding the juxtaposition between importance and relevance is key to not only just with this issue, but to all public relations in the social media age.
ALS awareness also had something else going for it, something insidious, but no less real: race. I’m only going to open that can of worms wide enough to let out a couple important stats. In 2011, the CDC estimated that nearly 80% of ALS sufferers are Caucasian. The ALS Association of the USA keeps a database of sufferers, of which a whopping 93% are Caucasian. If ALS as a distraction from racialized conflicts – from Ebola to Ferguson – is of interest to you, I also recommend this post.
So, at the risk of making a gross generalization, the difference in perception seems clear: Ebola is a black, foreign stranger’s disease. ALS is your white, middle-class neighbour’s disease. In the fight for public attention in the West, a cause like Ebola has the odds stacked against it, and beating them isn’t as simple as launching a copycat campaign like Lather Against Ebola.
Here are just a few barriers to Ebola awareness:
• Cynicism – “Poor African countries are lost causes run by dictators and warlords who brainwash their people and steal the donations. Why bother?”
• Myopia – “There is so much to fix here in my own backyard/city/country, how can you expect me to spare a thought or a dollar for over there?”
• Protectionism – “If poor countries emerge from poverty and disease, they’ll start demanding a bigger piece of the global pie, and our Western quality of life will suffer.”
• Ignorance – “Africa has the same opportunities as anywhere else, it just needs to get its act together, like any other country.” (yes…some say ”country”)
• Prejudice – “Ebola? Africa? I’m sick and tired of hearing about those people.”
• Populism – “I only care if everyone else in my social cohort is bonding over it!” (OK, they wouldn’t phrase it quite like that.)
• Militant apathy – “I don’t understand this, and/or it’s scary, so I’ll just click ‘Hide Posts Like This’ and never think about it again.”
• Distraction – “You know, I think it’s time that I finally step up and…oh look, a Kardashian!”
If you agree that these obstacles could get in the way of Ebola messaging, you can start to see why I believe its role as a symbol is important. If we’d have gotten Ebola the attention it deserved, there would be hope for tackling anything, from Syria to Sudan, from ISIS to Boko Haram.
What can conscientious communicators do?
What are some learnings that communicators, especially public relations practitioners working with NGOs, can take away from the divergent paths of Ebola and ALS awareness? There are probably dozens, but here are six to get the conversation started:
Frankly, we don’t give a damn (until we do)
As I mentioned earlier, so-called importance is not equal to personal relevance. Experienced PR professionals know this intuitively, and don’t get caught up in whether it’s fair or not. The day-to-day priorities of members of the public are not likely aligned with what you want them to do, or care about. Until you have cultivated, maintained, and measured your base of active support over time, assume you have none.
Why did you donate money or time to your favourite charity last year? Was it to tell your friends? At its root, that could be interpreted as a selfish motivation. Or was it to build your personal legacy? Hmm…also selfish, if you think about it. To honour your memory of a loved one, and/or to please God, and/or to give yourself a warm and fuzzy feeling inside? Selfish, right? I could do this all day.
The point is that communicators need to put themselves inside the emotional headspace of their would-be supporters, and determine what heartstrings to pluck. Craft your strategy around “what’s in it for me” instead of “do the right thing”.
Why so serious?
There’s a reason why most movies aren’t documentaries or historical dramas. When given the option, most of us like to escape, have fun, and turn off our brains. If I were cynical, I’d say “brain off” is our default position these days.
I saw only one Ice Bucket Challenge video that discussed the fear and horror of living with (and dying from) ALS. Conversely, fear and horror were centre stage in most Ebola coverage and imagery…and we just couldn’t wait to turn the channel to something “less heavy”. Besides, we’re increasingly desensitized to negativity, violence and suffering. I can watch countless real world atrocities on dozens of international news outlets, then switch to Netflix to take in the graphic, fictional exploits of Spartacus, Dexter, or Hannibal. Shock won’t sell for much longer.
Maybe there was an idyllic time, long ago, when a citizen could approach the townsfolk and rally them around a great idea or important cause, political differences be damned. If such a time ever existed, it’s ancient history now.
To have a fruitful conversation about support for your objectives with any level of government, you’d better be ready to explain how the ruling party can expect to translate their action into votes. Instead of “you have a moral obligation to act” try something like “our research shows that your base of support demands action.” If your organization doesn’t have the expertise, connections or money to drill down into the data, you’ll have to pool your resources with others.
Get ‘happy times’ B-roll
Putting a human face on any campaign is necessary, but in a crisis, that face can’t be just one of pain and hopelessness. Again, people will tune out. Audiences want to believe that a return to happier times is possible. The before and after shots of the Japanese tsunami or the Nepalese earthquake help us understand the severity of what happened there.
The same idea can be achieved with people. In the places where your organization works, profile the local people at their best, having fun, going to work, and engaged in cultural activities. Get that footage on file, because if and when disaster strikes, it will help you (and the media you’re reaching out to) tell the whole, human story of the community.
Trend or die
Like it or not, we’re in an era of mind-numbing information overload. Ongoing issues like the Ebola outbreak, the various massacres in the Middle East, or the many human rights and environmental abuses worldwide often fail to register in mainstream Western consciousness. They just don’t make for timely, bite-sized, shareable stories.
NGOs for these causes need to try to replicate the brief but powerful attention burst given to natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and airline crashes. It’s not easy, and it might mean holding back information until the time is right, or until it can be packaged ‘attractively.’ An example of this is Kony 2012, a viral marketing campaign that was misguided and ill-informed at best, but that captured people’s attention and prompted them to act.
Despite how it may sound, I’m optimistic that Western society can overcome our current mass apathy phase and emerge enlightened and engaged on the other side. However, it can only happen if professional communicators apply what we know about public relations to cut through the noise and help make important world issues relevant to the online generation.