Are Your Awareness Campaigns Just Trivia?

Awareness2awareness

By Phil La Duke

In the U.S. October marks national breast-cancer awareness month which manifests itself with people and products festooned in pink. There. Now you are aware of breast cancer. What changes will you make because of your new-found awareness? None? That doesn’t surprise me. Each month, somewhere on the planet someone is trying to raise awareness of one thing or another. It seems like a great idea but ultimately it does little to solve the problem.

Many organizations launch similar “awareness” campaigns and these campaigns also sound like a good idea. Unfortunately, too often they leave the audience feeling a bit confused as to precisely what to do with the information. Awareness campaigns can be an important tool in the safety practitioner’s toolbox but only if done correctly. Here are some ways I’ve found that make the difference between a useful awareness campaign and one that isn’t:

  • Recognize that awareness isn’t the ultimate goal. We want people to DO something with the information once they have become aware of it. I am aware of the dangers posed by working with asbestos but being aware of this isn’t enough; I also need to know what I should do to protect myself and others from these dangers. If the awareness campaign simply focuses on the dangers, or that focuses disproportionately on the dangers and short-shrifts the practical application of that awareness people tend to feel inadequately prepared to protect themselves from the danger. Building awareness is an essential part of making the workplace safer, but without a call to action awareness is pointless at one end of the spectrum and frustrating at the other.
  • Be specific. Too often awareness campaigns are so broad that they don’t really make people aware of anything useful. I have seen “work safe” campaigns that are basically cheerleading sessions. A much more effective campaign would be to identify ways to work safe, for example, the campaign could focus on fitness to work and provide a way for workers to assess their own fitness for work. Reminding someone to die isn’t the same as saving their lives. I recall an instance where a colleague was explaining the dangers of a particular situation where the worker was skipping some critical safety requirements on a task where if things went wrong a fatality was likely. The worker he was coaching looked at him skeptically and said, “yeah, but how likely is that?” My colleague looked at him for a moment and paused before he said, “about one in ten times”. The worker eyes got as big as saucers and he said, “I’ve done that at least ten times!” Okay this example fits more than just “be specific” (it was personal, emotional, and addressed issues that weren’t obvious) but I think it nicely illustrates that specific awareness is far more powerful than general awareness.
  • Address issues that aren’t obvious. An awareness campaign aimed at the dangers of drunk driving will probably fall flat, but an awareness campaign focused on the dangers of driving while using prescription drugs or driving while fatigued is more likely to generate interest. A good awareness campaign should invite the response “I didn’t know that” not a sarcastic “no kidding?” Years ago, comedian Jerry Seinfeld joked about sky divers wearing helmets. He asked if anyone really thought that wearing a helmet would protect someone if their parachute failed. It was a funny bit, and I shared it with a friend of mine who was a two-time world champion sky-diver; he didn’t think it was funny at all. “Let’s see how funny Jerry Seinfeld thinks it is when he slams his head against another skydiver going 80 mph”. He explained that the helmet made sure that a skydiver who bumped heads with another diver didn’t lose consciousness and be unable to pull the cord on his or her chute. In less than 30 seconds I was made aware of a danger that wasn’t obvious.
  • Focus on changing behaviors. Once someone is aware of a danger, we hope he or she will use that awareness to behave differently and encourage others to work differently as well. We want people to respect the dangers we have communicated to them and have their new-found respect for the danger drive changes in their lives. But as stated above, we want to encourage the right behaviors. Years ago I worked in nuclear energy as a contract security guard. The client company went to great pains to make us all aware of the dangers of exposure to radioactive materials. I left the session so afraid of being irradiated and dying a slow, horrible death that I quickly escalated my job search and left the site. Instead of focusing on the horrific effects of exposure to nuclear waste and describing in painstaking detail what happened to people who got careless about radiation the company would have been better served focusing on practical common-sense ways to protect myself from the dangers of radiation and focusing on identifying at risk behaviors that I should avoid and encourage others to avoid. Had they done this my life might have turned out very differently.
