Tag Archives: communications

No app can substitute for actually talking with people

Back in 2001, when I started directing the United Nation’s Online Volunteering Service , then a part of NetAid, one of the first things I did was ask to spend a week answering emails from users. Before I arrived, the junior associates had recruited volunteers – unpaid interns – to do this, because they themselves hated doing it. They could not understand why I wanted to spend time doing such low-level administrative work myself. Neither could my new boss, who tried to give me a lecture about the appropriate work for someone directing an entire program.

I insisted, and I did it. Why? Because there was no better way for me to learn, in just a week, what the users of the service were asking and saying, what they understood, what they didn’t, and what they wanted. It took about two hours a day, total, and what I learned in that week, as well as other days when I filled in for sick staff and interns, was invaluable to creating effective strategies for the program. It also helped me better direct staff in how to support users of the service – our customers. Staff had never thought of those people on the other end of those emails, trying to use the OV service, as customers or clients, and I worked hard to change staff perceptions of the site’s users.

I worked at a professional theater back in the late 1980s. I had graduated from university less than four months before. I remember the executive director saying that he would cut any position in a time of budgetary crisis except the box office staff. He said that most of our audience would never interact personally with anyone other than the box office staff at the theater. Sure, many would get a call from the fundraising staff if they didn’t respond to the postal mailing about donating, but most – MOST – would interact personally only with someone in the box office. For most of our audience, the box office staff was their personal connection to the theater – not the actors on stage. That box office experience, therefore, should be STELLAR and have all the resources it needed to be such. That executive director made sure the box office staff was well-trained (and often re-trained), well-supported, actively supervised and well paid. And the box office staff, in turn, gave the marketing staff and fundraising staff invaluable information regularly on what our audiences were saying, information that was far more regular and reliable than any research consultant could provide.

I bring up these experiences which have shaped my approaches to communications and management of staff to this day because I am stunned at how, at most nonprofit organizations, NGOs, international agencies, government programs and more, many senior staff members are not aware of what staff on the front lines are dealing with, nor what clients or the public are saying. Yes, you should do a variety of surveys and focus groups and formal pulse-taking, and ask your staff to produce reports on what they are hearing via their interactions with your clients, customers, the public, etc., but there’s no substitute for interacting with customers yourself. That includes on social media. Why are you having inexperienced young people or a short-term intern manage your social media? Social media is about interacting, about engaging – not just one-way communication. If you had an onsite event for a large number of clients or the general public or donors, who would you have to facilitate that event – a short-term intern new to your organization, or a senior staff member? Who would your clients or the general public or major donors expect to work with them? What you would do offline, onsite at your organization with clients you should also do online.

And that brings me to apps and chatbots. I regularly see nonprofit staff post questions to online groups, trying to find a magical app or chatbot that will replace a staff member from having to actually engage with users, or replace a staff member actually having to read social media messages. TechSoup recently did a series of breathless blogs about how wonderful artificial intelligence and chatbots are for nonprofits. Yes, chatbots might reduce overhead administrative costs, but at what cost to the organization in other wasy?

  • Chatbots take away an opportunity for real people to interact with current and potential clients, donors, volunteers and others at a nonprofit organization, which denies an organization critical information that can help staff know whatcurrent and potential clients, donors, volunteers and others are saying, how they are feeling, etc.
  • They also frustrate people – many people will end their interactions with a chatbot once they realize it isn’t an actual human being and their questions aren’t being answered properly, and have a negative viewpoint of the company that uses that chatbot.

This response to the TechSoup blogs really sums it up well:

I have not ever had a satisfying experience with a chatbot. far too often there are unique situations and circumstances that cannot be anticipated or made a part of the program. It is immensely frustrating to be stuck talking to a chatbot that is only able to respond to things that are part of its program. I would rather have a little slower response and talk to a real person who listens and cares.

For-profit companies can get away with not having a reputation of listening and caring – they can still be profitable, despite such a perception. Nonprofits, however, cannot.

Not only do you need actual humans to interact with clients, donors, volunteers and the general public – you need senior staff to be doing so, at least occasionally. If these human interactions aren’t integrated into your organization’s practices and culture, and central to your strategies regarding public relations, they should be.

