Ready for the Zombie Invasion (or any other disaster)

Flickr Photo Credit: d200 dug No censorship!

One of the big frustrations disaster preparedness professionals constantly face is the difficulty of getting people to acknowledge the likelihood of an emergency event — whether its a natural disaster, pandemic flu or manmade terrorism — and to take actions to be ready if when it happens. The fact is, people don’t like to think about worst-case scenarios, and they definitely don’t like to have to spend effort and money to address something that they think is likely never to happen to them.

Public health and safety folks tend to come at the problem from a straightforward “Here are the facts. Are you prepared?” angle. Sometimes they also try to scare people into taking action. But you don’t often see disaster preparedness as a fun and social activity. Of course, the best idea I’ve seen for getting people engaged with the issue didn’t come from the professionals at all, but from a group of friends looking for fun. And talk about worst-case scenarios — it doesn’t get much worse than a full-out zombie invasion.

Zombie SquadI first found out about Zombie Squad from @rachky and @zen_jewitch on Twitter. Looking at the website, I went from an initial “Huh?” to “Wow, what a brilliant idea!” Seeing the potential for social marketers to be inspired by this unconventional approach to a conventional topic, I requested an interview with members of the Squad. A big thanks to Kyle Ladd, a member of the ZS Board of Directors and one of its founders, and Christopher Cyr, the ZS accountant, for taking the time to answer my questions.
(Zombie Squad Photo Credit: Mike Dressler)

First of all, can you explain what Zombie Squad is?

Zombie Squad is the world’s premiere non-stationary cadaver
suppression task force. Of course, as you may know, our mission is not
only to keep your neighborhood safe from the shambling hordes but also
to help guide and educate others to better prepare themselves for any
disaster. We want the public to be ready for anything from a natural
or man made disaster, like a tornado or earthquake, to a full on
zombie apocalypse.

Our organization focuses on fulfilling its mission by sharing
information and promoting education about issues concerning survival
and preparation. We also encourage our large member base to be
involved in community organizations that promote disaster awareness or
assist in recovery efforts. Our members volunteer their time, attend
and organize fundraisers, and give to their communities in a number of
ways. By using the zombie survival theme, we are able to reach a
demographic that many organizations are unable to.

How did you get the idea to start Zombie Squad? Fighting off the
undead is not an obvious market niche.

The official story involves a group of friends returning home from a
movie one night and discussing how they would survive better than any
of the characters in the film. From there the idea grew into a group
of people who thought it would be fun to gain the skills necessary to
actually survive a scenario where society has fallen. As they told
their idea to other friends, word spread and the organization began to
take shape. Early members realized the practicality and usefulness of
many of the skills they were acquiring. The zombie survival theme
provides a fun context to learn basic survival skills, with none of
the usual stigma attached to being called a “survivalist.”

What kinds of people tend to join Zombie Squad?

We have active members from all walks of life ranging from graphic
designers and tattoo artists to military officers and lawyers. Cult
fans of the zombie/horror/post-apocalyptic genre seem to be
everywhere. It always amazes me how our members consistently donate
their time, effort, and money to support their communities.

What types of organizations hire your services or trainings?

Some of the organizations ZS has worked with include larger charities
like the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity and Cancer Society but we try
to focus our efforts more towards the local communities where our
respective chapters reside. We do a lot of work putting on fund
raisers for local charities and collecting for local food and blood

How do you do your public outreach and education? What types of
activities do you use to raise awareness of disaster preparedness and
zombie survival?

Zombie Squad reaches the public via several paths. First and foremost
is our website which hosts general disaster preparation information
via our blog, well managed discussion forums and videos.

Over the last several years we’ve branched out with our traveling
“Zombie Survival” seminars that focus on general disaster preparation
with a zombie twist. These seminars draw quite a crowd who in many
cases come to see us for the zombie aspect but leave with knowledge
and interest in steps they can take to be more prepared for more
relevant disasters. We originally focused on sci-fi and horror
conventions around the country, but we’re also regularly invited to
bring our show to Boy Scout Troops, universities, disaster fairs and
even REI stores.

Last year our St. Louis Chapter put on its own disaster fair and it
was a huge success. The fair took place during the one year
anniversary of a series of storms that tore through St. Louis leaving
over 500,000 people without power, many for a week or more, on the
hottest days of the year. Another storm hit St. Louis again that
winter with similar devastation of local utilities. The goal of the
fair was to promote the importance of being prepared for similar
disasters and to bring local disaster agencies together to talk about
what they do for the community. We brought in guest speakers and
representatives who set up informational booths from a number of local
disaster response agencies such as the Red Cross, CERT, ARES, Human
Society, SCC Health Dept and others.

