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Posts Tagged ‘communications’

Image captured from page 19 of the Polis report.

Who cares? Challenges and opportunities in communicating distant suffering: a view from the development and humanitarian sector, a study conducted by Polis, (the journalism think-tank within the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics- LSE) with Plan UKlaunched yesterday in London.
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The study complements several pieces of research released over the past year or two on the UK public’s perception of foreign aid, development, giving, and the NGO sector; including Intermedia’s Building Support for International Development, the UK Public Opinion Monitor/Institute of Development Studies’ What Does the Public Think, Know and Do about Aid and Development? report, the Oxfam/Bond/DfID Finding Frames report and the Overseas Development Institute’s Understanding Public Attitudes to Aid and Development.

Whereas the other reports focus on various aspects of how the public sees charity, development and foreign aid, the Polis report gives a window into the debates and challenges of those working in advocacy, marketing, campaigning, fundraising and communication departments at INGOs. As my Plan UK colleague, Leigh Daynes, writes in the introduction:

‘…Our work to inform, to educate, to campaign for change and to recruit long-term supporters to fund change is valid. Often it is life-saving. Yet the least understood area of our work often is the impact of our communications on public understanding of and support for aid and development. The public are telling us they are saturated with suffering, that we are charming or disarming them into acts of compassion, and that we are abusing their emotions….

…Understanding the impact of the “lingua franca” of our industry matters because it has fuelled a template approach to the media reporting of suffering. It matters because the exponential growth in access to mobile and social media technology and platforms means we are no longer the de facto guardians we once were. And it matters because it speaks to the power between us and them, and you and me.’

As more and more research is done, the ways that the sector is shifting become clearer and I hope we will start to see some positive changes in the aid and development industry and the way it communicates with the general public.

Some angles and voices that could help round out the discussion are still missing, however. I would like to see research on the opinions of local and international staff managing programs on the ground. Most organizations have fierce internal discussions on how marketing and fundraising is done, as program staff often feel that some marketing and fundraising approaches are demeaning, disrespectful and undignified in their portrayal of program participants.  (For more on this, ask Talesfromthhood to share some of his blog posts with you, join some of the discussions on AidSource, or follow the #smartaid hash tag on Twitter). Some program staff worry that the long-term impact of media and fundraising shock tactics and overly simplistic messaging ‘cancels out’ the short-term gains achieved through program or emergency aid funding – a point that is raised in some of the research above – and that this contributes to two-dimensional views on aid and development and to the negative stereotypes about certain countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia that deter longer-term development and self-determination. It would be interesting to know more from this perspective.

What do donors want? Image captured from page 9 of the report.

At the same time, INGOs are hard-pressed to come up with different and viable ways of funding their work, so this type of campaigning and fundraising continues. Although I’m familiar with some of the challenges my marketing colleagues face, I was struck seeing the kinds of donor demands that INGOs are expected to meet listed in the report. I was reminded of something a marketing colleague once said: ‘Poverty porn. That’s a good term. It is a lot like real porn. People don’t like to publicly admit to watching and responding to it, but in private it’s another story. People say they don’t like poverty porn and sad, desperate stories, but when you look at the numbers, it’s what makes them reach into their pockets and give.’

I would also like to see some research with the subjects (unfortunately often presented as ‘objects’) of INGO aid and marketing materials.  How do program participants feel about how they are portrayed? What impact does it have on them and their own perspectives and self-determination, if any? Strong voices on this come from diaspora communities and from blogs such as Africa is a Country, Uganda 2012: Trending Our Own Stories, and great projects like My Africa Is; but I’d also like to see some in-depth research and objective focus groups that talk with those who are most often shown in INGO marketing. Are people aware of how they are being represented? Do they care? Many of us speculate about this when we bash ‘poverty porn’ but I’ve yet to see published research that involves actual ‘beneficiaries’ of INGO programs or people and communities appearing in INGO marketing and fundraising pieces in this discussion. (Maybe I’ve missed it – if you know of  any, please share!)

The ‘Who Cares’ report notes in the conclusion that:

  • transparency, accountability, ‘value for money,’ and impact are becoming more important to the donor public
  • public trust is a central concern for NGOs in their work and their communications
  • the sector needs to assume more collective responsibility for ethically appropriate portrayal of disaster victims (eg, in compliance with Article 10 of the Red Cross Red Crescent Code of Conduct)
  • new technologies and competition mean that fundraisers are seeking supporters outside of their traditional constituencies
  • traditional gatekeepers of aid are being challenged by new media’s ability to put donors and ‘beneficiaries’ in more direct contact

As INGO institutional leadership space opens up to more people from ‘the global South’, diaspora communities grow, social media allows for commercials and fundraising appeals to reach global audiences (including people in the countries where INGOs implement their programs), attention is paid to the ‘new bottom billion‘ and new fundraising mechanisms arise (for example, INGOs raising funds within countries where they are implementing programs), it will be interesting to see how the conversations and approaches shift and change — or if they remain the same with new actors taking on the same challenges.

Stay tuned for further research and reporting over the next couple of years from Polis and download the report here.

