Patricia McLaughlin, MA
AVP of Communications

“Cause Crafting”: Reaching Youth, Changing Behaviors

In today’s climate of expanded media channels, competing forms of entertainment and what feels like ‘information everywhere’ – it’s not just companies and brands vying for attention. Cause-related organizations are also part of the mix – striving to get their messages heard or information disseminated to the right audiences. Many may also seek to change specific behaviors and ultimately engage consumers in their mission. Charities that are national in scope – from the ALS Association and its highly-successful ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ to smaller local charities that may be feeding the hungry in your community or bolstering local arts programs – all try to reach key audiences in efforts to educate, raise money, mobilize action, or gather community support.

The role of communications professionals is dynamic as we try to secure “earned” mentions in traditional channels that continue to evolve or shrink. On the other hand, a proliferation of ‘paid’ media channels means more opportunities for paid placements, but again – a competitive climate to get your message heard. Mobile, cable, outdoor, online media – where to begin?

At Legacy® — a national public health foundation striving to make tobacco use a thing of the past – everything from our strategic mission to our communications planning begins with youth. Our most well-known and far reaching program is the truth® campaign – a youth smoking prevention campaign using advertising, online and digital tools, grassroots touring, branded entertainment and other public education efforts – all with the goal of keeping young people from ever starting to smoke. Almost 90 percent of adult smokers start smoking by the age of 18, so reaching young people effectively during what is already a challenging time in their lives isn’t easy. Besides competing media platforms and entertainment channels, other worthy messages and advancing technology, we are frequently dealing with strong-willed, independent young people who are wrestling with issues of self-identity and personal choice – messages they hear loud and clear from Big Tobacco as the tobacco industry spends billions of dollars a year on marketing and promotional efforts.

We spend a fraction of that to help save lives from tobacco and it works; our campaign is research-proven to be successful. According to a study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, truth is responsible for keeping approximately 450,000 teens from starting to smoke during its first four years. Another study in that same publication found that the campaign has saved nearly $1.9 billion and as much as $5.4 billion in medical care costs to society.

To keep interest alive and to successfully engage with our young audience, we have employed many media relations and public relations tactics over the years to keep the youth smoking issue top of mind, and in particular to continue to reach young people effectively and intervene before they make the fateful decision to use tobacco products. All of our efforts focus on information dissemination, with the hope dissemination ultimately leads to education and action.

As you plan your own engagement strategies, here are some approaches we have used in the public education space in order to effectively reach youth – tactics that can apply to other youth-focused programs or efforts:

Know your audience: it sounds obvious and trite, but the cardinal rule of reaching your intended audience is to really know and understand your audience. The youth cohort of Generation X compared to Generation Y compared to the Millennial cohort are very different. The way young people consume information, the ways they obtain their information, and then how they share it and communicate it with other youth is constantly evolving. At Legacy, research with our youth audience is constant. We’ve used tools like surveys, focus groups, online polling and monitoring social media to try to understand and stay in touch with our youth audience. We reach hundreds of thousands of teens each year through a summer tour that also serves as a laboratory to observe teen trends and behavior: how they talk, act and behave with each other. We also work with vendors and partners who are experts in youth trends and behavior to garner their knowledge and conclusions about the youth audience of today – all in a continuing effort to stay in touch and constantly assess the youth audience and its needs and likes.

Empower, to Educate: The truth campaign has evolved over the years in the media platforms it uses and in its programming mix. But one tenet has held true from the earliest days of the campaign: rather than ‘talk down’ to young people, we give young people facts and information about tobacco use and the marketing tactics of the tobacco industry. Then, we let them decide how they use that information. Whether it’s sharing facts through an online fact bin, reciting facts in the field, inserting a fact into a mobile game – the channels of distribution vary but the core approach is the same: Here is some information you need to know. Now you decide what to do with it. Treating teens and young people with respect and empowering them to make their own decisions about tobacco products keeps our campaign relevant to youth and keeps them from dismissing our program as preachy or pedantic. Our current truth campaign execution — Finish It – challenges teens and young people to be the generation that ends smoking and tobacco use for good. Through all of truth’s social media channels we invite teens to discuss and share information and content amongst themselves and take specific actions to get behind this movement.

