Spare Change

making a difference with social marketing
by Nedra Kline Weinreich
I've been a bad, bad blogger. This past week has been so busy with getting ready for Social Marketing University and 200 other things that I had to put the blog on hold. Now I'm about to leave for DC to get the event set up. We are completely sold out! I'm looking forward to meeting all of you who will be there. We even have a couple of people coming from Kenya.

It's unlikely that I will have much time until next week to post again, but I just wanted to let you all know I haven't dropped of the planet. Have a great week - I know I will!
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Boy that week went by fast - it's already Friday again! Here are this week's odds and ends:
  • Believe it or not, yet another suicide-themed ad had to be yanked from TV. Washington Mutual's commercial showed a group of WaMu's competitors poised atop a building ready to jump because they can't compete with the free checking. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has been busy lately. Apparently CareerBuilder has another ad with this theme that finished running for the quarter, but it plans to bring the ad back in September. Perhaps they should think about laying that ad to rest and going in a different direction in the Fall.
  • NBC will be showing a TV reality series version of the old flour baby (or egg or sugar baby) teen pregnancy prevention exercise. Baby Borrowers will follow teen couples as they live together for the first time and have to care for a real infant, then a toddler, a pre-teen, a young teenager and even a senior citizen. Richard McKerrow, the executive producer, said:
    "We really want the young people in the series and indeed everyone who watches to appreciate that parenting is one of the hardest and most important tasks you'll ever undertake. We also want people to think carefully about when they want to have children and with whom they want to have children."
    A great idea. Now who's going to volunteer to let the show borrow their kids?
  • LA's Homeless Blog is a great example of how an organization can get its issue out there with a blog that ties together news, commentary and calls to action. The blogger,Joel John Roberts, is the CEO of PATH Partners and People Assisting The Homeless.
  • All in all, it's just another brick in the... toilet? I can get behind this video that features a Pink Floyd remix to promote ways of conserving energy and water. The video does not, however, feature any giant worms, marching hammers or answer the question of why you can't have any pudding if you don't eat your meat. (via Believing Impossible Things)
  • Apparently, there's only so much self-restraint we can expect from a person. Gretchen Rubin of the Happiness Project shared information on a study that showed that when people performed a task requiring self-restraint, they were less likely to practice self-control on the next activity. Does that mean we need to help people prioritize what to exercise self-control over, or that we reduce our expectations for what is realistic in various contexts?
  • Dr. Steve Beller, on his Trusted.MD blog, has been running a series about how people develop their health-related beliefs, from a psychological point of view. The relationship between beliefs, emotions and behaviors is a strong one, and we need to address both beliefs and emotions to be able to bring about changes in behavior. Information is often not enough to motivate someone to change; we have to find the emotional connection that forms the trigger. Education is necessary but not sufficient in this process.
  • Sorry, Twitter users, but I am afraid that this latest fad is just another sign of the decline of our collective attention span. I know a lot of bloggers are going gaga over it, but by constantly updating the answer to the question "What are you doing right now?" I just don't see how you can actually get anything done, let alone enjoy it. I never even bought a videocamera to record the kids because I believe Heisenberg's principle applies to life as well as particles; the act of observing something can change its direction. I would rather enjoy the moment than have to worry about documenting it. Maybe I'm just weird.
Speaking of not documenting things in favor of enjoying life, I'm going to have to beg your patience for the next couple of weeks, as my blogging will likely be sparse. My wonderful sister is coming to visit from Israel and then I will be in DC for Social Marketing University. Though the way time flies lately, my absence will be over in a flash.