In addition to these educational programs our chapters host fund
raisers for various organizations, food drives, movie nights and other
events, as mentioned in the previous question.

Would you say the emphasis of your organization is more on having
fun with the zombie theme or on the disaster preparedness message?
Which part of it do you think gets people motivated to take action?

Both. Zombie Squad is occasionally described as an organization that
tricks people into learning. While many participants are drawn to our
events by their interest in the zombie and post apocalyptic
entertainment elements, they come to realize that everything we
present has real world applications.

At what point does the zombie fun end, and the serious
life-and-death discussions begin? Are there some issues at which you
draw the line at being humorous?

That’s a good question. We do have plenty of lines drawn to make sure
people don’t get the wrong impression. For instance, we clearly state
that the “zombies” we discuss are metaphors for natural and man made
disasters. They are not codewords for people of other races,
nationalities, religions, sexual orientation, or anything similar.

What are some of the advantages of addressing such a usually serious
and fear-driven topic from a new angle?

Taking the topic seriously but keeping it fun is a great way to keep
people interested. There are a number of informational campaigns that
have tried to scare the public into preparing for some big disaster,
but those fear tactics in marketing always appear unauthentic. The
average person sees through that facade. Our goal is to make sure
people respect the danger that disasters pose, but not live in fear of
them. Preparation is the key to beginning to control that fear.

What have been some of the barriers you’ve come up against in using
this unique approach to disaster preparedness, among your members, the people you are trying to reach, potential funders or others?

The obvious major barrier is the zombie survival theme itself. While
it is a great tool for reaching specific people, others tend to
automatically tune out the message. Usually this barrier is overcome
by calmly explaining that we do not actually think the dead will crawl
out of their graves any time soon (though we’re ready if they do). At
that point, people either get it, or they move on. The truth is,
there are a number of organizations out there that already cater to
those people.

Do you have any advice for other people working on health and social
causes who are trying to figure out how to make their messages
appealing and fun?

Bring in as many young people as you can. They have the best ideas
and the most motivation. The hard part is keeping their interest.
Stay on top of pop-culture trends and figure out a way to use it to
your advantage.

You can always try bribing them. One thing we find is that people
like to know that their time is appreciated when they volunteer.
There are great, inexpensive, and fun ways to reward volunteers for
their involvement that keep them happy and eager to support your

One project we’re working on now is our “Volunteer Awards Program.”
Not all of our members are able to get involved with local chapters,
so this program will allow them to still volunteer in their community
as part of Zombie Squad. Under the program, members will volunteer
for an organization with a cause they feel worthy of supporting and
keep track of their hours on a form we provide. We’re really flexible
about where they can volunteer. They just need to contact us for
approval if it’s not a charity on our list. Then at the end of the
year they tell us how many hours they volunteered and we send them a
number of incentive awards ranging from a new enamel ZS pin, patches,
stickers, shirts, and so forth, based on their level of participation.
It’s a way for us to thank our members for doing their part and it
helps us to get an idea what sort of charities our members are
interested in. We’re looking forward to how this program turns out and
our members seem really excited about participating.

Do you have any funny or unusual stories you can share that have
come out of the work you do? (Notwithstanding, of course, the fact
that the work itself is funny and unusual!)

The thing that always brings smiles to the faces of our members is the
realization of how far the organization’s message has spread. It’s a
common occurrence for Zombie Squad members nationwide to be out in
their communities wearing a ZS t-shirt and hear someone yell “Zombie
Squad” to them, or walk up and ask how they know about the
organization. When you think about the fact that this organization
started over a discussion held by a few people in a van in South St.
Louis, Missouri…it’s pretty amazing.

Is there anything else you would like to mention that I haven’t asked about?

Don’t you want to know about the robot threat?

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Sticker Charts for 40 Year Olds

I just turned 40 the other day and realized I might not live forever. So, I’ve decided to try to do something about that – the usual: eat better, exercise more, go to bed earlier. These are all things I’ve worked on at various other times in my life that somehow didn’t quite stick. The irony is that what I do for a living is figuring out how to motivate other people to adopt healthy behaviors. Why is it so hard to apply social marketing concepts to myself?