Also see:

Don’t use stock photos; make your own marketing photo archive

How to change minds

I’m a part of the March for Science Facebook group, for people that were in the Marches for Science all across the USA on April 2017 or that supported such. A lot of the talk on the group has been about science education and public relations. There are individuals and communities all over the USA – and the world – fighting against science-based decision making in public policies and science education in schools, and many on the group feel this is because of poor wording and poor outreach by scientists and those that support science regarding public relations. In my ongoing quest to be a better communicator, I’ve watched these discussions closely.

Recently, someone posted the following regarding how we communicate about science. I think it’s a great testimony regarding what works, and what doesn’t, regarding swaying public opinion, changing people’s minds and fighting misinformation. I’m sharing it here, with her permission, but without her name to protect her identity:

I’m not a scientist. I’m not afraid of science but I also don’t have a strong grasp of most science related jargon. I joined this group along with a few other science groups/pages as I heard more and more of anti-science rhetoric from our govt. Allthough I don’t understand a lot of scientific things that doesn’t mean I don’t realize the importance of science for our society and for our future.

I have learned SO MUCH from reading posts and comments. The reason I have learned so much? The reason I am no longer “afraid” of GMO’s? The reason I have changed my mind on other popular misconceptions? Because my fear was never the science. My fear was that I didn’t know what information to trust. Money talks. It’s hard to figure out who is paying. Do I trust a science study that was paid for by a big corporation? Do I trust a study that’s published but not peer reviewed? WHO do you trust?

The common thread I’ve found as I read posts and comments in order to learn more is how stupid I am. How dumb was I to not trust GMO’s. People’s comments were blatantly MEAN. And sure, I was completely uneducated about GMO’s. I read the wrong information. I trusted the wrong sources. But again, without hours of research to find out funding sources, etc HOW do I know what to trust?

This question was amazing. I always want to learn more. I want to understand about so many things – to give my kids the best future possible. The best food to eat. The best meds for my asthmatic child. The best environment for them to grow up in, etc. But here’s the thing. If I wasn’t determined to do the best for my kids . . . by the 100th ridiculing comment on a post I found interesting I would have stopped following and learning. Heck by the 20th I would have written off these sciences pages.

Even in this thread there are those using terms like “stupid,” “brainwashing,” etc. Very derogatory terms and grouping all people who don’t have a knack for science into one realm. I have a great head for business, finances and can analyze the heck out of any non-technical literature. I don’t make fun or ridicule those people who don’t have have that ability. It accomplishes nothing.

So thank you to those of you who answered this post thoughtfully. I’m certain there are many of you who diligently try over and over again to get your point across. Don’t give up. Changing peoples’ minds is never easy but in this case it’s worth the fight.

—end quoted text—

Also see:

Frank description of what it’s like to work in communications in the UN

UNLogoI love working for the United Nations – except when I don’t.

The United Nations can do amazing work, and I’ve been honored to be a part of it on occasion, in Ukraine, in Afghanistan, and in various locations with UNDP/UNV. It can also stumble badly, and it can be painful to be a part of.

The reason for missteps by the UN, or perceptions of missteps, can be attributed to various things:

  • pressure from donor countries and host countries regarding messaging and action that’s out-of-step with reality,
  • profound misunderstandings by donor countries, host countries and the press regarding the challenges and needs related to humanitarian aid and development, such that they see what the UN is doing and find it lacking,
  • a fear by UN staff that reporting honestly about what’s not working will be seen as institutional failure or will cause donors to withdraw funds, host countries to withdraw support and the media and grass roots groups to attack,
  • a UN culture that recoils from any controversy and confrontation,
  • some people who end up in positions of power and are either unqualified for the position or deeply flawed in their motivations and intent for the position.

The excerpt below from a long article in PassBlue by Barbara Crossette from December 4, 2016 offers an excellent account of what happens when many of these challenges align – and they align all too often. The links are the article’s:

In 1999, Kofi Annan, UN secretary-general at the time, and his spokesman, Fred Eckhard, published media guidelines for UN officials that for the first time in the organization’s history introduced a formal policy of being “open and transparent in its dealings with the press.” The guidelines, initially devised for the peacekeeping department, gave all Secretariat staff members the right to speak to the media on subjects “within your area of competence and responsibility,” but to “provide facts, but not opinions or comment.” The guidelines are still in effect, according to the UN spokesman’s office, though they have languished and are disregarded repeatedly.

