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News >  Spokane

Pro bono ad campaign aims to make masks and social distance the new social norm in Spokane

Matthew Sherlaw, medical student at University of the Washington School of Medicine, wears his Skida mask he bought from a small business in Vermont.  (COLIN MULVANY)
Matthew Sherlaw, medical student at University of the Washington School of Medicine, wears his Skida mask he bought from a small business in Vermont. (COLIN MULVANY)

Almost overnight, leaders in Spokane County are trying to create a new social norm.

Often cited as a key tool in the process of abating the spread of COVID-19 and reopening the economy, public health officials and business leaders are pleading with area residents: wear a mask.

But for most people, having a mask at the ready and strapping it on before entering a store is an entirely new behavior.

“A year ago, if you’d have worn a mask into a business, you would have gotten some funny looks,” said Michelle Hege, president and CEO of Spokane advertising firm Desautel Hege.

Greater Spokane Inc. has embarked on a marketing campaign, created free by Desautel Hege, that encourages people to follow public health guidelines, like wearing a mask and social distancing, when they’re outside the relative safety of their own home.

The new campaign will account for $750,000 of the $4.5 million of federal coronavirus aid set aside by Spokane County commissioners to help spur consumer confidence and help revitalize an economy stunted by the coronavirus.

GSI, which represents more than 900 area businesses, has played a central role in the region’s coronavirus response from the beginning and spearheaded efforts that included the distribution of personal protective equipment to local businesses. It has partnered with the Greater Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Spokane Partnership, Visit Spokane and the West Plains Chamber of Commerce.

The marketing campaign is being launched as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to increase in Spokane County, and some people vocally – and sometimes virally – refuse to abide by the state’s mandate that Washingtonians wear masks when in public.

In June, the video taken by an unmasked woman refusing to leave the Grocery Outlet store in Spokane Valley was shared more than 1,000 times on Facebook. Earlier this month, a few dozen protesters lined up outside the home of Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz to decry the mask order.

And nationally, President Donald Trump declined, until recently, to wear a mask in public. He pressured states to loosen restrictions while minimizing the risk posed by the virus, despite warnings of public health officials.

So it’s no wonder it has taken Americans so long to adopt the use of masks, when they’re as regular as a shirt and shoes in countries like South Korea. Hege attributes the American sluggishness to the absence of a coordinated national response to the coronavirus and leadership at the national level.

“Consumers have been left wondering who to trust and who to pay attention to,” Hege said.

Locally, elected leaders pushed Lutz to apply for the county to advance to Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan even as case counts rose on June 17, arguing that the hospitals were prepared and Spokane County residents were ready to return to work. Lutz turned down the request, and hospitals said they did not support a move into Phase 3.

“There is some community spread right now, but the key, though, is the community prepared to be able to respond to it? And I think we clearly demonstrated that we are,” Spokane County Commission Chairman Al French told The Spokesman-Review in June.

But within two weeks, as cases and hospitalizations continued upward, leaders backed off. In a news conference this week, leaders defended their previous push for Phase 3 and said they continued to stress public health guidance even as they pressed to move forward.

“Masks were coming up, very much, in (calls to reopen) as we talked about the progression through phases. … We were really hopeful that we would get through and continue to drive the curve down,” Spokane Valley Mayor Ben Wick said. “I don’t think our message has really changed in trying to get masking and physical distancing to go through.”

Young people, particularly, have perpetuated the virus’ spread in bars and backyard barbecues, according to public health officials.

As of Friday, people between the ages of 20 and 29 account for 28% of the county’s COVID-19 cases. It’s an age group with which local leaders acknowledge they’ve struggled to connect.

“I don’t think we did a good job of that initially, and now we’re adjusting,” French said.

Marketing to the younger demographic is different, French said, and leaders have to find a way to convince young people they’re vulnerable, too.

“They’re young and have a sense of invincibility, and because of that I think there’s a general feeling – ‘it’s not going to affect me, it’s only going to affect older people.’ Guess what? It affected them. Then they took it home, and it affected older people,” French said.

The health district is actively planning a separate campaign specifically targeting young people, according to Spokane Regional Health District spokeswoman Kelli Hawkins.

“It was beneficial to us having the community-wide campaign managed by GSI, allowing my team to focus more on targeted demographics. … I want to ensure messaging to this demographic is well planned out, not too rushed – knowing that it is an immediate need,” Hawkins said.

Despite the loud opposition to masking from some, and general indifference from others, the Spokane Regional Health District said last week that surveys have shown an increasing number – more than 90% in recent observational survey – of people are wearing masks when entering local businesses.

