Humans are ruthless killers that endanger sharks.
For years the issue was the former, sharks are dangerous, except for a few environmentalists pleading to deaf ears that sharks are a critical part of our ecosystem and need to be protected. Finally some smart people realized that saying ‘sharks should be protected’ was not enough to stop the slaughter, that to change the public’s behavior and attitude towards sharks they needed to reframe the issue, to do some seriously good public relations for sharks.
Sharks have had a bad rap for many years. Eating machines. Killers. Terrifying predators of the deep that will attack and eat anything, from humans to barrels to suits of armor to six-ton killer whales. The lowest point in the shark public relations campaign had to be the movie ‘Jaws’. The book and movie that terrorized millions, including me. Shortly after the book came out in 1974, it was passed around the bus heading up to Girl Scout camp. Being a voracious and fast reader, I managed to read the entire book in my allotted 10 minute increments. Being a lily-livered, yellow-bellied 12-year old coward with an active imagination, the killer shark made a lasting impression on me. For the next 3 years, I would only get into bed by taking a flying leap from across the room, just in case Jaws had somehow made it under my bed, 25 miles from the relatively benign Lake Michigan. It was years before I overcame my fear of deep (dark) water thanks to that particular shark tale, and like many I grew up believing that sharks are only mindless killers – despite the facts that there were 13 fatal shark attacks last year, compared to an estimated 100,000,000 sharks killed by humans every year.
I have watched with particular fascination the tough sell of reframing sharks since there are many similarities in how they have taken a misunderstood issue, like drowning, and effectively reframed the issue in the public’s mind.
Here are some of the lessons we need to apply to reframe the issue of drowning:
Understand that people don’t understand. The baseline understanding of sharks is very low and frequently inaccurate. Few people have seen sharks in the wild. A few more have seen them gliding through the water at an aquarium and maybe shivered at the cold, unblinking eyes and rows of sharp teeth. Most have heard terrifying stories of shark attacks. Virtually no one, outside the environmental or biology circles, understood the shark’s role in the ecosystem or the fact that sharks are more in danger from humans than humans are in danger from sharks. As with sharks, our starting point in water safety must be assume the public doesn’t know anything or has serious misconceptions about water safety and drowning.
Acknowledge the complexity of the solutions. You don’t turn a feared killer into a cuddly creature worthy of protection simply by saying ‘hey, this is important, you need to change your attitude’, just as you don’t change behavior about water with that statement. To protect sharks it includes educating about the food chain and eco-system, addressing misconceptions about sharks, digging through layers of cultural traditions – all with a goal of changing attitudes and behavior. Water safety is the same. Education about water safety – how and why people need to care. Addressing misconceptions – it’s not that parents want their kids to drown or are bad parents because their 2-year old escaped their supervision for 2 minutes; it doesn’t only happen to other people; it does happen globally. Dig through layers of cultural traditions – where does drowning occur? What are entrenched attitudes about water and swimming that contribute to drowning rates? What behaviors or day-to-day activities put people at risk?
Change behavior. When you are digging through those cultural traditions, identify specific behaviors and attitudes you want to change. For sharks, particularly damaging is the Chinese tradition of serving shark fin soup as a sign of affluence and prestige, especially at weddings. This tradition, coupled with a sharp increase in affluence in the last 30 years, has contributed to a 99% decline in some shark populations in recent decades. For water safety, dig deep and identify key behaviors that you want to reinforce or develop.
Engage celebrities. One critical part of shark conservation has been to focus on changing the attitudes of Chinese consumers, and for this, they have engaged celebrities effectively. In China, basketball star Yao Ming fronted a shark fin soup public relations campaign. A successful businessman, Jim Zhang, was so moved he began working on the issue and convinced the Chinese parliament to act, eventually pledging to ban shark fin soup from official banquets. Ang Lee (director), Guo Jingjing (Gold Medalist, diving) and others have outspokenly defended sharks. It’s not just China. Perhaps the most compelling advocate for shark conservation comes from surfer Bethany Hamilton, whose arm was bitten off by a shark. “If you care about the ocean, you care about sharks.”, says Bethany. We are fortunate to have Princess Charlene of Monaco working to raise awareness and change attitudes, not to mention her hands-on involvement in the Princess Charlene of Monaco Foundation. One only has to see a photo of her with a child in the water to have a visceral understanding of her dedication to the issue. As a Princess, a First Lady, and a former Olympic swimmer, Her Serene Highness has can attract press coverage to the issue and to the many programs around the world dedicated to water safety. We need to commit to supporting her work, while we continue to attract other ethical and responsible celebrities and high-profile spokespeople to the cause of drowning.
Reach out to children. Children are our future. Children are also natural activists and sponges for new information. Around the word, education materials aimed at children are intent on changing attitudes about sharks. From Scholastic magazine in the U.S. to new child activists in China, children play a critical role in changing attitudes, not just of future generations, but also the ability to influence their parents. We need to not just remember children, but make educating children our focus, whether it is survival swimming skills, traditional swimming skills, or land-based water safety education.
The irony is that water is more dangerous than sharks, but chances are, most people think sharks are more dangerous than water. Let’s learn from the shark conservationists and make the water, and the sharks, safer.