Maximize Your Message: In a dynamic media environment, it’s essential that communicators keep up with the news outlets and media channels teens use to consume and share information. According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project, 89 percent of young people ages 18–29 use social networking sites.* Further research finds of those in the 18 to 29 age bracket, 67 percent use social networking sites on their mobile phones. Teens and young people are also using the Internet and their mobile devices to create and share content. A separate Pew study detailing “What Teens Share on Social Media”** shows teens in the 12–17 age bracket are prolific ‘sharers’ online: 84 percent share interests (movies, movies, etc.) online and 91 percent share photos of themselves online. In this climate of content creation and sharing, reaching teens via traditional media vehicles calls for creativity. BuzzFeed and video-sharing sites require new ways of packaging and sharing your message, making it more digestible and appealing for the teen audience. Top 5 or Top 10 lists, infographics, video, polls and surveys, and interactive ‘factoids’ are all ways of taking traditional health-related messages and packaging them to appeal to young people. Producing content and news specific to digital and smartphone channels will also take on more importance. By the year 2016, smartphone penetration is expected to reach 74.9 percent of 12–17 year olds and 92.9 percent of 18–24 year olds.*** Creating content that can capture teens’ attention as they go about their daily lives – content they will want to talk about and share — will be both a challenge and an opportunity.

Go Places: Even in this world of constant connectivity, true connection can be fleeting — the personal touch still matters when it comes to communications and outreach. One of the cornerstones of our success has been a grassroots tour we embark on every summer throughout the country. Two crews of youth truth ambassadors – or “tour riders” – travel alongside music, sporting and cultural events popular with teens – the Vans Warped Tour, the US Open of Surfing, select Six Flags amusement parks. At each event, we feature a big orange truck, a dance floor, a DJ and our crew of tour riders engaging with young people onsite. From a media relations perspective, it also gives us the chance to offer local reporters and producers a ‘tangible’ experience they can build their reports around. Whether it’s bringing our truth truck, dance floor and set-up to a local station to appear as part of a morning show, or having reporters file live reports from the truth ‘zone’ – having a presence onsite, in communities, with a positive, sharable experience is one way to bring the campaign to life for both our target audience and the influencers we seek to reach.

Personalization Still Counts: Playing games, holding contests, and giving out truth-branded ‘gear’ like t-shirts and hats — all containing a tobacco-related fact – are a way for us to connect first-hand with our intended audience during our summer truth tour stops. But beyond the fun and games comes a serious message about tobacco use. These interactions are fueled by the personal touch – tour riders sharing their own knowledge and experience with tobacco use, or listening to teens as they may relate their stories of family members stricken with tobacco-related disease, or friends who are trying to quit smoking but can’t. These impressions make a memorable, lasting experience that helps us reiterate our message and ‘stick’ through a host of other causes and issues vying for teens’ attention.

The Fun Factor: Coming of age is already tough; doom and gloom scenarios or morbid statistics are not the way to engage young people as they assert their independence, experiment, grow and challenge themselves. While our topic – tobacco use – may be life and death, letting teens and young people have fun with our issue helps us get our messages across. We learn their passions: music, movies, fashion, gaming – and we create programming and news opportunities around those passions. Online, we have experimented with games, contests, giveaways and polls on social media as a way to start conversations. Along with traditional advertising, we’ve used animation and branded entertainment on shows and channels popular with teens – like MTV, fuse, Comedy Central and fuel, as a way to entertain, but with subtle messages about tobacco and our campaign woven through. Seeing our truth truck at amusement parks, concerts and sporting events has always provided its own level of fun, with literally hundreds of thousands of young people participating in truth zone activities over the years. Getting out important messages in a cluttered environment requires some levity and built-in appeal – so don’t forget to build in the fun where you can.

With tobacco use rates continuing to decline, many dismiss smoking as a finished battle or a very niche issue. Those of us working on this issue know it is most definitely not solved; more than 480,000 Americans continue to die each year from tobacco-related diseases, while tobacco use continues to take a drain on our economy and health-care system. In this ever-evolving media climate, we know building off existing platforms, continuing to ‘pivot’ as needed, and mixing in a dose of creativity and fun is essential to effectively reach youth.

Patricia McLaughlin is an experienced cause communicator and former journalist. As Associate Vice President of Communications at Legacy® (formerly the American Legacy Foundation) she directs public relations efforts and awareness around a number of Legacy’s national and regional programs and public education efforts. Much of her work is focused around the award-winning and proven-effective truth® youth smoking prevention campaign. Her work at the foundation also has involved crisis communications (litigation); communications support for corporate partners and outreach to Capitol Hill; multicultural communications programming; grants promotion, and staff and vendor management.

*Pew Research Center Internet Project
(January Omnibus Survey, January 23–26, 2014).

**Sharing, Connections, & Privacy in the World of Teen Social Media
Pew Research Internet Project — May 21, 2013

*Millennials’ Media Usage: What’s Distinctive, What’s Not and What Matters Most
Mark Dolliver – April 25, 2014

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