Photo Credit: cackhanded
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Richard Kearns, the poet-activist at aids-write.org, writes about two issues that at first seem entirely unrelated: the CDC's description of AIDS, and the designation of Daylight Saving Time. After his requisite lovely poem, he writes:
seventeen years ago i belonged to a la-based gay men’s HIV-positive ASYMPTOMATIC support group. ASYMPTOMATIC was the functional word: it distanced us as far as we could get from AIDS. it was having it without having it. fear and shame and stigma captured in a moment of language.

had a love there whom i’ll call jerry, a blonde, blue-eyed hunk with fifty-two t-cells and a kiss that kept me alive. fifty-two t-cells made him happy. fifty was the cutoff. he didn’t have AIDS. he was ASYMPTOMATIC. he felt fine. he felt more than fine. i must agree he felt more than fine.

then came the day.

in an effort to make federal funding available to the shockingly growing national population of HIV-infected individuals, the us center for disease control (cdc) revised its AIDS “portrait” to include — among other things — persons with fewer than 200 t-4-cells. the cdc made this announcement on a monday. our support group met on tuesdays.

jerry came to the meeting in tears.

last week, he’d been free as a bee can fly, an HIV-positive ASYMPTOMATIC person. this week, he had AIDS. nothing else had changed. and everything.

that was the day jerry began to die. i will simplify the rest of his story and tell you he lasted about another year.

Later, Richard talks about the concept and history of Daylight Saving Time:

the us law by which we turn our clock forward in the spring and back in the fall is known as the uniform time act of 1966. the law does not require that anyone observe daylight saving time; all the law says is that if we are going to observe dst, it must be done uniformly.

while it’s not new to our lifetimes, the notion of dst has been around for most of this century and earlier. in the tradition of divinely-appointed kings who could not halt the tides by their bidding, it is an idea new with democracy, itself an exercise in social justice: an informed constituency can command the sun’s passage...

a democracy can command the time, it can alter the fall of daylight.

The implicit point that Richard makes with this juxtaposition of concepts is that definitions are powerful. The words we use to describe something can mean the difference between health and disease, between light and darkness. Jerry's health status was exactly the same before and after the CDC's pronouncement, but the new definition of a healthy t-cell count was essentially a death sentence. The sun is still in the same position in the sky as it would have been, whether we call it 6:00 or 7:00, but we can delay nighttime simply by changing the declared time.

Giving a name to something can also change its essence and give us power over it. People who were once thought to be getting senile as part of normal aging are now known to have Alzheimer's Disease. Someone who hears nonexistent voices is not crazy but suffering from schizophrenia. Kids who once might just have been considered eccentric may now be diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome.

Beyond identifying and naming real patterns of phenomena, we can also use changes in definitions to reposition something that might be considered negative into a positive. I remember a handout I received once from a parenting workshop that showed how we could reframe what might be perceived as a negative trait in our children as a positive: so kids went from being "stubborn" to being "persistent," "anxious" to "cautious," "aggressive" to "assertive," the quiet child is "thoughtful" and the chatterbox is "highly verbal." All these characteristics that might drive parents crazy when the children are young could lead to future success as an adult if directed appropriately. Therapists often use this technique of relabeling negative characteristics to reflect an underlying strength and building on that in a positive way.

Conversely, smoking went from something that was a symbol of coolness to being a proxy for the tobacco industry's desire to enslave teens in a lifelong addiction. Bronzed skin went from being a "healthy tan" to "sun damage." The current battle over the definition of marriage is another example of the power of semantics to affect people's everyday lives.

Words and their socially agreed-upon definitions often have implications beyond the dictionary. We can try to change those meanings through social marketing and harness the power of words to bring about positive health or social change.


