Paula Kiger

PR Lessons from DroughtShaming

By: Paula Kiger | June 15, 2015 | 

Lessons from DroughtShamingBy Paula Kiger

I have a confession to make.

I used to be an anonymous “PoorlyProofed” contributor on Twitter.

Eventually, I started feeling guilty for anonymously calling people out.

I hate typos as much as the next person, but I started to feel that the negativity behind my tweets was weighing me down. 

(It doesn’t stop at PoorlyProofed, admittedly. I even blogged about someone who misspelled “angel” on a luminaria MEMORIALIZING THEIR LOVED ONE WHO DIED OF CANCER.)

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But it’s a new day, a new year, and perhaps I have evolved.

I have evolved to the point that I have reached a critical mass in my tolerance for anonymous finger-pointing on Twitter.


When I was listening to a recent radio story about DroughtShaming, I couldn’t help but feel that this effort was not going to end well. 

The drought conditions in California, and the civic actions that have been taken to try to mitigate the effects of the drought, have resulted in the birth of the DroughtShaming hashtag (#droughtshaming).

There’s even an app.

The citizen reporter stands at the offending area, and GPS knows where they are, so the report already includes the address along with the alleged infraction.

Most people will agree that measures need to be taken to deal with the drought conditions in California.

When I see the glee with which some people use DroughtShaming, though, I have to wonder if their motives are altruistic.

I mean, what are the homeowners’ association meetings going to be like for these neighbors in the future?

Distrust Does Not Build Community

My husband and I were on the receiving end of a summons three years ago for “high grass.”

We deserved the summons. I won’t argue that. 

Our lawnmower had broken, my husband was out of a job, and we did not have the money to fix the lawnmower.

Because the report was made anonymously, there was no way of knowing who had filed it.

I kept wishing whoever had filed the report had offered to let us use their lawnmower instead.

It wasn’t that we WANTED our yard to be an eyesore.

Admittedly, my feelings probably would have been hurt if I had been approached directly by a neighbor, even if they were offering a lawnmower, but after the summons incident, I have always been asking myself  “was it YOU?” when interacting with my neighbors.

Distrust among neighbors does not build a caring community.

Positively Solve Problems

As communicators, we can play a role in more positively solving problems such as the drought-measure compliance.

  1. Connecting: One of the first pieces of strategy has to be to foster a “we’re all in this together” vibe. California is not going to be in drought conditions forever. The day will come when it will not be news that someone is watering their lawn. We need to help people realize a mutual goal of creating a pleasant community is bigger than the issue of sprinklers.
  2. Acknowledge the Issue: I don’t mean to flit around rejoicing that drought is front and center as a problem. Some events are inevitable in the life of a community. If it wasn’t drought, maybe it would be a proliferation of invasive plants, too much rain, or a strike by municipal workers such as the waste management staff. Be clear that drought is a true issue. Don’t gloss over it. 
  3. Encouraging Constructive Action: Getting your neighbors fined or using civic resources to write up tickets has little probability of bringing rain down from the sky or of preserving what little water you do have. As a community, you may be at half time of your water management game, but you can still win if you have the right plays.

How can we, as communicators, help keep the civility reservoir full rather than drain it dry?

About Paula Kiger

Paula Kiger believes her Twitter bio says it best: Wife of one, Mom of two, Friend of many. She is a communications professional who provides writing, editing and social media services through Big Green Pen. She was the community manager for the Lead Change Group for two years. Paula has a Master’s Degree in Counseling and Human Systems from Florida State University. She is an active advocate for many causes, including access to immunizations for children worldwide.

  • KateNolan

    BGP in the house! I admit, my snarky side secretly enjoys #shaming posts, but I don’t participate in them so I can feel better about my self. 😉
    I think your points for dealing with it are spot on. If everyone just had a bit more compassion and empathy for other folks, communication would open up. Maybe not completely and maybe not perfectly, but if you can’t have an actual conversation with someone, you should step out of the room (so to speak).

  • KateNolan Great thoughts! And I definitely have a snarky side that needs an outlet, FOR SURE. I just am getting more and more leery of the long-term effects of anonymous snark among all of us humans who need to find a way to get along. // One of the quotes I read in a droughtshaming article (from a developer of one of the apps) was “People have a right to hold others accountable and that is what I think we are doing.” I think there’s a whole separate post, book, song and musical in the definition of “right to hold others accountable.”

  • biggreenpen

    ginidietrich I love how the release of this post coincided w/ #Tallahassee being named an #AllAmericaCity, partially for “problem solving”!

  • danielschiller

    When you expect the worst you won’t be disappointed, but you probably won’t be pleased either.

    Shame as an emotion isn’t the best. Regret. okay, but shame reminds me of Hester Prynne. It speaks to our delight in others’ missteps — schadenfreude! It does little to address issues.

