The best features in recycling
Talk is 'cheep'
Very few were optimistic about George Osborne’s budget announcements back in March, and rightly so. Confirmation that public spending will continue to fall beyond 2015 is unhappy news for everyone, especially local authorities that are already seeing their government grant chopped by 28 per cent over the current funding period. The age of austerity continues, money needs to be saved, and waste and recycling budgets are not immune.
The media is littered with reports of cuts and reductions in the field: North Devon is hoping to save more than £156,000 from its waste and recycling budget; Allerdale plans to cut its Environmental Health pot by £36,000; recycling centres in Lincolnshire are having their opening hours slashed; and a household waste and recycling centre (HWRC) in Cumbria is facing outright closure, despite opening less than three years ago to the tune of £1.2 million. And it’s a similar story for waste and recycling marketing campaigns. “I think the majority of councils view communications budgets as a quick win in terms of making savings”, says AEA’s Adam Read. “It’s not an operational activity, so it’s not viewed as essential.”
And yet the £40,000-£60,000 that councils stand to save from slashing communications budgets are, Read notes, unlikely to contribute a great deal to the overall council savings that are required, and could well end up costing more in the long run. “It’s a shortsighted strategy. Every year people leave a recycling scheme or move into a new one, or a council will change or adapt a current scheme, and without communicating policies to residents they’re going to lose five or 10 per cent of residents actively taking part. That’s five or 10 per cent of their tonnage, and therefore a significant percentage of the revenue they stand to gain from the scheme in the first place.”
LARAC Chair Joy Blizzard agrees, noting that some years ago one particular council, on an upward trajectory with its recycling rates, opted to do away with its recycling officer entirely. “As soon as she left the tonnages took a nose dive”, she says. “So we do seem to focus on the hardware of the job and I think we ignore the communication side to our peril. People need constant reminders, updating and thanks, and they need feedback on what they’re doing and where stuff is going.” She adds: “You wouldn’t run a railway network without printing information about the timetables. Waste is similar.”
Communicating the waste and recycling message, then, is critical. But it needn’t be expensive, providing, Read says, councils know what they’re doing. “There’s a lot of knee-jerk reaction happening, but there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to a marketing campaign. Councils need to examine their demographic and determine how best to use the resources they have, and where to put them. If you’ve small pockets of problem areas you don’t need to do a £500,000 campaign, you just need to spend £50,000 in the right place. If there’s an issue with a particular community group, for example, a small amount spent targeting them directly will have a better overall effect than a generic, blanket campaign.” (See pp.19-20 for more on knowing your audience.)
Indeed, working with partners within the same council works well, Blizzard notes. “You’ve already got people with connections to your key target audiences – Sure Start centres, where you can chat to mums, or church groups, for example. Using these links is one way of making the budget stretch.”
Increasingly prevalent is local authority engagement with the press. Where once both parties existed separately under clouds of suspicion and doubt, good and positive working relationships between the two are becoming more common, and local authorities can, and should, capitalise on this. Director of Communications and Community Partnerships at WRAP, Nick Gammage, says there is a wealth of reasons why authorities should get their local press onside: “There’s a strong economic reason for engaging local media. Our evidence shows that communities get a lot of their information from local press, and that press cares passionately about how well local services are being delivered. The press will produce stories on such subjects, so it’s critical to be part of the way these stories are shaped.”
To be sure, many authorities are hesitant in engaging with their local press, concerned that the risk of telling them what’s going on is greater than the benefits of a positive story. “There’s often the sense of it being better not to say anything and hope nobody notices”, says Gammage. “However, we often hear that when councils ring the papers or radio stations to complain that a story has been reported incorrectly, they’re told: ‘If only you’d told us what was going on we would have got it right.’ And by then the incorrect or misrepresented story is in the public domain, and it’s too late. It’s much harder for a journalist to write an unfair story if they understand why the council is doing what it is.”
When Maidstone Borough Council moved to an alternate weekly collection (AWC) scheme and had a minimal budget for communications, engaging local press was at the top of its to-do list. “We had a very tight budget for what we had to deliver”, says Maidstone’s Waste Collection Manager Jennifer Gosling. “We had around £40,000, which sounds like a lot, but we were making changes that affected 56,000 of our 65,000 households. Per property, it was a tiny amount of money.