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In the past couple years, social media combined with traditional media has allowed people all over the world to feel they are supporting and participating in very visible revolutions (think Iran, Tunisia, Egypt). There is also a slow and steady revolution happening as more and more communities around the world access the tools to tell their own stories in their own words from their own perspectives.

I came across the Mathare Valley blog this weekend. It’s beautiful, artful and powerful.

Prayer of a slum dweller from the Mathare Valley blog

According to the ‘about’ page, the authors of the blog:  Simon Kokoyo, Ivyonne Tiany and Jeff Mohamed, grew up in or around Mathare. They are now involved in community programs there, including the Map Mathare Initiative.

Jamie Lundine, who works at MapKibera and who’s supporting some community mapping in Mathare, wrote an excellent post about integrating participatory community development work and digital mapping in Mathare, showing how development and tech folks can combine their expertise and work together with communities to strengthen local development processes.

In my last post, I wrote about how communications (and ICTs) should be ‘built in, not bolted on‘ to development initiatives. The Mathare Initiative looks like a good example of that, with community members taking a strong lead.

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I was in a global strategy meeting at the organization where I work last week. We had people from various disciplines present from across the organization and the goal was to chart a path to 2015 and beyond.

For the first couple days it seemed like a lot of talk and a lot more talk. We had very bright, very capable people representing different aspects of our work in the room. This can make things quite messy and tiring, and it can feel like everyone is talking in circles because there are so many perspectives and angles and factors that need to be considered in finding shared ground. Sometimes we are so participatory and complicated that we get in our own way. But by the 3rd and final day the perspectives had come together into a much clearer view of where the organization is headed, and we had the beginnings of a shared plan for how to get there.

We worked in a few main groups, and I participated in the Communications group. Much of our discussion centered around integrating better communication in all aspects of our work rather than seeing the role of Communications (and the Comms Team) as designing one-way messages out to the public. One colleague described this as ensuring ‘built in’ rather than ‘bolted on’ communications.

For me the discussions and end decisions were great, because there was a shared push in the group to move the organization towards things that I think are very important.

Some of the aspects we talked about included:

Communicating within programs

  • the critical role of Communications within programs – eg., Communications shouldn’t only happen at the end of a program (press releases, events or media work to share what was done); rather communication is a critical tool within programs to help reach program and development goals at various levels
  • the role of information and communications tools (new and old ones, high and low tech) at the community level to improve impact, efficiency, reach, engagement, decision-making, transparency and accountability
  • the need to strengthen our ability to better integrate information and communication tools into program efforts, measure the impact of different tools and efforts, and share experiences around this
Communicating with ‘the public’ (our ‘stakeholders’)
  • ensuring consistency in what we do and how we talk about what we do
  • space for children and young people to tell their own stories both behind the camera and in front of the camera, as producers of media not as objects of or consumers of media
  • reaching people through the ‘heart’ (which we are quite good at) as well as the ‘head’ (which we need to get better at)
  • communicating evidence of impact as well as anecdotal and personal stories
  • using different information and communication tools to communicate at varying levels of complexity and technicality to different ‘audiences’
  • using various kinds of media to tell a deeper and more complex story than is currently told
  • finding the sweet spot between a) talking to ourselves in boring technical language and b) over-simplifying or ‘dumbing down’ the complexity of people’s lives and the work that we’re involved in
  • having a strong and unified global goal so that each team or office can move towards that shared goal, but allowing the flexibility to take the path that makes the most sense locally
  • good communication at every level — community, district, national, global, ‘North’ and ‘South’, internal and external, networked — to involve people (including ‘beneficiaries’, ‘supporters’, ‘advocates’ and any other ‘stakeholder’) in community development work and in achieving child rights
  • opening the channels and lessening hierarchical controls on communications so that staff can feel more confident about communicating and using social media both internally and externally
  • using a combination of communication channels to reach our goals; eg., community radio enhanced by SMS; television programs enhanced by use of web and vice versa
  • new communications technology to facilitate connections among the network of people we reach (the ‘participants’ and the ‘supporters’ and all those in between)
Communicating for decision-making and accountability
  • the role of communications in knowledge sharing and knowledge management, internally and externally
  • creating better feedback and accountability loops to enable communities and the children and youth that we work with to have more of a say about the work we are doing and how we talk about it
  • using new technology to better organize, share and use the information that we already have, both internally and externally
  • using info-graphics to visualize information so that we can make better decisions about programs and to be more accountable to the public and to program participants
Even more important than ‘talking about’ the topics above, we worked on plans to actually do them…!
Note: this is not an official meeting report but rather my own take-aways from the workshop.

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Our meeting started on Tuesday. Our challenge for the week was to pull together a regional communications strategy. We had lots of presentations on the different aspects and did all kinds of group work and analyses to come up with a good strategy that works for each individual office and then also builds up into a cohesive regional strategy. We looked both at the PR aspect of communications as well as the program/social communications aspect, at the different child and youth media programs, and also at advocacy and our different campaigns. I did a presentation on social media to stimulate thoughts on how we could use it in Plan both at the office level and in our work with youth and communities. The workshop and the whole week was really educational for me, and also exhausting. I leave tonight around 11.45 and will be home tomorrow around 5 p.m.

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