A flicker of change in the world

Winner—Environmental best practice in not-for-profit organisations: WWF: Earth Hour

How does a multinational organisation coax an individual on the streets of South Africa to take action against climate change? You make the global local and you make the action simple, like flicking a switch.

Sounds simple, but the coordinated effort required to get average South Africans to switch their lights off at the same time on the same day, as part of a global event known as Earth Hour, required massive effort.

For that, Greening the Future judges named the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) the winners in the category ‘Environmental best practice in not-for-profit organisations”, calling Earth Hour a ‘powerful, high-impact campaign” and commending WWF SA for ‘great implementation”.

The campaign to highlight climate change began in Sydney, Australia, three years ago, when the organisation called on citizens to switch off the lights in their homes and businesses.

The response was overwhelming and the next year the event crossed borders and drew in 50-million participants. This year was the first time the WWF launched an official Earth Hour campaign in South Africa. Carolyn Cramer, media relations manager at WWF SA, said: ‘2009 is such a critical year in terms of climate change that [WWF] offices committed to using Earth Hour as a first step in publicising the need for action around climate change.”

With nations struggling to reach consensus on global actions required to slow down climate change, the WWF thought the campaign could be used to raise awareness and encourage activism.

International Earth Hour campaigns are largely web-based, said Cramer. But with South Africa’s low internet penetration—only about 10% of the population have access—WWF SA decided to approach the campaign on two levels: one web-based and one aimed at people who have no internet access.

On the ‘straightforward” online level, the campaign centred on using email, adverts and viral videos to drive traffic to the local Earth Hour website. People who visited the site were encouraged to sign a petition calling for action from governments.

For those who didn’t have access to the internet, the organisation used traditional media and targeted advertising at taxi ranks. ‘The emphasis there was more on spreading the message than on signing up to the petition online,” said Cramer. It focused on participation and climate change awareness, and sought to educate people on how climate change would affect them directly.

Another tactic used was the recruitment of public figures as ambassadors. ‘We had Kgalema Motlanthe, who was president at the time, political parties and cool bands signing up for Earth Hour,” she said.

The organisation’s biggest PR coup came when it secured Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu as patron of the global campaign. With his reputation as a civil rights activist, his involvement helped further the notion that climate change is more than just an environmental issue.

Tutu gave interviews on radio and television, and wrote opinion pieces in newspapers urging people to take up the fight for the climate Winner—Environmental best practice in not-for-profit organisations: WWF: Earth Hour and for social justice.

‘If we continue to see climate change as an environmental issue it will remain something for the elite, to care about pandas. But it’s a health issue, an economic issue, a water issue and a social justice issue,” Cramer said.

In its submission to the Greening the Future awards, WWF SA said its focus was on getting ‘maximum cost-effective exposure that translated into participation by as many South Africans as possible”.

Earth Hour was featured more than 600 times in various media. It used Saatchi & Saatchi for radio and television advertising and Commuternet for advertising at taxi ranks.

The rest, Cramer said, was done ‘inhouse”, with WWF SA staff cold-calling celebrities to ask if they would act as ambassadors and making use of existing relationships. At a certain point the campaign went viral.

‘The community responded,” said Cramer, with journalists, radio stations and celebrities calling the WWF to ask how they could participate. ‘It gained a life of its own,” said Cramer. ‘That’s when you know it’s gaining momentum.”

In the end, Eskom estimated that a million South African households participated in Earth Hour and saved 400MW of energy.

Cramer said WWF SA viewed the campaign as a ‘fantastic success” but that the goal was never to save electricity. ‘It’s a bonus, but the main thrust was getting the climate message out there.”

She said one of the reasons the organisation got the response it did was ‘because the ask is so small, people are quick to agree to it”. She said many people who participated in Earth Hour did not identify as a ‘greenie” or ‘recycler” and that it was the first time they had done something ‘for the planet”.

‘I think that’s quite a powerful thing. Once you’ve done one action, it’s easier to do your part,” she said. Cramer believes Earth Hour’s long-term benefit lies not only in raising awareness but also in creating enthusiasm for ethical living and a starting point for further engagement. ‘People were enthusiastic to continue; they wanted to know how they could do more,” she said.

The judges said that although it was tough to compare Earth Hour with the other contenders, given the resources the organisation had available, they chose to give the award to WWF SA because of the way the organisation harnessed the media, got people involved and raised awareness.

‘Getting someone like Archbishop Desmond Tutu to front it was genius because it was not your typical greening person,” they said. ‘They had a lot of impact. To galvanise the country and bring that issue so clearly to people that they question their footprint in the environment, that was a serious impact.”

Faranaaz Parker

Faranaaz Parker

Faranaaz Parker is a reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She writes on everything from pop science to public health, and believes South Africa needs carbon taxes and more raging feminists. When she isn't instagramming pictures of her toddler or obsessively checking her Twitter, she plays third-person shooters on Xbox Live. Read more from Faranaaz Parker

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