Photo Credit: wiccked
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Let's see what we find in the Tip Jar this week, shall we?
  • Suzanne Hawkes gives a great overview of the different types of approaches that can be used to bring about social change. She divides it out into direct service, social marketing/education, business/consumerism, policy advocacy (i.e., government and corporate), and politics (i.e., via elections). While I generally think about it in terms of education vs. persuasion vs. coercion, Suzanne's more detailed breakdown would be useful in thinking about how to use each approach within a particular campaign.
  • When your audience has a low literacy level, the use of pictures becomes critical in your print communications. The National Institute for Literacy brought in guest speakers Len and Ceci Doak and Dr. Peter Houts to lead a e-mail-based discussion on Using Pictures in Health Education on its Health and Literacy Discussion List. The discussion is rich with information on everything from where to find free health-related clip art to why to draw stick figures with thicker lines in Africa (very thin people are thought to have AIDS) and how to do your own photo shoots. (via Medical Writing Blog)
  • Yet another ad has been pulled in response to criticism from advocacy groups. Dolce & Gabbana's ad showing a bare-chested man pinning a woman down by her wrists while other men look on elicited condemnation from Amnesty International, the National Organization for Women and others for its implied depiction of violence. High fashion advertisers have already gone so far in pushing the lines of acceptability, they now seem to feel they have to cross the line to stay cutting-edge.
  • Will a machine be able to do a better job at predicting intentions to perform a behavior than we've been able to glean from self-reported data?
  • Those who disparage Second Life users as pasty chair jockeys in their first life may be surprised to find out about Moriash Moreau's contraption that lets him physically walk around the virtual world on his actual feet:
    Moreau took a second-hand treadmill (surplus from a fitness no-longer-enthusiast), a second hand USB keypad, and assorted wiring and contact switches, and wired up an input device where he could make his avatar walk by, well actually walking, using some press buttons to steer (his blog contains all the construction details.) Moreau performs regular walks around Second Life, exploring on foot, but it doesn't stop just there.

    Moreau has found a way to contribute to others. Moreau is going to walk in the Second Life Relay for Life this year. His avatar is going to walk the course, and Moreau will be doing all the leg-work. Literally.
    It certainly helps to be a technogeek when you have an idea like this and can just take out the old tools and cobble it together. I can see something like this taking off as SL becomes voice enabled, when someone in Los Angeles can exercise alongside a friend in London and carry on a chat while doing so.
  • Don't worry about finding the influential people when trying to bring about social change, but rather look for the easily influenced people, says Duncan Watts about the commonly accepted model of influencers outlined by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point.
  • Hospitals are producing professional-looking TV health news segments that are being used as-is by local news programs without any disclosure of the source of the material. This is not a new development in the field of PR, but it seems to be more common now among hospitals.
    It’s the product of a marriage of the hospitals’ desperate need to compete for lucrative lines of business in our current health system and of TV’s hunger for cheap and easy stories. In some cases the hospitals pay for airtime, a sponsorship, and in others, they don’t but still provide expertise and story ideas. Either way, the result is that too often the hospitals control the story. Viewers who think they are getting news are really getting a form of advertising. And critical stories—hospital infection rates, for example, or medical mistakes or poor care—tend not to be covered in such a cozy atmosphere. The public, which could use real health reporting these days, gets something far less than quality, arms-length journalism. (via Harvard World Health News)
    This is yet another indictment of the mainstream media's "journalistic standards."
  • Just a warning... I received an e-mail today that started:
    Hi,
    I'm Dr Brown Mcknight, born in Tetax,live in England.I love making Friends from all around the world, most especially honest individuals.I work in my organisation as a Youth director and also for the U.N.H.C.R as Staff in the refugee department, and also served the World vision as director to Canada two years ago.. I Would love to meet you in person to know how best we can uplift the plight of children and youths in the less developed countries such as Africa and Asia and see how best we can make the world a better place to live in.

    It is my pleasure to tell you that there is a youth Conference coming up soon both in the United State and Spain respectively. .Theme-"anti-terrorism and child labour".This conferences are Free, the Sponsors will be responsible for your air ticket, both in the United State and Spain and the Conference committee will also fax a Letter to the America embassy within your country,so do not worry about Visa, This conference is sponsored annually by UNICEF,USAID, WHO,UNESCO, the United Nations Security Council and First Ladies of Presidents of United Nations...
    It sounded somewhat suspicious but also slightly plausible -- I often receive strange sounding but legitimate e-mails from people in other countries whose first language is not English (though I have no idea where "Tetax" is). I did a search on the organization, called the "Global Youth Centre," and found out that this is a scam along the lines of the Nigerian 419 spam. Apparently people who sign up for the nonexistent conference are directed to send money via Western Union for the hotel. Just wanted to make sure you all are aware of this latest spam iteration, which I hadn't seen before.