I thought about the benefits that I would get from becoming healthier, the barriers that I would need to overcome, how to remind myself to do these things in the places where I will see them and motivate myself to keep going once the novelty wears off…

And I realized that the answer is something that has been so much a part of my life as a mommy that I didn’t even see it right in front of me. What have I done to motivate my kids, when they were younger, to do something they didn’t want to do, whether it was getting through swim lessons, being polite or going to the potty themselves? Sticker charts! They got a sticker for each time they did what I wanted them to do, and after a certain number of stickers they would get a prize of their choosing — a My Little Pony, a pack of Yu-Gi-Oh cards, whatever worked. And they did work!

So I sat down and created myself a grown-up version of a sticker chart, with columns for each behavior I want to try to do each day and a row for each day of the month. Since I’m 40, I guess I don’t need actual stickers; checkmarks will do. I have five sets of behaviors I want to try to do each day, and I decided that once I accumulate 100 checkmarks I will treat myself to a reward just for me. I’m not sure yet what it will be, since there’s not really a THING that I’m lusting after. Maybe it will be something like a guilt-free morning spent lying on the beach, a visit to the museum alone without complaining kids tugging at me, a massage, or something else that feels special.

Sustaining motivation, setting goals, finding the right rewards — these are all things we have to take into consideration when we create social marketing programs aimed at other people. It’s when you have to apply it to yourself that the concepts really come to life. What have you done in the past to motivate yourself to reach your own goals?

Photo Credit: Breeezy

Change the Environment, Change the Behaviors

Often, people want to take healthy actions, but don’t have the ability or opportunity to do so. Public health professionals trying to prevent obesity in the inner city have long lamented poor neighborhoods’ lack of availability of fresh produce and healthy food choices at reasonable prices. When there is nowhere nearby to buy healthy food, it often doesn’t get bought.

People are very receptive to suggestions. That is a fact and people who have spent so much time in marketing knows this. Even CEOs of companies give themselves daily reminders like canvas prints on the wall (visit PrintSuccess for this) to keep the motivation going and keeping the focus towards the goal.

Public radio show Marketplace had a story today about how British supermarket chain Tesco plans to open a hundred stores in the Western U.S, many of them in low income neighborhoods that the local supermarkets have stayed away from. The piece highlighted the dire state of food shopping in a Downtown Los Angeles market:

The market’s single aisle is too narrow for us to walk side by side. We squeezed past a display of lettuce greens turning sickly shades of brown.

The refrigerators are stocked with sugary yogurt, lard, packets of American cheese slices, and gallons of milk — just about to expire — for $4.

Tesco will be opening a dozen “Fresh and Easy” markets in the LA area, which will offer fresh produce, meats and prepared meals. Fresh and Easy’s marketing director, Simon Uwans, found that

almost irrespective of the type of household we went into, people were telling us what they wanted was fresh wholesome food and they wanted it to be affordable and they wanted it to be in their neighborhood.

Local health educator Rosa Giron is quoted as saying, “This community is an emergency for obesity and diabetes for childrens, because they don’t eat right.” And based on the infrastructure, a communication program telling people the benefits of eating more fruits and vegetables would not get very far.

Had Tesco not decided that this was a commercial marketing opportunity, perhaps social marketers could have figured out a way to change the shopping environment to facilitate the purchase and consumption of healthy food. Farmers markets are one approach that have been used successfully. Perhaps community produce co-ops would work. Elementary school-based community vegetable gardens, partnerships with local stores that start to offer healthier choices, portable “root cellars” that keep veggies fresher longer… all of these are ways of changing the environment, which would in turn make healthy behavior changes more likely.

Communications are not always the answer. See how you can change the environment itself to make it more conducive to the behavior you want to promote.

Photo Credit: mleak

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Into the Routine

After digging my way out of the stacks of boxes from the move, I’m ready to get back to the blog. Thanks so much to Sandy Beckwith for so ably holding down the digital fort for me. Now that you’ve had a taste of her nonprofit PR wisdom, I hope you will check out her book Publicity for Nonprofits: Generating Media Exposure that Leads to Awareness, Growth and Contributions. Sandy recently started a blog at Amazon connected to her book, and I look forward to reading her future posts.

It’s hard to get back into a rhythm when something big like a move, an illness, or even summer vacation comes along to put a wrench in your routine. My exercise and healthy eating habits have definitely suffered from the interruption.

