Does Greenpeace Cause More Harm than Good?

The effort to shut down Chicago’s two coal plants literally climbed to new levels on Tuesday, as eight activists from environmental watchdog group Greenpeace scaled the smokestack of the coal-fired Fisk Generating Station power plant.

The activists spent most of Tuesday and Wednesday morning hanging from the 450-foot high smokestack, while painting the phrase “Quit Coal” in giant letters.  The eight were later arrested and charged with felony criminal damage to property.

Eight more Greenpeace activists worked to halt the approach of a coal barge at the city’s other major power plant. The activists dropped off a bridge near the Crawford coal plant, and unfurled a banner with “We Can Stop Coal” written in both English in Spanish.

While the scene was hectic at Fisk, it was nothing compared to the chaos at Crawford.  Traffic was backed up for miles. Dozens of police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances lined the street, where ornery officers barked at the press to stay on one side of the street. Meanwhile, the activists dangled below the bridge, preventing a coal barge from passing for hours.

The action was part of an ongoing campaign led by Greenpeace and other national and local environmental groups, focused on cleaning up air pollution by replacing both of Chicago’s coal plants with clean energy.

According to Greenpeace, coal fired power plants kill between 13,000 and 34,000 people a year.  That staggering figure includes the 42 Chicagoans who die as a result of pollution from Fisk and Crawford.  And according to a report from the Clean Air Task Force, residents are at risk for heart disease, cancer, and respiratory illness because of pollution from these plants.

“Some may question these aggressive tactics,” said SparkLight Communications President Joseph LaMountain.  “But Greenpeace has carved a unique niche with their ability to draw the spotlight onto issues they care about.  This is critical for the success of any movement and their actions, no matter how outlandish you may find them, have been essential to the environmental community’s success.”

The Zombie of Public Awareness Campaigns

According to the National Institutes of Health, 20 percent of Americans sleep less than six hours each night.  This can lead to mistakes in the workplaces, costing American businesses billions of dollars each year.

That’s why the Better Sleep Council (BSC), a trade association representing the mattress industry, declared May as national “Stop Zombieitis!” awareness month.

The BSC sought to use social networks to identify and educate those who complain of the symptoms of “zombieitis” – feeling like death, exhaustion, irritability, and a slow gait.

“Linking sleep deprivation to zombies is a clever idea, especially for a social media campaign,” said Sparklight President Joseph LaMountain.  “Millions are sleep deprived and zombies are a popular online meme, so this was a great opportunity for BSC to reach a wide audience with its messages.”

But that hasn’t really happened.  The campaign website was not intuitive and took several visits to understand.  Their three YouTube videos were seen fewer than 700 times while the “Stop Zombieitis” Facebook group counted fewer than 600 friends and hardly any engagement with members.

“What the BSC discovered is that it takes more than just a clever idea for an awareness campaign to work,” LaMountain said.  “Putting a couple videos online, creating a Facebook page, and hoping that your video goes viral is not the best strategy.”

As representatives of the mattress industry, the BSC could have aggressively reached consumers through retail outlets, manufacturers lists of customers and delivery trucks.  They could have used targeted online advertising (Facebook and Google AdWords) and reached out to niche “horror” blogs to gain traction.

“Social media is a great tool for reaching people,” LaMountain said, “but it’s not enough to simply post your content online and wait for the masses to arrive.  It has to be part of a comprehensive marketing and communications plan if it’s going to work.”

A Bright Idea for Raising Awareness

Nearly every nonprofit tries to raise awareness about its cause.  Unfortunately, most rely on the same old tactics which, I find, don’t really reach or educate that many people.

Most groups try to raise awareness with media coverage.  They issue a news release, call a few reporters, maybe post a video on YouTube, and hope for the best.

If you’re lucky, this can result in a couple news stories.  But because we live in a 24/7 media culture, those stories are largely forgotten the next day.

My recommendation?  Stop focusing on mass media and start using “people media” to spread the word.  In other words, get your members and supporters to spread the word, and raise awareness, for you.

While mass media is fleeting, personal communications are persuasive and can have lasting impact.  Think about it this way: What would convince you to try a new restaurant in town, a newspaper advertisement or a recommendation from a friend?

Nonprofits often have thousands of volunteers who are willing and able to spread the word.  Put them to work!  By giving them specific tasks to perform, you can reach millions with your message while cultivating an active, informed and engaged membership.

The Epilepsy Foundation used this strategy for National Epilepsy Awareness Month in 2010.  It created the Get Seizure Smart! quiz and told volunteers how to distribute it.  More than 2.25 million copies were distributed through schools, libraries, businesses, houses of worship and online.

It gets better.  More than 95% of campaign participants declared it a success and said they’d do it again.  This is also a great way to show your members the value of supporting the organization.  My guess is that a follow-up fundraising appeal to this engaged audience would do spectacularly well.

Fortunately, a word-of-mouth campaign doesn’t cost a ton of money to create and implement.  So the next time you need to raise awareness about your cause, forget about mass media and instead harness the power of your supporters and friends.

This Kind of Ink Gets you Noticed

“For years I tried to get people interested in Huntington’s Disease,” said Kelly Croall Spisak of Louisiana.  A rare genetic disease that affects the neurological system, Spisak handed out thousands of brochures and  pamphlets about HD, but never really felt like she was connecting with people.

That changed once she got a tattoo.   Located on the underside of each wrist, one shows the Huntington’s Disease Society of America logo while the other states “Care to Cure HD.”

The impact was immediate.  “Once people see the tattoos, they start asking me all about HD, what it is and why I got the tattoos,” Spisak said.

Spisak is not alone.  She is one of a growing number of Huntington’s Disease patient advocates that are using body art as a way to help raise awareness about the disease.

Alicia Hogue was inspired after learning about Pat Wolf’s HD tattoo.  “She had a little ‘Cure HD’ tat,” Hogue said.  “Once the cure had been found, she was going to add a ‘D’ to it.  I came up with my own version and my husband, who’s a tattoo artist, did it for me. I’ll add a D and color in the remaining puzzle pieces [once there is a cure].”

Tattoos typically have decorative and spiritual uses, including the memorialization of deceased loved ones.  Many HD tattoos fall into this category.  At the same time, the tattoos have generated many conversations about the disease unlike any pamphlet or brochure.

“Doing something different and interesting is a great way to generate word-of-mouth conversations about your cause, company or candidate,” said Joseph LaMountain, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and President of SparkLight Communications.  “A tattoo about a rare medical disorder definitely gets your attention and is a great way to get the conversation started.”

Of course, not everyone affected by HD will want to get a tattoo.  But as word-of-mouth spreads, it seems likely that the number of people with an HD tattoo will grow.

“I’m not sure if the tattoo thing is something that a LOT of people do,” Hogue said, “but I think it’s just because they don’t think about it. I know that once my sister saw and heard about mine she vowed to get one too.  I definitely think it’s something that is catching on though, for sure.”

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