Photo Credit: Kaija
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Here's an excerpt from my post over at the Marketing Profs Daily Fix today:

It can be tough to find a job in the advertising biz. Especially if you're in Germany and want to work in the "British Empire or Americas." So what do you do? You might start a blog about your job search and reach out to other bloggers, like Sacrum has done. Who is Sacrum? In his own words:
I am Sacrum. I am European man with skills in advertising. I should be in advertising yes? Yes! But I am not and this is a shame. Shame is worry, shame is darkness. I must have light! So I must get in to funky advertising agency. And this I try. Here my blog. I have my own pencils.
The quest of this advertising Borat (sans the dirty jokes) has all the trappings of a great Hollywood story: An endearing underdog sets out to land a job at a major ad agency against all odds.

For the rest of the story, with an interesting twist, head over to the Marketing Profs Daily Fix blog. I am sending you warmness!

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Recently a study reported that half of young children in the UK are anxious about the effects of global warming, and often lose sleep because of their concern, according to a survey of 1,150 children between the ages of seven and eleven. The consequences they were most afraid of were poor health, the possible submergence of entire countries and the welfare of animals.

The spokesman for Somerfield, the supermarket that sponsored the survey, spun it this way:
"While many adults may look the other way, this study should show that global warming is not only hurting the children of the future, it's affecting the welfare of kids now.

"By raising awareness amongst today's young, hopefully we are improving our chances of reaching a solution.''
I'm afraid that I reach an opposite conclusion. By freaking out today's young about the global cataclysm that may or may not occur, we are making it less, rather than more, likely that they will feel like this is a problem they can help to solve. How can you not feel paralyzed at the idea that the world as you know it will come to an end unless your parents and all the other parents across the world make major changes? A quarter of those surveyed blamed politicians for the problems of global warming -- taking the ability to do something about it even further from the kids' realm of possibility. I remember how it felt as a teen in the 80s, watching movies like The Day After and worrying about what I would do if I ever saw that bright flash of light that presaged a nuclear strike.

As I've said before, whether you think global warming is manmade or not, scaring the public will backfire --- especially when it's children, who either have the difficult choice of confronting their parents about their behaviors or feeling powerless. Warnings of disastrous consequences, without a clear, doable solution, are paralyzing. Better to show the small, concrete steps individuals can take to conserve energy and minimize pollutants for more immediate reasons than the specter of an environmental holocaust.

On a smaller scale, Chip and Dan Heath (authors of Made to Stick) wrote on their temporary PowellsBooks.Blog about a campaign by the Greater Buffalo Chapter of the American Red Cross that uses fear tactics to urge people to prepare for potential disasters. Billboards with simulated newspaper headlines like "November 9, 2009 - Terrorist Strike Leaves City in Chaos!" and "October 14, 2008 - Warnings Ignored: Bird flu outbreak hits WNY" provide the link preparewny.org at the bottom.

It's not until you note the URL and later visit the website (if you ever do) that you see what is actually the key -- and I think quite effective -- idea behind the campaign: "If you knew for certain that a disaster was going to happen on a given day, you'd do everything possible to prepare for it." From there you can go on to find out "What can I do?" with specific suggestions for making a plan, building a kit and getting trained. The question is whether the audience will move past the feelings of fear that are raised by the billboard messages and feel empowered enough to find out what to do about it.

This is quite a common approach in social marketing campaigns, showing the dire consequences that will happen if you don't take action. I've written before about how you can use a fear-based approach effectively (and what happens when it's not done well).

The fear is not just a psychological response, but a physiological one as well. A study of brain scans done while people were watching Superbowl ads showed that when ads evoked a strong response in the amygdala -- the area of the brain responsible for processing threat and anxiety -- the ads were memorable but had a strong negative emotion associated with them. People are much more likely to take action when positive outcomes are stressed rather than negative ones (see Chapter 5 summary, toward bottom, for more on this).