    As a parched Californian, the drought is very real. Living with it requires sustained, collective action. #DroughtShame is an empty platitude that’s a mile wide and a cm deep. Communications professionals are among the best positioned to see this for what it is.
    biggreenpen in your case, your neighbor should’ve offered their mower. Reporting you was passive aggressive, and I could go on as to why that’s jacked. 
    #DroughtShaming should change their tune to #DroughtLife and highlight the innovative ways clever Californians are innovating their way around this. The stories are there, if you’re willing to look. Of course, this being California, we could #QuakeShame and highlight those who don’t retrofit their homes or buy quake insurance making it more costly for those that do. That one’s a bummer though.

  • danielschiller biggreenpen Definitely appreciate your perspective as a Californian. Will come back later and share some more thoughts!

  • PAULA! I love this blog for so many reasons.
    I, too, have to fight the urge to correct grammar and spelling all the time. There are times when it’s helpful, and times when I’m just being a jerk and I know it. 

    One quibble though: “California is not going to be in drought conditions forever” That may be true .. in the sense that rising ocean levels may make drought kind of a moot point … What I mean to say is: issues like this are going to be come more and more common. We have to figure out how to work together on them, or we’re all kind of screwed.

  • This is such a great post, Paula. I want to write more but I keep deleting my thoughts. I’m going on ten minutes of deleting now. How funny. Well, I just like what you’ve written!

  • jolynndeal Thank you!

  • Eleanor Pierce Your point is definitely well taken! If we fail to connect with each other and have one another’s backs, whatever the issue, the “kind of screwed” outcome is pretty likely. // I know this makes me sound SO old, but I remember back in the 70s when our schools had a PAPER shortage. We were given worksheets that were roughly the equivalent of pieces of bark … I can’t remember now what the series of events was that led to bark-paper, but it made an impression on me at the time! I guess digital has eliminated the potential for that kind of problem in a way!

  • danielschiller biggreenpen You know, one result from thinking through an issue like this, especially four years later, is the way solutions that would have been effective pop up. For instance, I could have taken the initiative to ASK A NEIGHBOR. That choice would have had some complications too, but what choice doesn’t? // I *love* the #DroughtLife alternative. 🙂

  • As I told you before, I love this post. And I love your three points at the end, especially #3. If there is one thing that I can’t stand it’s people complaining or indulging their passive aggressive side, but doing nothing productive to support the solution. It’s  tendency we all have, and the digital age makes it that much easier. Be the solution, not the part of the problem.

  • LauraPetrolino @biggreenpen As Laura said, Love this post especially the three points at the end. 
    And I so wanted to be the first to comment on your post but alas!

  • Great post Paula! I never understood (still don´t) why instead of helping we´re the first to pointing fingers. We´re so fast in judging others and so slow in helping them instead.
    I read an article last week about 3 or 4 teenagers who helped an old lady by mowing her lawn in order for her not to be fined. That´s what we should do as neighbors, communications and human beings.
    Your neighbor instead of reporting you, he could have just taken his lawnmower and mow your lawn. Wouldn´t that be a beautiful surprise? You wouldn´t have felt bad for having to borrow his lawnmower and he would have felt good for doing a good deed for someone else. Win-win for everybody.
    Understand your community, get to know them (really know them) and help with everything you can. Actions speak louder than a mountain of statements. And you know what else action does? It motivates people to do the same!

  • LauraPetrolino when I was telling my husband about the post prior to it being published, his first reaction was BUT DO YOU REALIZE HOW BAD THE DROUGHT SITUATION IS IN CA? (It may be relevant that he’s a water policy guy.) Florida has dealt with the fact that we have water issues based on adjacent states overusing water with no regard to the effects here. It’s a problem of a different scale and nature, but we still need people (and authorities — it’s a huge issue) in a metro city like Atlanta to have an awareness of the fact that people in the Florida panhandle depend on fresh water flow in order to EXIST since seafood is their livelihood. To quote that bastion of philosophical thought, High School Musical, “We’re all in this together.”

  • LSSocialEngage LauraPetrolino Thanks!

  • Corina Manea I appreciate your comment, Corina. A funny sidenote to the “high grass reporting story” is one of my neighbors was also my coworker … we saw each other every single day, THROUGHOUT THE DAY. I always wondered if it was her finicky husband (or her) but there definitely was no casual way to work in to coffee cooler conversation “hey I got certified mail from the County that the grass was too high yesterday … wonder who called me in”! :-). As a family, we really were in an emotionally difficult place with the whole job-loss scenario, so I guess the situation was a bit of a wakeup call.  //  Another piece of this whole topic that didn’t fit with this blog but was a POSITIVE is what I learned about the usefulness of some civic “reporting” apps. We have one here in our town that the City Manager’s office told me is indispensable in helping them know about minor things that need to be fixed that they just don’t have the staff to discover (like potholes and graffiti). Once it is reported (an anonymous is fine), they can dispatch municipal resources to get it fixed, so the city looks better, the citizen is happy, and our resources as a city are used more efficiently. That’s a plus!

