Pink Gloves, Hashtags and Lost Opportunities

A few weeks ago on the Hobson and Holtz Report (For Immediate Release 493), Shel Holtz mentioned that participants at this year’s Blog World Expo had been requested to use the Twitter hashtag #fightcancer during the day in order to raise awareness for the fight against the disease. At the time, I remember thinking, “So what? What impact did it have?” Cancer is hardly an orphan disease for which basic awareness is required, so what action did this lead to? How were people incited to take their support forward, for example, by making a donation to cancer research? I know that Neville (@jangles) and @shel are stauch defenders of measurement and evaluation, so I was rather surprised that Shel didn’t address this issue. Wouldn’t it be more helpful to retweet a link to a cancer research charity’s donations page? Or to dietary guidelines to help prevent cancer?

Another cancer awareness piece has just crossed my desk. This time it’s the Pink Glove Dance put together by employees at the Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in Portland, Oregon and posted to YouTube.

According to an e-mail I received, Medline, a company which manufactures latex gloves and which just launched a line of pink gloves to support breast cancer awareness, would make “a huge contribution to the hospital, as well as offering free mammograms for the community” if the video reached a million views (the total was about 1,200,000 when I watched it). Neither the hospital’s website nor Medline’s make any mention of this contribution, although the video is prominently displayed on both sites. But even more bizarrely, now that they’ve raised your awareness, neither organization gives you any help to act on your new awareness.  No links — either on the sites or embedded in the video — not even to the hospital’s fundraising office, let alone a cancer charity or tips for healthy living to prevent cancer.

What a wasted opportunity…grab the attention of 1,200,000  people…and then do absolutely nothing with it.

These two examples are especially disturbing for another reason: the single action bias*. Briefly the single action bias means that when responding to a call for action or threat, human beings are likely to rely on a single action, even when it only addresses the issue to a small degree. People often take no further action, presumably because the first one has calmed the nagging feeling that they should respond. Therefore you need to make it very, very easy for them to take the next step(s) up the chain. Neither of these initiatives did that. In fact, they may actually have discouraged people from making donations if tweeting the hashtag or forwarding the YouTube link gave people the warm, fuzzy feeling of having done “something”.

Ways to counter the single action bias include making people conscious of its existence, providing suggestions for getting incrementally more involved, supplying checklists to remind people over time what else they could do, or issuing renewed calls for action periodically.

*The single action bias was first discussed in Weber, E. U. (1997). Perception and expectation of climate change: Precondition for economic and technological adaptation. In M. Bazerman, D. Messick, A. Tenbrunsel & K. Wade-Benzoni (Eds.), Psychological and Ethical Perspectives to Environmental and Ethical Issues in Management (pp. 314-341). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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5 Replies to “Pink Gloves, Hashtags and Lost Opportunities

  1. As an interesting counter-example to the one I outlined in this post, I’d like to draw attention to the new Christmas video from Pomplamoose Music. Pomplamoose is comprised of a pair of independent musicians who seem to publicize their work solely through social media. (The quality of the music is excellent and the videos are quirky and fun.) At the end of their recently released Christmas video, they ask listener’s to donate a goat to poor people in developing countries through WorldVision. If you send the receipt of your goat donation to Pomplamoose, they’ll send you free MP3 files of upcoming releases. They clearly understand how to use social media for their own business and how to leverage their following in order to support a cause they believe in.

  2. Heather, Tom and Toni,

    You all raise some good points that I’d like to build on. Too often, these campaigns try to solve the wrong problem. Let’s take Heather’s veggie example: if awareness is rising and consumption is falling, then clearly something else is the obstacle. To be effective, we would need to do some research to identify the real constraints.

    * Is expense the problem? Then we need to help people have access to less expensive sources of veggies.

    * Is time a problem? Then rather than focusing on the importance of eating enough fruit and veg, it would make more sense to have a campaign of quick recipes and/or helping people figure out how to work fruit and veg into their daily constraints (for example, eating lunch in sandwich shops every work day).

    Once you know what is really the problem, then you can apply a more effective solution.

    I remember reading a case study where a university conducted an awareness campaign to incite students to get booster shots for their childhood vaccines. Nothing happened. After doing a bit of research, they modified the brochures to include a map showing the campus health clinic and the opening hours; many more students went to get their shots. Interestingly, the students already knew where the clinic was, but the reminder and the practical information about opening hours provided the extra trigger to transform awareness into action. (I think that example is from Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point).

    And Toni, communicators are not the only ones who resist measurement and evaluation for fear of what they might discover. I’ve had a non-communications boss who resisted including numerical objectives in a strategic plan because he viewed failure to reach them as a threat rather than as an opportunity for making improvements. I think there are probably personality and cultural issues that influence how such targets are perceived and experienced.

  3. I agree with Kristen, Heather and Tom, and would add on that responsible communication implies that whoever initiates the communicative relationship consider all the foreseeable consequences of the action.
    Which certainly does not mean freezing any action, but simply the notion that one take responsibility for the action, having weighed all consequences and responobily deciding to it anyway even if some undesired consequences might occur.

    On this basis, there are many studies from different countries demonstrating that often social communication initiatives, based both on advertising and/or public relations, have counterproductive consequences on individual behaviours.
    This, for example, is likely to happen when the behaviour or issue has reached a very high level of awareness/familiarity as drug abuse, smoking, breast cancer etc…. and/or when the source is hardly credible (as with many public or even private institutions or foundations) and/or when the contents are hardly credible.

    So, the three principal indicators of an effective communication, in my opinion, are source credibility, content credibility and content familiarity.
    These indicators are fairly easy to test before rolling out a communication initiative and I often wonder why this happens so rarely..maybe for the usual reason which discourages communicators from evaluation and measurement because they are so unsure of their own selves that they fear negative results?
    May I say that this is irrational behaviour?

    Public relations specifically and much more than advertising, if professionally practiced, has incredible power to modify both opinions and behaviours, which -as we have often argued in this blog- are two quite different animals and increasingly separated one from the other.

  4. Kristen and Heather, good comments and practical suggestions on how to improve the value of these kind of communication efforts. I wonder whether it is the medium that is making it too easy to simply click and respond, along with a greater sense of urgency to respond quickly, rather than to deliberate on a more thoughtful response to solicitations? I often catch myself feeling stretched for time, and when I read something online that requires action, I feel compelled to make a snap decision on whether to respond.

  5. Kristen – you have raised one of my major issues with so many PR campaigns which focus on “awareness” as an end goal.

    Often a lack of awareness is not the actual issue. For example, we are all aware of various health messages – stop smoking, do more exercise, eat five portions of fruit and veg… but do not follow through. As a result, we just get more awareness campaigns – often involving the wrong medium (advertising) which tell us the same message in a different way – yet still doesn’t help address whatever is stopping us from the behavioural change.

    If a cognitive goal is required (and that may be the case rather than a behavioural one) – why not consider understanding, knowledge of, or something that focuses on the psychological issue to be addressed rather than the vague mental state of “awareness”.

    Of course, in some cases, publics may not be aware of an issue – but even then, as you say, this is just a first step. So the PR campaign needs to go beyond that initial awareness and into emotionally engaging, gaining support or whatever is the outcome required.

    One of my students recently told me that the UK governments’s “Five a Day” campaign had increased levels of awareness whilst at the same time, the reported level of eating five fruit/veg portions a day decreased!

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