Fear can definitely be a big motivator, but when it makes more people want to take flight than fight, the "solution" can become the problem itself.


Photo Credit: sshimmel


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Yesterday while I was waiting for my daughter during her ballet class, a well-known celebrity who is currently on a popular TV show walked in to pick up his daughter. Not so unusual, living in LA, but I wouldn't have even noticed if another mom had not said something. He looked kind of bloated, his skin was blotchy and he was wearing a shlumpy sweatsuit. He was perfectly pleasant to the others in the room, cooing at babies and making jokes, but I found myself looking forward to telling my friends about how awful this guy looked in real life.

As I was on my way home, I realized that what at first seemed like a perfectly normal reaction was really quite a nasty impulse. Why should I expect him to make himself look good (put on make-up?!?) when all he was doing was picking up his daughter. To be fair, he could have said the same negative things about my own clothes and appearance. I decided not to reveal his identity here, as tempting as it is, because I realized that he should be allowed to have a private life.

This got me to thinking about our society's love/hate relationship with celebrities. While sports figures, musicians and Hollywood types are considered by their fans to be role models, heroes and generally amazing people, there are even more people who delight in seeing those same celebrities brought down a notch. Whether it's our fascination with Britney Spears' public meltdown, Mel Gibson's drunken ranting or pictures of Jessica Simpson's cellulite in the supermarket tabloids, we crane our necks for a glimpse of a chink in the perfectly polished armor worn by a celebrity.

Why is it so important for us to see an imperfection, to get proof that actors/models/singers are only human? Does it make us feel better about ourselves, how we look, how much money we make? The Dove Evolution video went a long way toward taking away some of the mystique behind beautiful models, and so perhaps we want to be reassured that the person behind the make-up and airbrushed photos is no better than ourselves.

What do you think? Why do paparazzi get thousands of dollars for pictures of celebrities going about their daily lives? Why was Britney's rehab status updated on the news daily? Is it schadenfreude or are we just a bunch of insecure celebrity worshipers?

And if the celebrity associated with your cause goes from being loved to hated, you have a big problem.

Photo Credit: Heartdisk
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my polling place

Though even most Angelenos don't know it (or don't care), there's a local election going on here in LA today for School Board, Community College Board and a couple of city measures. I have to admit I did not pay much attention to it until today, when I had to figure out how I was voting, though we have been receiving tons of candidate-related mail for the past month. I am in a mixed marriage -- politically speaking (though you'll have to guess which I am!) -- and so my husband and I receive all the mailings geared toward both parties.

Today when I was sorting through some of the mailers we received, I noticed that in a couple of cases the same slates of candidates were being promoted to people in both parties (though the seats themselves are nonpartisan). The group of College Board candidates who on one mailer are "Endorsed by the LA County Democratic Party" are featured on another mailer that says "Republicans support..." (without any actual endorsement from a Republican or the party itself). A third mailer with the same picture of this group highlighted the teachers unions' endorsement, trying to appeal to those who are moved by cries of "Won't somebody please think of the children?"

Similarly, another set of mailers are almost exactly the same as each other. But where one has a picture of a donkey in front of a red, white and blue background and the words "Vote Democratic," the other has an elephant and the words "Citizens for Good Government." (I guess they couldn't bring themselves to use the R word, even though in the fine print it shows that several of the candidates are endorsed by the Republican party.)

I guess they're trying to cover all their bases, but it seems dishonest to state that the same candidates are supported by both parties (how often does that happen, especially in a fight that involves teachers union money?). Most people would never notice the claims of support from both sides because they only get one party's mailings. I'm afraid that the false advertising and claims of being all things to all people just make me more cynical and distrustful of all the candidates involved.

On a more positive note, today is a gorgeous, spectacular day in the upper 80s, and I just wanted to share the sunshine with a picture of some flowers from my front yard.


UPDATE (3/6/07): While the title may appear to be a major grammatical train wreck, I realize that not everyone else is a wannabe geek like me and that I'd better provide context. I'll admit that I don't really speak 1337, don't use Ubuntu and I haven't read a comic book since Wendy the Good Little Witch. But I hope you'll forgive me for trying to get in touch with my inner geek from time to time.

