Communicating the value of a vector control program. Securing much-needed funding. Informing the community about upcoming treatments. Answering complaints. Trying to change behavior.
As if the mosquitoes weren’t enough of a challenge!
These are real and pressing issues that mosquito abatement districts deal with every day. Each plays a key role in the overarching success of the program, but what ties them together? Two words: communication and community. Overcoming each challenge depends on mutual understanding and clear and open dialogue between the district and the people it protects.
That may sound simple, but a solid communications and PR program invites questions of its own. Is PR really worth the allocation of precious resources in the first place? Not everyone communicates in the same way, so what’s the best medium? Where do you start when everyone comes to the table with a different knowledge base, range of experiences, and attitude?
The answer, of course, is an integrated approach, just like in the field. There’s no silver bullet when it comes to effective communications and PR, but there are proven tactics that can make a difference for districts big and small.
“Flooded rice fields, for example, gain a lot of attention in California in this drought environment,” Barros says. “Those same fields are also Anopheles breeding grounds, so when the Department of Agriculture goes to present on water issues, we tag along and use the opportunity to explain our vector control program to people.”
Barros says that perhaps 85% of PMVC’s program is larviciding, so larviciding is part of every talk the district gives. Water issues present a particularly good opportunity to explain the mosquito life cycle and how larviciding works. That knowledge raises awareness that crosses from rural to urban settings.
Mike McLean is the Public Affairs Coordinator at the Metropolitan Mosquito Control District (MMCD) in Minnesota. MMCD covers seven counties and 2,900 square miles in and around the Twin Cities. McLean says that urban centers, in general, are looked at as centers of biodiversity. That diversity requires that communication lines between other agencies and other groups are clear and stay open.
“Of course we’re always in sync with the state Department of Health,” McLean says, “but there are other agencies that are important as well.”
He cites the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources as an example. An invasive aquatic weed (purple loosestrife) was degrading wetlands in the area, wetlands that are also prime mosquito breeding sites. Biologists identified a beneficial beetle that feeds on the plant, and the insect became part of the response.
“Biological control is gaining a lot of interest not only here, but around the country. It’s those kinds of situations that you have to be thoughtful about,” says McLean. “We have to make sure we’re not working at cross-purposes with anyone.”
Having support from partners at the national level is also important. The American Mosquito Control Association (AMCA) often acts as the first line of communication for a home or business owner who has a question about mosquito control or vector-borne disease, many of whom are not aware that a local mosquito abatement district exists.
Joe Conlon is the technical advisor at AMCA who handles those questions. Conlon estimates he receives as many as 35 emails a day from people asking any manner of questions about mosquito control. He sees his role as getting those conversations heading in the right direction, then directing those community members to their local district for future communications.
TEACHING THE TEACHERS
CHESPAX (the Calvert County, Maryland public school district—named for the Chesapeake Bay and Patuxent River) has a new program in Maryland that requires students to gain hands-on environmental education experiences using rich, natural settings of the region. As part of the program, CHESPAX teacher Tom Harten is working with the Calvert County Mosquito Control (CCMC) Program to educate middle school students about the ecology of mosquitoes and their impact on humans and wildlife.
In December, a group of middle school science teachers met at the CHESPAX office to build their background knowledge of mosquito ecology and to begin developing lessons that will support this new initiative. Students will apply what they have learned to help control mosquitoes in their backyards and communities. Classes will raise native fish as a biological control, and will assess their neighborhoods for potential mosquito breeding “hotspots.”
To make it happen, Harten approached Bill Clay, CCMC supervisor, who saw it as a great way to educate the community about the Culex and Aedes albopictus that pose threats to the region. Clay points to one example that clearly illustrates the power of direct, science-based communication.
“I remember there was one teacher who came to our meeting somewhat skeptical,” Clay says. “But when she learned about our whole program and realized what we’re doing to protect the public from dangerous diseases, she did a 180 and became an advocate. It was a good feeling.”
“I see each message as a PR opportunity,” Conlon says. “I take the time to answer each person’s question individually and to educate them in the process. I figure I might be the first and only mosquito control person they ever come in contact with, and I want to make a good impression by answering their questions fully.”
NO SUBSTITUTE FOR VISIBILITY
Direct communication from district to community is where most of the challenges (a.k.a opportunities) lie. Beth Ranson, Public Education and Information Officer for the Florida Keys Mosquito District (FKMD), says that their strategic approach is simply to do as much community outreach and public education as possible.
“Being seen and talking to people is still the best way to spread a message,” Ranson says.
Given their climate, the FKMD team is “in season” year round. Warm weather means tourists and the economic drivers that tourism plays in the area. Tourism also means a constant influx of new visitors that makes communications doubly important.
“We do weekly radio interviews, advertisements, newspaper articles, educational booths at community events, public speaking engagements with community and civic organizations, teaching elementary and high school kids about mosquito biology and control — you name it,” Ranson says. “Our inspectors also take every opportunity to walk and talk with homeowners and business owners when inspecting their properties. That conscious act of connecting with our citizens makes a difference.”
