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!

Reflections on a Gigantic Decade: Campaigns for a Healthier Planet

As we move full speed into 2020, I finally took a moment to reflect on the past 10 years (of my 18 years as founding partner!) here at Gigantic Idea Studio. I noticed that our portfolio of projects from the last decade reflects the evolution of recycling and pollution prevention programs locally and worldwide.

Feeding Food Scraps to Compost

In the early to mid 2010s the focus of residential outreach turned to food scraps. Many of our projects assisted local agencies with promoting participation in food scrap recycling programs—getting food and food-soiled paper into green carts so they can be composted instead of landfilled. These programs reduce waste and greenhouse gases—a win-win. Binny the Green Organics cart, a mascot we created for Livermore Recycles in 2014, has worked tirelessly to win the hearts and minds of residents to help them overcome the “ick factor” and compost their organics. We have watched Binny become a local star with many adoring fans!

Binny the Green Organics Cart helps Livermore residents recycle right.

The City of Palo Alto started a food scraps collection program in 2015. Gigantic helped promote this new practice through a character named Zak Zero, and by featuring local residents as peer messengers. Palo Alto now composts 2,300 tons of food scraps a year, saving 670 metric tons of GHG. And 80% of households participate, at least partially!

zak zero of palo alto
Palo Alto’s Zak Zero spreads the good word about zero waste
Sorting Out Recycling

As California ramped up recycling and composting requirements, the last few years of the decade saw the recycling world turn upside down. China’s National Sword policy impacted markets and affected recycling programs. In response, much of our recent work has included ads, bill inserts, articles, and videos to promote the message that sorting recycling properly is a serious matter—and that recyclables should be empty, clean and dry. Our most comprehensive campaign on this topic, Recycle Ready, was done for Palo Alto, and you can see it here.

In the past few years, we’ve helped StopWaste develop content to address the hot topic of food waste—a potent greenhouse gas contributor in Alameda County. Our work with StopWaste over the last decade also supported the implementation of a mandatory recycling and composting ordinance—also a trend of the last decade—as local and state agencies flexed the power of public policy to help reach waste reduction goals. As we enter 2020, we are proud to be part of the team working on food waste reduction in Santa Clara County.

Happy Reusable Cup says Together we can do great things
Promoting reusables in Santa Clara County
Cutting Single Use Items

Another trend in waste reduction—the reduction of single-use disposables— is another pressing issue gaining traction in the media, as coverage of marine debris and coastal litter has gone mainstream. Cities in the Bay Area and beyond are responding with foodware ordinances, plastic straw bans and produce bag requirements. We’ve worked to help promote efforts to reduce use of disposable foodware with StopWaste, County of Santa Clara and most recently, supporting the new foodware ordinances in the City of Palo Alto.

Connecting Behavior Change to Clean Water

Lastly, we look back fondly on the decade that saw our relationship with Clean Water Program Alameda County grow. In the early 2010s we focused on general stormwater education as well as integrated pest management topics related to gardening. But with the explosion of awareness of the Pacific Garbage patch and wildlife harmed by marine debris, the severity of the issues facing our oceans gave birth to our beloved mascots Fred and Izzy. With three video campaigns under our belt, we look forward to creating a new video on gardening in 2020. We were happy to expand work on these topics with “YardSmart Marin,” a new organization aiming to reduce pesticide use, and with City of San Rafael to reduce illegal dumping. In 2020, we look forward to piloting a litter reduction campaign as well.

Here’s to the next decade of engaging the public in programs for a healthier world!

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