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I'm a bit late to the party on the (RED) campaign backlash (see Rohit Bhargava, Ann Handley (and her commenters), Trent Stamp, Drew Neisser and Katya Andresen) but have been watching the proceedings with interest.

Rather than rehash what others have already said, both pro and con, in response to the BuyLessCrap.org campaign (tagline: "Shopping is not a solution. Buy (Less). Give More."), I'll just add what I have not seen being said yet.

As someone who is a pretty minimal consumer, this approach resonates with me. Do we really need to promote consumerism as the solution to what is essentially a political problem? While I can see both sides to the issue, I have always been somewhat uncomfortable with using a cause marketing approach to issues that can be better addressed with a social marketing or political advocacy approach - i.e., issues that require individual or social change.

From a nonprofit's point of view, of course, the opportunity to raise funds through cause marketing partnerships makes a lot of sense. However, looking from a wider lens, many issues are not going to be solved just by throwing more money at them. AIDS and poverty in Africa are entangled with issues of political dictatorship and endemic corruption.

One common praise of the (RED) campaign is that, even if it only donates a fraction of the money spent to promote it, at least it raises awareness of the issue. But how many people do not already know that AIDS is a problem in Africa? And what good is that awareness if it does not lead to some sort of action?

I wrote about this with optimism back in October, but at this point, it's clear that this campaign has missed a huge opportunity to turn awareness into action by not leveraging its connection to Bono's ONE campaign, which does address political and social change. The (RED) campaign could be so easily and effectively tied into a social movement that starts with the purchase of a branded product, but does not end there. Regardless of the actual size of the pool of money flowing in as a result of the campaign, the larger focus should be on growing the pool of people adding their voices for change and giving them a way to express themselves. Social media tools could be used in innovative ways and Bono's involvement provides exciting opportunities to tie music into the campaign as well.

If they start to think big, beyond a single purchase of a product, the results could be inc(RED)ible. Otherwise, I'm afraid the campaign is (LESS) than inspiring.


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Here are this week's items that were not quite big enough to merit their own entry, but which were bigger than just a del.icio.us link:
  • Envision Solutions released results of research on how people are using health information they find online, digging deeper into some of the findings of the Pew Internet & American Life Project. The study found that internet health information seekers are exposed to a significant amount of user-generated media (i.e., blogs, wikis and online bulletin boards), and also frequent websites developed by government, non-profits and corporations. Content provided by peers (particularly Wikipedia) may be perceived as being as credible as that from more "official" sources.
  • The video podcast from the Ypulse "State of Teen TV" event I reported on is now available for your viewing pleasure, along with others on "What Youth Brands Can Learn from the Action Sports World" and "The Future of Teen Magazines." Check them out if you are working with youth.
  • The Kaiser Family Foundation has also made available a webcast of a forum held on Tuesday on "Public Service Advertising in Great Britain: Lessons for US Public Interests." the event featured Alan Bishop, CEO of the United Kingdom's Central Office of Information, the government organization that implements and coordinates all government public education campaigns, and a panel of several other high-placed American execs who deal with PSAs. (Thanks to Mike Newton-Ward for the tip.)
  • I've found out about a couple of interesting blogs related to social change efforts in Second Life. One is called A Better World in Second Life, and is part of Joshua Lev's thesis project, which includes a machinima documentary about activism in Second Life. The other is NPSL: Nonprofits in Second Life, which is a group blog "about non-profit organizations and how they work in Second Life – to collaborate among themselves and with each other, engage with their publics, raise funds, teach, learn and further their real-world goals." I haven't been in SL in a while since my first life has been keeping me pretty busy, but I am still fascinated by the potential it holds for social marketing. (via Beth)
  • Grokdotcom, a blog focusing on "online conversion rate marketing" (which basically means persuading people to take action on your website), has an interesting analysis of the Canadian Make Poverty History website from the point of view of what they call the "four dominant personality types:"
    Methodicals want to know, "How can your solution solve this problem?"

