Turning the tides on child drowning
Rebecca Wear Robinson
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Heidi Klum’s Son Caught In Rip Current And We Said…

by Rebecca Wear Robinson on April 10, 2013

Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Zero.

Wait, I take that back, kudos to @babyotterswim who mentioned it on Twitter, but where was the orchestrated response from the drowning prevention community? Where was the media blitz about rip currents, how to recognize them, how to escape a rip current and how to safely rescue someone? Where was the immediate concerted effort among all major drowning prevention organizations to reach out to Ms. Klum and ask if she would be a spokesperson or appear on a morning talk show talking about her experience of saving her 7-year old son and two nannies?  It’s not exactly minor news – if you type ‘Heidi Klum rip current’ into Google you end up with about 24 pages of articles. After all, gorgeous super models rescuing children is attention-getting news – and thankfully no one was hurt.

We know a lot about rip currents. Groundbreaking research on rip currents was introduced at the recent NDPA symposium. Research is continuing around the world about rip currents, including this current survey from Australia  I know a number of experts in rip currents. But we are not sharing the results of the research effectively. We have missed the boat on the best opportunity to educate the public about rip currents by not having a media strategy in place that capitalizes on drowning-related incidents like the Heidi Klum story.

I’ve contacted World News and the Today show suggesting they do story on Heidi Klum and rip currents. But I am one voice. We must work together, use one powerful voice, if we are to have media clout.

Here is a template of what we could aim for as a good story – and when I say ‘we’, I mean every drowning prevention organization working together. The whole spiel could take 10 minutes, or even be cut to 3-5 minutes if it is done well and only the critical pieces are used, and even better still if 30-60 second soundbites can be extracted that can play on YouTube, be forwarded on Facebook and Twitter and play on regular news cycles whenever another drowning incident occurs.

Set the stage
– Identify the key behaviors that lead to drowning/ not recognizing drowning/ incorrectly portraying drowning through the research that experts in the field have conducted.  (i.e.  the waving of arms, shouting)  State clearly and use show film clips and photos what people think drowning looks like.  Dr. Stathis Avramidis and Dr. John Fletemeyer have done some excellent research on perceptions and portrayals of drowning.
– Use research from Dr. Frank Pia and others like this compelling video, about what drowning really looks like, incorporating visuals or even mimicking the action to keep people’s attention.

Show the change
– It is critical at this point that we give people a roadmap of how to behave, make it easy for people to take the correct action, give people an altered, ideal, identity ‘I am someone who knows how to recognize someone drowning’, ‘I am someone who knows how to watch my child around water’.
– Tell people the correct action – always swim near a lifeguard, this is what you do if you see someone drowning (call for help, learn to rescue without getting in danger using a prop), this is how to identify a rip current.
– Tell people how to avoid getting in trouble in the first place – circle back to reinforce the ‘I am someone who knows how to stay safe around water/watch my children).  Give basic rules, and I’d reference basics from poolsafely.gov or the Int’l Open Water Safety Guidelines to keep the messaging consistent.  The key to keep it simple, directive, easy-to-understand and consistent language.
– Talk about how all water isn’t alike – perhaps a simple separation between pools and open water – don’t make it complicated.

Make it personal
– Have people tell their story – making it personal means people are more likely to think ‘it could happen to me’. For open water, Heidi Klum as a celebrity spokesperson with great publicity potential.  For pools, I’d consider a family like the Collingsworths, whose 2-year old Joshua drowned in a pool.  Ideal because their Josh the Otter program is all over the U.S. and in Australia and is associated with Rotary International, so it is a program people can find in their community, their organization is well-established, and, most importantly, they focus on a joyful and positive way of reaching children.  Positive motivation is more effective, produces lasting change, and is an easier sell.

Direct the action – make it easy to make the changes
– Talk about how the American Academy of Pediatrics encourages parents to put their children in water safety and swimming lessons as early as one.  Tell people where to take classes – YMCA, Park Districts – provide links on websites and cross-link across sites.
– Talk about basic water safety skills for at-risk or low-income kids through Make A Splash (Cullen Jones – more star power), where kids can get suits and goggles donated through Goggles for Guppies.
Importance of learning CPR (WITH breaths!) and where people can learn CPR – including links to local resources for certification.

Reinforce the action
– Finish on a positive that will make parents want to follow up.
– Mention research showing that children who learn to swim are more fit, do better in school, and have better physical coordination (I have the study somewhere).
– Talk about a bright spot – like Cullen Jones going from almost drowning to an Olympic swimmer.
– Follow up with a huge social media blitz across drowning prevention organizations to push the news story, provide links to resources, provide further information about rip currents and water safety.

Let’s start working together and make this happen. E-mail the TODAY show at TODAY@nbcuni.com and click here to contact Diane Sawyer at World News. But most importantly, let’s make sure we don’t let opportunities to be heard pass us by ever again.

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