In no area has this unwillingness to listen to UN staff or allow them to do honest reporting been more harmful to the organization than in peacekeeping. Internal information on scandals of various sorts have been suppressed, ignored or shelved for unconscionable periods of time by higher-ranking people in a hierarchical system. Outsiders — in the media, nongovernmental organizations and sometimes courageous staff within the UN — make these scandals public, putting the organization immediately in a defensive position, as allegations fire up critics…

Every peacekeeping mission has a large public information unit dedicated to ensuring that the local population understands the mandate of the peacekeepers and to garnering international support for their operations. But lately, with shrinking newsroom budgets and the closing of international bureaus, news organizations don’t send as many reporters to cover far-flung conflicts that are only simmering, or cooling, when more dramatic stories compete…

In peacekeeping missions, communications officers are expected to sell trite “positive” stories to the media, while withholding comment on more complex or sensitive issues, from political negotiations to outbreaks of violence. Recent headlines — from attacks on civilians in South Sudan to sex abuse by peacekeepers in Central Africa and the cholera epidemic in Haiti — dominate in media, which give minimal coverage to other aspects of a mission, each one a complex operation taking more than tweets to explain fully.

Roberto Capocelli, a Fulbright scholar from Italy, worked as a human-rights public information officer with Monusco — the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — the largest peacekeeping operation. The mission had been mired in bad news when a landmark human-rights trial took place in 2014, conducted by Congolese courts with assistance from Monusco and UN human-rights officials. A notorious war criminal, Bedi Mobuli Engangela, or “Colonel 106,” who had long terrorized communities in eastern Congo, was finally meeting justice.

Capocelli got to the trial ahead of the international media and with his deep knowledge of the issues, wrote up the story, stressing the UN’s contributions in logistics and protecting witnesses. He sent it for release to his superiors at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. It was published two months later, virtually unchanged but buried in an obscure part of the UN Human Rights website. A video he made on the event was never used.

“In the end, we are not journalists,” Capocelli said recently. “But everyone had been complaining about impunity and after a huge investment of time and resources, [the UN] managed to do something good, especially at the moment the UN was under criticism for child abuse, corruption and inaction. Everyone is aware of this dynamic, how much the bureaucratic process can stop you from acting. I had the impression my work was not really needed.”

Susan Manuel, a writer for PassBlue and an American journalist before joining the UN, worked in some of the most important and dangerous peacekeeping missions in the world, in addition to spending eight years in UN headquarters. During that time, she saw the relationship between UN missions and the media shrink from her first decade in Cambodia, South Africa, the Balkans and Afghanistan to her final posting in Darfur before retiring in 2012.

“In Cambodia, the UN peacekeeping mission, Untac [the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia] was narrating the electoral process to a large international press corps,” she said in a written interview. “In the former Yugoslavia, I literally saw coverage of the UN improve after making an effort to get to know the local and regional journalists and provide them with concrete information. We told the story, even when the UN failed, even when the so-called UN-protected enclaves in Croatia and Bosnia were overrun. We public information officers were reporting these events in real time to media because these people were our responsibility.”

“In Kosovo we were narrating the growth of a new administration — with regular press briefings, interviews, guided visits for journalists,” she said. “We fed them constantly, and not with fluff, as these were discerning professionals, some of them veteran war correspondents.

“There were incidents of exploitation and abuse of the local population by peacekeepers in those earlier missions –particularly Cambodia and Somalia,” Manuel said. “But they didn’t threaten to bring down UN peacekeeping. Journalists knew these were complex and largely vital enterprises, which they covered on a daily basis. Scandals weren’t the only headlines.

“In Afghanistan, the UN mission was the most credible voice during a long saga of conflict, peace processes and human rights struggles, and the media depended a great deal on it.

“But when I arrived in Darfur [in 2011], the international media were gone, local media were ignored and the conflict was invisible, even — to a large extent — to the peacekeepers. We weren’t saying much about it.

“Senior UN mission officials disdained the sole opposition radio station, Dabanga,” she recalled. “Sometimes it was only when a blogger, Matthew [Russell] Lee, who is based in New York, read out reports from Dabanga on incidents in Darfur at the daily briefing by the secretary-general’s spokesman in New York that we could convince the mission leaders to respond. Or, I would figure out ways to release information surreptitiously by embedding it in otherwise anodyne messages or op-eds from the head of mission.”