    Humanistics want to know, "Who has used your solution to solve this problem?" or "Who supports your solution to this problem?"

    The Spontaneous wants to know, "Can you quickly tell me why your solution is best for solving the problem now?" and "Why is this the cause for me?"

    And Competitives want to know, "What makes you the best choice for solving this problem?" and "What are your credentials?"
    An interesting way to look (or relook) at any of your communications.
  • Yet another social network for nonprofits has come out called All Day Buffet. It has not quite launched, but is collecting contact info and areas of interest before the full roll-out. It's not clear yet how this will be different from some of the many other social change social networks out there (e.g., Change.org, Idealist, Zaadz, etc.), but at some point I should really do a detailed comparison of them all. (via PSFK)
  • Speaking of social networks, the Marketing & Strategy Innovation Blog had a great article on how green organizations are using MySpace effectively. And if you want to create your own customized social network, I'm exploring uses of Ning, a retooled site that I think holds a lot of promise for organizations who want to build their own online communities without the negative baggage of MySpace or Facebook.
  • If all my posts about using social media for social marketing have inspired you to consider using it in your own program, take a look at Christopher Carfi's list of questions to ask before jumping in. It includes a worksheet that will help you think through the who, when, where, why and how before you make assumptions about the "what." Also see Britt Bravo's long list of examples of how nonprofits and their supporters are using social media (and I especially like her description of blogs as the "gateway drug" -- seems to be true).
  • I love getting glimpses into other bloggers' cultural traditions, so I thought I would share some of mine from time to time. Sunday is the Jewish holiday of Purim (another in the vein of "they tried to kill us, we won, let's eat"), which commemorates how brave Queen Esther saved the Jews of Persia from annihilation as decreed by the king. We celebrate by reading the story, dressing in costumes, giving gifts of food to friends and family, and giving money to poor people in our community. The traditional food, which I baked a ton of the other night, is hamentaschen -- triangle-shaped cookies with a filling inside. (And the other, even more popular, tradition is to drink so much that you can't tell the difference between the good guy and bad guy in the story.) Sadly, the story of an evil ruler of Persia who wants to destroy the Jews is not old news.
Until next week, keep the tips coming...

Photo Credit: fensterj
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There are some things I take for granted. One of those is that if, God forbid, I should ever have to call 911, there will be someone on the other end to help. I never thought much beyond that, other than that somehow my information would be conveyed and an ambulance or fire truck would magically appear at my doorstep. Thanks to the very kind invitation of Brian Humphrey of the Los Angeles Fire Department, last week I got to see firsthand what actually happens at the LAFD dispatch center.

Upon arriving at City Hall and taking the elevator four floors underground, Brian met me and showed me around. His phone kept ringing with various news stations looking for blood and guts to feature during sweeps week. He showed me that his phone has buttons with direct access to various local and national media, the governor and the White House. As the LAFD spokesman, he is a regular guest on television and radio news programs, and I see him quoted in the local papers all the time.

From his desk, Brian has access to information on all of the current incidents that the LAFD is responding to around the city. He looked up my address and found a medical emergency happening not too far from my house. He also showed me all of the information stored in the computer system about my house -- things like the cross streets, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, the year it was built, where the nearest hydrant is (which he said was a really strong one).

I had the opportunity to go out onto the dispatch floor, where a dozen highly trained men and women handle the emergency calls that come in. All 911 calls initially go through the LA Police Department, and as soon as they determine it is a fire or medical emergency, they direct it to the LAFD's dispatch center. I got to sit with one of the dispatchers and listen in on some of the calls that came through. While they all have experience out in the field and know how to handle any emergency situation that comes up, they have to follow a specific protocol for how they ask questions and respond to the callers. Once they establish what type of emergency it is, they flip to the appropriate section in their guide and ask a series of questions to which the only answers can be 'yes,' 'no' or 'I don't know.' This makes sure that there is a certain level of quality control and that nothing is missed.