This got me thinking about how important it is, when promoting a behavior change, to help people figure out how to incorporate it into their daily routine. So, people who have to remember to take a pill should tie the action to something they do every day like brushing their teeth or eating breakfast. Many people need to exercise first thing in the morning, or they will never get to it. The fire department suggests replacing your smoke detector batteries when you change the clocks for daylight saving time.

Finding a definite, recurring event on which to tie the behavior will make it much easier for people to remember it and build it into their lives. Now if only I could find the box with my tennis shoes in it.

Photo Credit: lane collins


Can I tell you a secret? I hate exercise. I go through phases where I do it because I know it’s good for me. Then I stop for a while and start up again months later. I just have a really hard time motivating myself.

You would think as a social marketer, I would have some special insight into what would make me want to exercise. What benefits do I value? What barriers need to be taken away to make it happen? But no, I’m just like every other shlub whom the physical activity social marketing programs are trying to get to budge from their desks. I’m the shoemaker who has no shoes.

This time, the thing that got me moving is what works with just about every mother at some point in her life — worrying about what might happen to my family if, God forbid, I had a catastrophic health event because I didn’t take care of myself well enough. (If all else fails, using maternal guilt for motivation is bringing out the big guns.)

So, I dug out my old Walkman and went for a walk last week for the first time in a couple of months. I always like to listen to the radio while I walk, but I had a hard time finding music with a good beat for walking. It was after trying to walk to 30 Seconds to Mars’ song Bury Me and finding myself feeling like I was limping along to try to keep up with the 6/8 beat (a Souza march it wasn’t) that I decided to get an iPod and some optimized exercise music. My deal with myself was that I could buy a used iPod on eBay if I promised to use it to exercise.

The iPod arrived today, so I loaded it up with my music and downloaded some exercise music podcasts. I found a couple of places where you can choose the workout music based on the number of beats per minute, so you can find exactly the pace that works for your stride and type of exercise (Podrunner is one source, and fitPod is another).

This evening I took the iPod and the selected 1-hour workout mix on their inaugural walk. And wow – what a difference it makes to have a beat that matches my stride. My feet just automatically keep pace with the music. But the downside of using these free downloads is that they are all centered around horrid techno music that sounds basically the same from song to song. One song had a breathy Scandinavian woman singing vapid lyrics like “express your emotions.” Another song featured a deep voice saying the word “cee-crisp” over and over to the beat. Yeah, I was wondering what that meant too. At least it took my mind off of the exercise.

So the opening night of the iPod walking tour was a success. But I need to find some listenable music. Anyone have suggestions for rock-based workout compilations?

I’m not going to start exerblogging (a la fatblogging (LA Times free registration req.)), but if anyone wants to be my virtual exercise partner or share what motivates you to exercise, let me know!

Photo Credit: auntnanny

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Be Reasonable

Growing up in Los Angeles, we got used to going through droughts and being careful about our water consumption. When it was really bad, we had to turn off the shower water while lathering up, put bricks in the toilet tank to use less water, and endure the terrible inconvenience of restaurants not bringing a glass of water unless requested. Record low rainfall (the same this year as the annual equivalent of Death Valley’s) and low snowpack on the mountains from which we get our water, combined with predicted high temperatures this summer, means that we’re gearing up again for drought measures.

Sounds pretty dire, huh? But this time it doesn’t feel so hard to deal with. Our Mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, just issued a call to Angelenos to reduce our water use by 10 percent. Not a major lifestyle change, but simply cutting 10 percent from what you would normally use. That sounds pretty reasonable and doable. It just means moving a little faster in the shower or skipping one day a week, watering the lawn every three days instead of two, combining smaller loads of laundry together, not leaving the hose running while you wash the car. The specificity of the request makes it easy to think of ways to implement it.

If the Mayor had just said “Use less water,” it would make me feel like whatever I did would not be enough. I could always use less water than the amount of my current consumption. But a reduction of 10 percent is concrete and achievable. It doesn’t evoke bad memories of putting buckets in the shower to catch the runoff for watering plants.

In your programs, are you asking people to give ’til it hurts and then give some more? Or are you reasonable in your request, asking people to make small changes (at least at first) that will add up over time? Be concrete in your messages rather than exhorting people to a vague call to action.

After a while, people will get used to the “new normal” and you can then work on another small step. You’d have a hard time finding a Los Angeles native over a certain age who keeps the faucet running while brushing his teeth. Now I just need to find a location other than the shower to do my daydreaming.

If you want to join me, here are 100 water-saving tips for different regions of the country.

Photo Credit: diedm

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