  • Make it emotional, but not melodramatic. Marie-Claire Ross authored a wonderful book Transform Your Safety Communication: How to Create Targeted and Inspiring Safety Messages for a Productive Workplace. This book is a guide for making safety communications better and I recommend picking it up. She makes a good point that emotional first-hand accounts from people who were affected by an event have the strongest effect. People have a natural tendency to empathize with afflicted people…to a point. Psychological studies have found that if the message becomes too powerful the audience will subconsciously suspend belief. Think of Charlie Morecraft’s speeches and videos where he tells his story. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Charlie’s story, Charlie is a survivor of a horrible workplace accident that resulted in him being horribly burned. Charlie has a genuineness about him and easy conversational style that makes him easy to listen to. In the right audience Charlie’s story is powerful and compelling. But his story is so powerful that in the wrong audience it can backfire. Charlie worked in oil and gas and by his own admission took shortcuts, violated procedures, and generally screwed up. I remember an autoworker commenting to me after he watched a video of Charlie’s story. “What am I supposed to learn from that screw-up?” he asked, “most of what happened to him was his own fault.” He went on to explain that anyone who took the chances Charlie did in an Oil & Gas environment was insane and reckless. Then he went on to explain how much different his own work environment was from Charlie’s. Charlie’s message was clearly too powerful for this man to process and so he looked for reasons why what happened to Charlie couldn’t happen to him. The awareness campaign for that man (although many people benefited from the campaign) was a colossal failure.
  • Have credible sources. One of the first things they teach you about adult learning is that you have to establish your credibility before anyone will listen to you and the same is true with any good awareness campaign. If you can’t answer “how do you figure?” with a credible source of the information you will not be successful convincing anyone that they should change their behaviors. An element of credibility is getting your facts straight. All it takes is one false statement or disputed claim—which happens a lot in the world of worker safety—and your credibility is diminished. If your credibility is diminished enough people stop listening.
  • Make it personal. A key component of any communication is the WIIFM (pronounced wiff em). WIIFM providing people with an awareness of things that they don’t believe will ever affect them is essentially trivia. For an awareness campaign to be effective the message must resonate with the individuals that hear it. If what you promise isn’t especially compelling it falls flat and people mentally checkout; the message doesn’t pertain to them.
  • Don’t exaggerate. Too often, in our zeal to create a compelling argument we tend to overstate the dangers of a situation. Driving is dangerous; it involves many people moving in concert doing stupid and unpredictable things. In fact, driving is probably the most dangerous thing that people do on a routine basis. But if someone told you that if you continued to drive you would ultimately be killed you would brand them a fool and ignore everything they said, even if they told you your fly was open and you could feel the cool fall breeze gentle wafting across your naughty parts.
  • Stimulate debate. A group’s capacity to remember key points is far greater than that of an individual. Your awareness campaign should get people talking to each other about it. Years ago I was asked to spearhead an awareness campaign for a suggestion program. Each suggestion that was made entered the contributor into a monthly gift card. Each suggestion that was implemented entered the person into quarterly drawing for a free, all expenses paid trip (up to $2,500). We began by putting up travel posters to various vacation destinations. We put them up without anyone’s knowledge (except the top executives) and offered no explanation. After 2 weeks my team went around with markers and vandalized all the posters, writing things like “yeah right! Who has time for that?” People were outraged, even people who normally would say and think those things thought that the vandalism crossed the line. And then we announced the program and it was an unprecedented success. Even months after the initial campaign people were still talking about how audacious the awareness campaign was.

Awareness without context, purpose, or action is trivia. What’s more, a poorly executed safety can do more harm than good—when people think you’re a blithering idiot they won’t listen to what you have to say, now or ever. First impressions are lasting and you only get one shot at it so take some time and do it right.

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