Businesses want that trend to continue and to assure customers – and employees – that they are a safe place to be.

The new GSI campaign, created free by the creative team at Desautel Hege, is tagged “Spread Kindness, Not COVID-19.”

“We’re really trying to reach a wide variety of people, in all different perspectives, to look at the things that have been proven and our scientific community is telling us: If we want to be out and not in quarantine, if we hunker down and do these behaviors, we can begin to move forward,” said Cara Coon, the vice president of communications and public affairs for GSI tasked with leading its COVID-19 marketing efforts.

Messaging will adorn the front doors of businesses that are hoping to draw potentially wary customers back inside.

“We spread kindness, not COVID-19,” one window sign reads. “Wear a mask. Wash your hands. Keep 6 feet apart.”

“They key thing is for those businesses to create an environment where, if I walk into their door, I can see the expectation, that they’re practicing the safe behaviors,” Hege said.

When COVID hit

When the pandemic hit Washington and Gov. Jay Inslee issued the Stay Home, Stay Healthy order, GSI was on the verge of launching its third ad in a marketing campaign called “Together, We’re Greater,” which highlighted its services for the business community.

GSI quickly dropped those plans.

“It just didn’t make sense. It wasn’t the information people needed to know at that time,” Coon said.

GSI shifted focus and quickly scraped together a replacement ad titled “Resiliency” that called for strength and calm, featuring visuals of Bloomsday, Riverfront Park and Gonzaga University basketball.

The second COVID-related piece engineered by GSI was released in early April, fewer than two weeks after the first. It was produced in five days, and even included both of Coon’s kids. Seven-foot former Gonzaga basketball star Robert Sacre also made a quick appearance.

Starring GSI CEO Alisha Benson and Lutz, the ad reminded people to practice social distancing and stand at least 6 feet apart.

In its third ad – parsed into three versions – GSI harnessed some local star power to encourage local residents to wear a mask. Released in June, the ads featured Lutz, former City Council President Ben Stuckart and author Jess Walter.

The spot was emblematic of the time in which it was produced, as each participant was filmed over a Zoom call.

Despite harried planning and little budget, the reach of the PSAs was substantial, according to GSI.

Combined, the three public service announcements reached more than 500,000 people. They were disseminated through Google, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, and even found their way into the mobile video game played by Coon’s sibling.

“My younger brother calls it annoying, but I’m like, ‘Hey, you texted me about it,’ ” Coon said.

Kindness, not COVID

Meanwhile, Desautel Hege was busy drawing up a campaign of its own.

As restrictions tightened earlier this year, Michelle Hege focused on what the firm could do for the business community. In addition to leading the ad agency, she serves as the chair of GSI’s board.

“Because communications is my business and my world, I immediately started thinking about what we call social change marketing,” Hege said. “It was early, and there was a lot of confusion and there was no money for anything. … We decided we would just start working on a campaign and be prepared to donate it.”

Donate, it did, when commissioners released the funds necessary to support the campaign’s distribution in July.

  • The result of Desautel Hege’s work is beginning to plaster storefront windows and shoot through social media.

The basic premise of the campaign is simple: People will not reengage with businesses until they know it is safe to do so.

Desautel Hege set out to give businesses, particularly small businesses, the ability to communicate with customers in a welcoming way, while also demonstrating how to be safe.

Spurring change in behavior is a science, Hege said, and the conclusion is clearly that scare tactics don’t work.

“They get people’s attention, but they actually don’t change behavior. So in our campaigns we really work on identifying the empowering action people can take,” Hege said.

So instead of foreboding ads, Desautel Hege produced materials that are bright and eye-grabbing, asking, as the tag line emphasizes, local residents to spread kindness, not COVID-19.

It’s hardly the first marketing campaign seeking to change individual behavior, Hege notes. Past PSAs have implored people to stop smoking, wear seatbelts or refrain from drunken driving.

But with COVID-19, the marketers, local businesses and public health officials need the campaign to be effective as quickly as possible.

What’s next

The work is only just beginning.

GSI will administer $500,000 set aside for grants to local organizations that will support marketing efforts at local businesses. Ideas proposed thus far, Coon said, include “video shorts highlighting small businesses, a ‘random acts of kindness’ campaign, awarding people and businesses for demonstration helpful behaviors, (and) creating signage for consistent small business usage.”

Visit Spokane has also been allocated $2.5 million in funds, which it will use to encourage tourism to the area as restrictions are eventually lifted.

“‘We need to be able to convince people it’s safe to come back to Spokane,” French said.

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