Meeting the Public Where It’s At

“We don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are”  – Anaïs Nin

In the short time I have officially spent in the real world, I have observed the public health frame provide considerable strength to environmental initiatives.  This frame engages audiences in ways the environmental frame does not.  Lets face it; the environment is not of inherent concern to each and every one of the 7-billion people on this planet.

The effectiveness of the public health angle was most apparent to me when the Star Democrat published an article on the high presence of Vibrio on the eastern shore.  With 825 likes and the exposure of 220 shares on Facebook, the article received an incredible online response.  I combed through each and every comment and share that I could within the limits of Facebook privacy settings.  Surprisingly, at their core, the comments and shares were all the same – general alarm and concern for public health.  It is not uncommon for environmental articles to get the comment wrath of the Negative Nancy’s of the community, but those dissenting views could not be found for this article.  The community even went so far as to say the article did not go far enough.

I monitored social media in the days following the article’s publishing.  For an article that received so much online attention, there was not a single peep, like, share, comment, smoke signal, or carrier pigeon from any of the local NGOs.  This was such a great opportunity for engagement and it went ignored.

Fortunately or unfortunately, public health threats from water quality are popping up left and right in the news.  The coverage is creating what appears to be an opportune time for a greater dialogue on the health and water quality nexus.  Just last week 500,000 people in Toledo, Ohio were left without drinking water due to a harmful algal bloom (HAB) contaminating their water supply.  This bloom was a direct result of excess phosphorus caused by pollution sources like agricultural runoff, stormwater runoff, overflowing sewers, failed septic systems, and lawn fertilizers.  This specific incident may have happened in Toledo, but HABs derivative of excess pollution are nothing new.  Vibrio even received national media coverage for its rise in Florida and other southern states.

The Star Democrat’s article may have gone un-leveraged by local NGOs, but the issue of Vibrio continues to attract attention from other organizations and media outlets across the state.  The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, South River Federation, and West/Rhode Riverkeeper have all weighed in on the bacteria, pollution, and public safety.  The Chesapeake Bay Foundation even reissued their 2009 report on the rise of infections from flesh-eating bacteria that threatens both ecological and public health.  This opportunity should not go un-leveraged.

When it comes to the nexus of water quality and public health, I often think of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition (WVRC) and their demonstrative success with the public health lens.  Responding to a water contamination crisis, the public health frame connected WVRC more deeply with their community.  WVRC gained the support of community members with close ties to the fossil fuel industry who, before the crisis, never supported WVRC’s efforts.  WVRC leveraged their strong base of community support to resolve the specific contamination incident and successfully pass new clean water legislation for the state.

There might not be an obvious call to action when it comes to naturally occurring Vibrio, but it does not make the opportunity for engagement any less real.  Taking advantage of natural opportunities to engage and educate  the community sets the stage for support when emergency issues arise.  After reading the Star Democrat’s article, the public wanted more information.  Local organizations could have filled this information gap and connected this citizen base into a larger conversation on water quality and threats to public health.

Part of successful organizing, particularly online, requires letting the community be the driver (Ward, 2011).  The community was there, galvanized and ready on their own.  Activism via social media does not stop at a “like” or a “share.”  It is up to the NGOs and other related organizations to provide the right asks that move a community into more active roles both online and offline.

Groups should think of “likes” on Facebook as virtually raised hands (Ward, 2011).  There were 825 people raising their hands concerned about the increase of Vibrio in the Talbot County watershed; 825 hands that went ignored.

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project studied “the Social Side of the Internet.”  The project found that being social online means it is more likely you will be social offline.

  • 68% of all Americans said the Internet has had a major impact on the ability of groups to communicate with members.
  • 62% of all Americans said the Internet has had a major impact on the ability of groups to draw attention to an issue.
  • 59% of all American said the Internet has had a major impact on the ability of groups to impact society at large.
  • 49% of all Americans said the Internet has had a major impact on the ability of groups to impact local communities.

This is significant.  Based on this research, it is clear the online response to the local Vibrio article presented an opportunity for deeper engagement.  A chance to move those 825 “raised hands” into offline action.  I doubt those 825 people would be ignored if they showed up at an organization’s doorstep.

The stars are aligning around the water quality and public health nexus.  The public cares about this issue; they raised their hands.  Now it is up to the NGOs to meet the public where it is at, acknowledge their interest, and leverage the opportunity that naturally presented itself from utilizing a public health lens.