A Futurist’s Take on Weather Safety Communication

By Joe Tankersley, Futurist & Storyteller/Unique Visions, Inc.

This month marks the 8th anniversary of StormStruck: A Tale of Two Homes® at Epcot® at the Walt Disney World Resort. FLASH’s groundbreaking experiment in social change communication represents the first time entertainment and story-telling were fully employed to inform and inspire the public to take action to be better prepared for extreme weather. At the time it was considered a big step and, for many, a slightly crazy idea.

Today, more than 5.5 million people have visited StormStruck since it opened. That number alone is a testament to its importance in the evolution of the weather mitigation movement. For those of us who had the privilege to be part of the project, the real measure of success was reported in a recent study conducted by behavioral science researchers from Carnegie Mellon University.

“This study included a pre-and post-exhibit survey and a 12-month follow-up survey with attendees at the Disney experience, StormStruck: A Tale of Two Homes. The purpose of the study was to measure individuals’ change in knowledge, perceptions of risk, feelings of preparedness, ability to name concrete precautionary actions, and subsequent behavior as a result of going through the StormStruck experience.”

The study found that a majority of the participants “gained critical action knowledge” and “retained that knowledge for 12 months.” Critically, “over 50% took some weather mitigation action.”  The results were so impressive that one of the researchers commented that “we just don’t see this kind of numbers in social change communication.”

Not surprising to those of us who worked on the project, the study concluded that empowerment was a motivational key prompting participants to take preparatory action against severe natural events. “Specifically, our data show that greater feelings of empowerment after visiting StormStruck lead to stronger participant intentions to pursue critical preparatory action upon return home.”

Since helping bring StormStruck to life, I have worked with a number of organizations to help them envision new ways to use the latest communication technologies to create powerful behavior change messages. From these experiences I have compiled a short list of strategies for what comes next.

Social messaging will become increasingly experiential. In the future, a fully immersive social change experience like StormStruck will be the expected, not the exception.

This will be driven in part by the coming explosion in virtual and augmented reality technologies. The number of consumers experiencing virtual reality will grow from just over two million worldwide today to 24 million by 2018. Augmented reality, thinkPokémon GO, will grow even faster, reaching a billion users worldwide in the next four years.

Storytelling of all sorts will become increasingly mobile. Users will expect access anywhere, anytime, and for any amount of time – from a 30-second video break on Facebook (ok, I know those still turn into hours lost) to a weekend spent binge watching the latest Netflix release, consumption habits will become personalized. The era of the PSA will effectively be over.

Authenticity will replace authority. We are seeing an increasing shift from top-down change communication to bottom up – driven by interested individuals and “amateurs.” Just take a few minutes to browse the 300 plus hours of new videos uploaded to YouTube every second and you realize that not all of them feature funny cats or performances by amazingly talented 2-year olds. Individuals are coming together to co-create change messages on topics they care about personally. These “handcrafted” messages are increasingly being favored by audiences over the standard “expert” communications.

One thing that will remain the same with all these new technologies; social change communication will be effective only when we give audiences/participants the tools to make themselves the heroes of their own stories. No matter what technology you use or how you engage your audience to help create your future social change messages, the key findings of that Carnegie Mellon study will remain true. “Greater feelings of empowerment” will lead to actual changes in behavior. Ultimately, that will be the longest lasting impact of that crazy idea FLASH introduced to the world eight years ago.

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