This attention to collecting detailed information, however, does not delay the arrival of assistance. As soon as the dispatcher has the address and nature of the emergency, the nearest fire station is notified and a fire truck or ambulance is sent out within a minute or two of the receipt of the call. In the meantime, the dispatcher stays on the line with the caller and provides instructions and reassurance until the crew arrives on the scene.

I heard some interesting calls. One was a woman who spoke only Spanish, whose 3-month old baby kept turning blue. She had the baby lying on his stomach while she made the call, and when the dispatcher had her pick up and hold the baby upright, his color improved. As the dispatcher said to me afterward, it's kind of hard to breathe when you are lying on your stomach. During that call, I was also half-listening to the dispatcher on the other side of me trying to calm down a woman whose child had gone into convulsions.

Another call came in from the LAPD, who had received a report from a woman somewhere on the East Coast that a man in LA was suffering from a drug overdose. When the dispatcher called the number she provided, the man answered, sounded perfectly fine, and became distraught when he found out the police and paramedics were on their way. Turns out he had told his mother he was going to swallow a bottle of aspirin, and she believed him, though he told us he did not actually do it. I'm sure that will be the last time he makes that threat.

Other calls included a report of shots fired and possible victims, a suspect under arrest who had scraped up his elbow in the process, and a person with AIDS who needed medical attention (though they are not allowed to note the presence of the disease to the responding paramedics due to privacy issues). Also, upon looking at the list of current incidents, I noticed a familiar address, which was my old high school. Apparently a student there had a seizure and was being treated. Drama is one thing not in short supply in that room.

I was so impressed with the calm and competent way the dispatchers handled the calls. What for the people on the other end of the phone was (hopefully) a once in a lifetime major emergency, was just another call to be dealt with efficiently and effectively so that the dispatcher could move on to the next caller who needed him. It must be incredibly draining to do that type of work. If there is ever a major emergency, the dispatch center can instantly double in capacity by bringing in the people on the next shift who are not on duty but are always available onsite.

Over lunch in the communal dining room (sweetly made to order for me while the other guys ate massive burgers), Brian told me a wonderful story about how he had decided to become a firefighter. When he was a young boy, his father brought him to work with him one day in Van Nuys (a part of LA in the San Fernando Valley). It turned out that the local fire station had an open house that day, and so they went and got a tour. The firefighter who showed them around made such an impression on Brian that he decided that he wanted to be a fireman. He obsessed about it for a while, but ended up moving on to other typical childhood career aspirations. When he got older, he decided that he actually did want to be a firefighter and eventually was accepted into the LAFD's training program -- what he felt was the best department in the country. On the day he found out to which of the more than 100 neighborhood fire stations in the city he would be posted, he was told that he would be at the very same fire station in Van Nuys that he had visited as a boy. Not only that, but he would be working alongside the same firefighter who had given him the tour twenty years earlier. Wow - love that story!

Brian's enthusiasm for the department has certainly not waned since that time. I am struck by the pride he and the others I met have in the LAFD, and, as he often reminds me, it is MY fire department as well. He typifies the ethos -- so often missing in public agencies -- that the department exists to serve, and belongs to, the citizens of Los Angeles.

Sadly, that means that the department is woefully underfunded and is not able to do much beyond the core services such as firefighting, emergency medical services and rescue operations. Brian's blogging and social media activities are not officially funded, and he must fit them in as he can around his other duties. He is grateful to have received gifts from the local blogging community to help him in his work, including some podcasting equipment and a training manual. The lack of funding and the lean staff of three positions doing media outreach and public relations also means that the department is not able to do much proactive public education around prevention. I wonder whether there are foundations or federal/state agencies that fund grants to local fire departments for social marketing campaigns around safety, fire prevention or disaster preparedness. Any takers out there?

Not too long ago, I wrote about the importance of the "face" of your organization -- the frontline staff with whom the public interacts and forms the basis of its opinion about you. With Brian and the emergency dispatchers as its public face, the LAFD is looking very good indeed.


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