The showpiece of the local student education program at the Greater Los Angeles County Vector Control District is a 35-foot RV morphed into a mobile laboratory affectionately known as the “Bug Bus.”
McLean says MMCD places a premium on visibility as well. The district started in 1958 and helped make expansion around the Twin Cities possible. Before that time, high mosquito density made a lot of the surrounding area uninhabitable.
MMCD has two floats and participates in as many as 30 parades each year. People recognize its green trucks. The district hires 210 seasonal employees, and McLean says it seems like everyone at least knows somebody who has worked for the district at some time or another. As a result, public support of the district is strong.
The district’s public opinion surveys back up that claim. According to its last survey1, 83% of metro area respondents rated mosquito control “somewhat” or “very” important, while 71% of respondents stated that MMCD provided a “good buy for the money.” That backing then translates into support from the 18 elected county commissioners who form the board and secure MMCD funding.
“A public affairs approach helps maintain that mutual appreciation we share with the people who govern us and the people we protect,” says McLean. “That helps make us accountable. We’re working for representatives who support our program because they understand what’s important in their own neighborhoods.”
Placer County also hired a firm to study attitudes in 2009, the year before Barros joined the district (see “Measuring Impact”). The results were strong, but Barros was brought on to help make them stronger. Her first order of business was to launch an outreach program.
“One of the things we’ve learned is that raising science literacy has a great influence,” Barros says. “If people understand the science more, they’ll understand mosquito control more.”
To help raise literacy, Barros hired Red Shoe Productions, a local agency that specializes in “edutainment.” Red Shoe co-founder Judy Remy, a former station manager for Radio Disney, worked with PMVC to develop a school tour called “What Bugs You.” The theater-like presentations target fourth and fifth graders and feature a professional actor and actress dressed up like scientists.
“The actors introduce the concept of ‘good bugs’ and ‘bad bugs,’ but do it in a very slapsticky way,” says Remy. “They get the teachers involved and do gags like splashing them with the bucket full of confetti. The kids just love it and they really pay attention since they’re so invested in what’s going on. At the end, the actors name the students Junior Bug Busters and send them forth to seek out potential mosquito breeding sites.”
Working with local schools is among the most popular forms of PR among districts. McLean reports that MMCD helps to educate anywhere between 4,000 and 6,000 students per year in biology. Ranson says that making presentations at local elementary schools is among her favorite parts of her job.
“I see kids out in the community after spending time with their class and they say ‘Look, it’s the mosquito lady,’” she laughs. “They love to come up and tell me all the things they remember and how they look around their yards and dump water out.”
Retention is the magic word. Ranson says the community understands the quality-of-life issues that come with nuisance mosquitoes, but that health risks aren’t as widely known. Still, the district’s aggressive control program and educational efforts appear to be paying off. Ranson reports there hasn’t been a locally acquired mosquito-borne disease in the Keys since 2010.
“The fact that diseases come from mosquitoes that like to breed in man-made water sources such as boat tarps, five-gallon buckets, old tires and dirty gutters is a revelation to some people,” says Ranson, “but we’re making constant progress.”
Not only are there tried-and-true methods that districts large and small can employ to bolster their PR impact,
there is data that shows these methods work. A look at data across three consecutive Placer County resident
attitude surveys2 shows the positive trends
As important as in-person relations are to district communications, there’s little doubt that social media is changing the landscape. In Placer County’s 2015 baseline survey, 17% of respondents indicated social media was their electronic communication vehicle of choice.
Ten years ago, “social” wasn’t even on the radar. Now it’s everywhere. McLean says there’s so much real-time communication it can sometimes be difficult to be heard above all the clamor. Barros agrees it’s a technology that continues to evolve.
“Not only does it make it easier for us to communicate real-time with our community,” she says, “but it makes it easier for individuals within the community to make themselves heard.”
Not all of those voices are positive, obviously, but like Conlon at AMCA, PMVC treats every complaint as an educational opportunity.
“We have a very simple rule,” Barros says. “We do not let any non-science argument go unchallenged. Period. We respond to complaints immediately with a science-based message and in the process speak to others who may be tuning in.”
Truc Dever, General Manager at the Greater Los Angeles County Vector Control District, began her career as a journalist and started with the district as a public information officer in 2006. She says that like many others in her field, she was drawn to public health because of the opportunity to use her skills to give back and make a difference.
“We had to communicate well when we were talking about mosquitoes as a nuisance pest, but then everything changed with West Nile virus,” says Dever. “Suddenly, we were dealing with a major public health threat and it was imperative that people be educated about the challenges and change their behaviors to prevent mosquito bites.”
Dever says that while the science remains the backbone of vector control, there’s no doubt that the art of communication is critical to success going forward.
“West Nile virus gave life to PR in mosquito control in California, and after 2003, you started to see more and more agencies hiring dedicated public relations staff. Now, with the arrival of invasive, day-biting Aedes mosquitoes, public outreach has become more important than ever.”