  • ccassara1

    I agree with Corina about all this anonymous finger pointing I live in Calif and one of our neighbors is constantly nattering to me about how another neighbor wastes water. Look, i have all I can do to conserve my own. What she does is her business! I wish we all got it but…. it’s easy to hide behind anonymity. But tacky.

  • ccassara1 It IS easy to hide behind anonymity. I really appreciate your comment (I especially appreciate comments from Californians because honestly I am not living this right now so your perspective is especially important!). I guess I am also seeing things very literally but ….. I have this picture of one neighbor standing on another neighbor’s lawn (in order to report the infraction and secure the right GPS coordinates) and having the “road rage” equivalent (lawn rage?) when their neighbor spies them from inside their drawn curtains and initiates a confrontation!

  • I live in California. Last year I took out all my front yard grass and replaced it with some roses and a rock garden. So I feel like I’m doing my part to cut down on my water use. That said, I don’t like anonymous finger pointing. It seems so mean. And, I don’t even like neighbors getting involved in their neighbors business!

  • Nancy Fox What a great idea. I guess one piece of adapting to a situation like the drought is accepting a wider spectrum of what defines “aesthetically pleasing.” Quite a few people here in Tallahassee do “native” landscaping. At first it looks unkempt (compared to a manicured lawn) but I am pretty sure it takes as much (or more) work and is better for the environment in the long run. Just takes a different mindset!

  • biggreenpen Nancy Fox Thanks Paula! Now I actually like this look better than my lawn. In my backyard, I took out half the grass, and planted fruit trees, berries and tomatoes. So we eat well and save water!

  • The social media mob drives me crazy. I am not an angel. I was part of it five years ago. But I realized how bad it is and, really, how bad it makes you look when you participate. I don’t know why people are gleeful when pointing out the mistakes of others. I guess those in glass houses…

  • I am a strong believer that there are better ways to solve problems than shaming. And that applies to life, work, families, communities, relationships – to name just a few. It is a concerning trend to see people parading shaming under the pretence that it is in some way taking the moral high ground on an issue, addressing an issue and being constructive when it is the opposite. Good to see this topic being raised and discussed. More awareness needs to be highlighted on this destructive way of communicating and behaving.

  • Ali_Davies I agree – thanks for your thoughtful comment!

  • ginidietrich Definitely no angel here either. Maybe it is a sign of maturation that many of us are realizing how destructive it is.

  • Nancy Fox biggreenpen I’m coming to your house!

  • If you haven’t seen this TED talk called “The Price Of Shame” given by Monica Lewinsky at this years’s TED event then it is worth a watch. Thought provking on this very subject.

  • Ali_Davies I think I have seen excerpts but not the whole thing. I’ll check it out – thanks!

  • ginidietrich Nancy Fox biggreenpen Site visit!

  • biggreenpen Ali_Davies It is well worth watching the whole thing Paula.

  • Pingback: What communicators should do instead of 'droughtshaming' - The Social Olive()

  • So many excellent thoughts in this, @biggreenpen. I am incredibly uncomfortable with the rampant public shaming that goes on online. I would even add to your 3rd point that we need to be open to learning and doing better. If your neighbor approaches you with a concern, don’t let it get your back up – first determine if they have a valid concern…and if they do, do better.
    There was an incident in Ottawa recently that involved a frontline employee behaving in a very inappropriate manner toward a young man with special needs. Someone witnessed the incident and reported it (rightly so). However, they proceeded to blog about it before the organization had an opportunity to address the incident. I found out about it when someone posted in a private group about special needs that I’m in. The post instructed the group to shame the person for their actions.
    I get the fury. I understand the desire for change. But the lack of empathy is concerning. None of us want our mistakes to be shared widely for comment and analysis. I love the TED talk Monica Lewinsky did earlier this year. I have so much admiration for her courage in speaking about what happened to her and I really respect how she told her story.

  • Karen_C_Wilson We do need to learn to be open and to doing better. To digress a tad … I see people my daughter’s age (18, 19, 20) communicating really delicate matters via text … and when I suggest they should talk on the phone or face to face they simply give me the “that doesn’t happen these days” response. How can people solve problems if they can’t look each other in the eyes? (and I know it’s not easy — it’s just on my mind a lot seeing her and her peers navigate some difficult issues made all the more difficult by the screens/barriers between them).

  • biggreenpen I’ve had a few of those discussions via text, but usually because of timing/circumstances. Fortunately, we also said up front it wasn’t ideal and made an effort to be very clear and avoid defensiveness and other counterproductive emotional responses. It can be done, but you’re absolutely right – it’s not ideal. People really fear confrontation. They see it as negative. There’s so much fear around criticism and the vulnerable place it can lead us into. But we forget that it’s also essential for meaningful growth.