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Tapping into the power of messaging to tackle drought

The first global water conference in almost half a century took place last week. At the event in New York, the warning from the United Nations was truly frightening: we are blindly traveling a dangerous path of “vampiric” water overconsumption and, as a result, are at risk of more frequent, severe, and prolonged droughts.

Already this year, Italy and France are preparing for a second consecutive year of drought, with France launching a “water sobriety plan” following its driest winter on record. Elsewhere, severe water shortages continue in countries including Uruguay, Morocco, and Iran.

At its heart, effective communications inform, inspire and persuade target audiences to adopt new attitudes and behaviors – and so I believe that helping combat the climate crisis is our profession’s biggest, and most important, challenge.

As climate change continues to increase water scarcity, the job of communications in persuading people and industry to reduce water use is becoming more critical than ever before. And, as with any effective strategy, clear messaging – carefully targeted toward specific key audiences via the most appropriate channels at the right time – is key to success.

The power of simplicity, consistency and frequency

Simple, actionable steps can help encourage consumers to save water, for example prompts on toothpaste tubes to switch off the tap when brushing. During the 2012 drought in England (where a risk of returning to last year’s severe drought remains), the UK Environment Agency established a communications group that brought together teams across government, industry, utilities and campaign groups to agree on a standard set of five top water-saving tips for the public. This unified, targeted approach meant key audiences were far more likely to see, understand and act – whether they received the same message via a media interview, through social media, or on a leaflet; from a non-profit, utility company or government official.

A little nudge goes a long way

When designing messaging, the use of behavioral nudges in highlighting social norms to create a sense of social pressure can also be highly effective. A Georgia State University study, for example, found that personalized letters to 100,000 households in Atlanta showing how their personal water use compared to the average helped reduce consumption by five percent among the biggest users. Given people are far more likely to do something if they believe others are doing the same, it’s important to design messages which emphasize the popularity of a behavior or attitude.

Tap into news values

Harnessing the power of timeliness and relevance – the most important news values – can give effective messaging a huge boost. Despite retaining drought status across some parts of the state, many parts of California have experienced severe flooding this year and widespread media interest, ironically, offered federal agencies and nonprofits a golden opportunity to convey messages about saving water to consumers, farmers, and industry. So called ‘newsjacking’ is always an effective tool to consider, especially when it gives communicators the chance to engage with audiences about a specific issue when they are far more likely to be receptive.

Tech for good

Successful campaigns can also harness people’s natural interest in technological advances. For example, Rachio launched a Smart Hose Timer at CES 2023 that not only runs automatic schedules but will automatically skip watering if it rains, while Moen, a faucet manufacturer, created smart wireless soil sensors to customize watering for each part of the garden, reducing water use by up to 30%.

Lumo, an innovative smart irrigation valve that helps farmers save water, improve crop quality and reduce costs, recently partnered with Clarity to raise vital funds to bring their solution to market with a campaign that focused on the product’s potential to reduce water use and increase growers’ productivity and profitability.

While climate change presents a growing threat to water resources across the globe, effective, targeted messaging will be key to help governments, industry, nonprofits and others motivate everyone to change attitudes and behaviors, encouraging sustainable water use for the future.

Jason Wakeford is Senior Vice President, Communications at Clarity PR and former Chief Media Officer at the UK Environment Agency.


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