“Because of the changes we were making we were very aware that if we didn’t engage with the local press there was the chance they’d write the stories they wanted to, and not necessarily with the right facts. So very early on we went to the local paper and radio station, had face-to-face meetings and discussed what we were planning on doing, and how we could help each other.”
Following their discussions with the press, Maidstone opted into an advertising package, which included six weeks of print adverts and three weeks of radio adverts, at a cost of around £7,000. “This was very effective, as we often heard residents complain that they ‘hadn’t seen anything in the paper’ regarding changes in local services, so we felt it was the final piece of the jigsaw for our campaign.”
Gosling says the overall campaign was a success, with many residents writing to the paper with positive comments, the number of people contacting the council with queries dropping from 25 per cent to 10 per cent and, crucially, participation and recycling on the up: in excess of 80 per cent participation, with food waste and recycling rates increasing from 35 to 45 per cent.
“I wouldn’t necessarily recommend a campaign like ours for every local authority – it depends on the message you need to relay”, says Gosling. “But given the massive changes we were making, it was necessary for us. Did one advert have more of an impact than another, or than a piece of editorial? It’s hard to say, but through the whole package we built up an excellent relationship with the press, and that was hugely beneficial.”
Engaging with the press, then, is a vital component of communicating a waste and recycling scheme, and can prove very cost-effective. But as WRAP’s Nick Gammage notes, doing so involves one unavoidable expense: time. “In this day and age the cost of people’s time is as important as money itself, and it takes time to build up beneficial relationships. But, they can have a more positive effect than simply spending money.”
Indeed, another communications channel local authorities are increasingly utilising is social media, which can involve absolutely no capital outlay, but does require man-hours to make it effective. At a general level, Coventry Council created a Facebook page in November 2009 to find out what people thought about its City Centre Masterplan. It has since evolved to include general discussion and debate, to glean feedback from residents and impart time-sensitive information, and now boasts over 20,000 ‘fans’ from a range of demographics. That’s over 20,000 people directly engaging with local news, policy changes and plans, giving instant, honest feedback for the cost of one or two manhours every day. It’s the same story with micro-blogging platform Twitter, and on a more in-depth level yet. Areas across the country have Twitter accounts dedicated to local authority waste and recycling services, all with an established – and growing – follower base: Cherwell in North Oxfordshire (@CherwellRecycle) tweets regularly on recycling news and updates to its 433 followers; Manchester’s EMERGE Recycling (@EMERGERecycling) does the same to over 2,300 followers. And of course, particularly controversial or relevant tweets can be retweeted, too, ensuring the message is spread even further. That’s potentially thousands of local residents informed and feeding-back, for the cost of an hour of someone’s time.
However, there are risks associated with social media strategies. Those tasked with the job of tweeting and updating statuses must understand the audience they’re trying to reach and engage them with relevant, interesting and timely information and stories. Social media accounts must be kept up-to-date and should deliver fresh content on a regular basis. And it’s not enough to simply shout into the online ether – engaging with other users is vital, too. These are the building blocks of an effective online campaign: whether a Twitter account has 300 followers or 3,000 followers, without these fundamental pillars in place an online campaign will be ineffective in delivering a strong, coherent message.
Budgets of all sizes, then, can be stretched to deliver effective campaigns. The real key is knowing how best to do so. “It’s entirely possible to deliver a solid communications campaign on a tight budget”, says AEA’s Adam Read. “The absolutely critical thing that councils need to do is figure out what’s going to work best for them: what’s going to deliver the right message in the most cost-effective way, because if they get that wrong, it can be disastrous. The repercussions can’t be underestimated.” He cites Dartford’s move to AWC a few years ago as an example: “They completely overhauled their collection scheme but didn’t communicate their plans properly to the public. The media got involved, there was a backlash and the entire scheme was pulled. That no doubt cost a lot more than a targeted communications campaign would have done in the first place.”
And, he adds, the public can be unforgiving when it comes to local services of this nature. “If it all goes wrong, the public won’t care about budget constraints or whether the campaign was considered good by your PR department. They’ll just go for somebody’s blood.”
Your marketing options explained
With UK adults watching an average of four hours of television a day, advertising on the box is an attractive prospect. Price tag: Around £1,000 per single 30-second slot, which doesn’t include production costs. Pros: Can reach a wide audience / Looks authoritative and professional. cons: Almost prohibitively expensive / May not reach niche demographics.
Local radio stations often have a fiercely loyal listener-base, ensuring your advert is assimilated by a wide demographic. Price tag: Varies by region, although expect to pay around £1,000-£1,500 per week for two or three 20-30 second slots per day. Production costs extra. Pros: Can reach a wide audience / Costs can often be combined with local paper through a media-buying agency to create a package deal. Cons: Many find local radio advertising irritating and ‘tune out’ during ads / Radio advertising relies on repetition, so long-term outlay is required to make it effective.
Residents put their trust in their local paper, so it pays to get the press onside. Price tag: No direct costs involved, but time and effort necessary. Pros: Big circulation / Likely to create dialogue among community / Positive editorial can win hearts and minds. Cons: Hugely detrimental if negative / Can provoke unfavourable feedback and complaints / Be prepared to be transparent with journalists.
Evidence shows that residents look to their paper for reliable news about their local services. Price tag: Varies enormously by region and advert size, from £30 for a small 1/8th page ad in a very small paper, to hundreds of pounds for bigger adverts in papers with larger circulations. Pros: Relevant circulation / Costs can be combined with other advertising mediums through a media-buying agency / Can stimulate feedback to paper and provide insight into local feeling. Cons: May miss target demographic (non-English speaking residents and youth market unlikely to read local paper, for example) / Can provoke negative feedback from residents to paper.
A time-honoured method of delivering a message. Price tag: Varies. Design and print through an external provider will cost more than in-house design, which demands man-hours and internal resources instead. Distribution costs vary depending on whether external services are utilised (outlay) or in-house operational staff undertake the job (man-hours). Pros: Leaflets can be edited for a range of non-English speaking communities / All demographics can be targeted /can be kept by residents for future reference. cons: Often disregarded as junk mail / Distribution can be time-consuming / Translation costs / Ensuring the right residents receive the relevant language versions can be difficult.
Traditional media ideals are changing fast and the future is going to be digital. Price tag: No direct cost, man-hours only. Pros: Can reach a huge market / Effective for generating useful feedback / Enhances ‘brand’ perception / Creates valuable relationship with local residents / Can impart time-sensitive information quickly. cons: Must invest time in building a ‘voice’ / Negative publicity can spread like wildfire / Impossible to retract statements or updates – once it’s on the Internet, it’s there forever!
There’s an app for... almost everything. Why not waste and recycling provision? Price tag: Hard to say as still a relatively new concept, but Warwickshire developed an app to help residents locate their nearest HWRC centre for £9,000. Pros: Demonstrates tech-savviness that will resonate with younger, harder-toreach residents / Provides accessible information ‘on the go’ / Novelty aspect may plant seed of awareness in user regarding recycling issues. Cons: Only accessible by a small pocket of community (Smartphone-literate users) / Depending on app features may only be useful for ‘one time’ use before being deleted / Irrelevant if it only mirrors information readily available online / Requires marketing campaign itself, to create awareness of product.
Text messaging is the main communication form of the early 21st century – could councils tap into that psyche? Price tag: Again, a relatively new concept so hard to be specific. Bolton’s controversial ‘Bin Text’ scheme (which texts residents updates, reminders and thanks based on their recycling habits) was given around £80,000 of Defra funding, although the cost is likely to go down if/when more authorities adopt a similar approach. Pros: Evidence suggests ‘thank-you texts’ have positive effect on behavioural change / On-the-spot reminders may prove useful for busy residents / Less intrusive (and allegedly more costeffective) than doorstepping but able to deliver the same message. cons: Has been labelled ‘patronising’ / Relies on ‘opt-in’ approach, so those choosing to receive texts about recycling are likely already involved in the process / A text message is easily dismissed.
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