When she retired from the UN, Manuel wrote in her end-of-assignment report on Darfur — where hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed as Sudan’s repressive government battled a regional rebellion from 2003 to 2009 — that UN policy makers needed to decide whether the peacekeeping information offices are there to promote only the “good news” of the mission or to “get and disseminate clear factual information about the situation on the ground related to our mandate,” which, Manuel added, “could enhance our credibility and lead to realistic responses.”

“Is it our role to report publicly on the conflict, as part of the mission’s security and protection of civilians’ mandate, or is it ‘none of your business,’ as one senior official told me after repeated requests to be included in information on fighting and human rights abuses?”

The entire article is very much worth your time to read. It’s focused primarily on how the Trump Presidency will affect the United Nations.

Also see:

United Nations personnel system needs radical overhaul

Legacy of Early Tech4Good Initiatives (including UN initiatives)

My experience in humanitarian aid and development initiatives

My consulting services regarding communications and community engagement

Want to work internationally? Get involved locally.

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersI get asked a lot about how to work in international humanitarian aid and development. I explain, over and over again, the importance of getting practical experience that would be relevant to work in other countries, and emphasize that ways to get this experience are all around you. I also say repeatedly, “You can’t expect to get hired to do something overseas that you haven’t done right in your own community.” I’m often met with skepticism and comments like “I live in a small town” and “we don’t have any refugees where I live” and on and on.

I’m often met with skepticism and comments like “I live in a small town” and “we don’t have any refugees where I live” and “what I want to do is completely different than anything happening here” and on and on.

I live in a small town 30 miles from Portland, Oregon. The population of my town was 21,083 at the 2010 census. The town right next door had a population of 11,869 at the 2010 census. We are surrounded by farm fields, wetlands and woods. The three wealthiest communities in Oregon are all in unincorporated areas of the county where I live.

And with all that said: opportunities to test and to continue to grow my skills as a consultant regarding international aid and development abound. The opportunities are all around me. Most are within walking distance. A few require me to take a 15-minute bus ride, and one has required me to drive:

  • I attend community meetings organized by the area’s state legislative representatives and US congressional representatives, where citizens communicate their concerns regarding public education, immigration, sustainability, respect for the environment, safety for minorities, foreign interference in our country’s affairs, transportation, and on and on – most of the same things you will hear at any community meeting anywhere in the world.
  • I attend public meetings by the police and sheriff’s deputies serving the areas where I live and frequent, to see how they communicate and collaborate with those they are supposed to serve.
  • I attend city council meetings whenever possible. Topics that have been discussed have ranged from a new plan for city parks to declaring the city a sanctuary city, affirming that the city will not act as agents of the federal government regarding immigration law.
  • I volunteer with a local group that helps the Latino residents, particularly the Latina residents, of the county where I live. I help them regarding volunteer engagement policies, volunteer recruitment strategies and social media strategies.
  • I joined the citizens advisory committee for my community regarding public safety. Once a month, we meet, review citizen concerns regarding safety, hear presentations by the police chief and fire chief, and make recommendations to the city council. As a result, I met with the local police officer in charge of community outreach to discuss some concerns I have regarding the unease of many in our city regarding the current Presidential administration.

Community engagement activities and community development meetings are what I have often been involved with and advised on in other countries, in Afghanistan or Ukraine or wherever. It’s been easy to find similar activities to get involved with here in my own community. If I lived in downtown Portland – and urban area with far more nonprofits and government programs – the opportunities would be even greater.

If nothing else, no matter how you feel about the current political situation in the USA, what’s happening now is providing a plethora of opportunities for anyone that works in international development to hone or to build his or her skills.

Is there an organization in your area that assists refugees? Or a program that educates people regarding HIV/AIDS? Or an initiative that educates young people about sexual health and how to prevent pregnancies? Or a nonprofit farm cooperative? Or a domestic violence shelter? Or a program that helps people develop marketable job skills? Or a program that brings people with and without mental disabilities together for friendship-building activities? Or a non-partisan organization that promotes voter registration? What is your local police department, your local library, or any government agency doing to reach out to people that aren’t a part of the ethnic or religious majority in your community? Identify these organizations, programs and initiatives, and then start looking on their web sites and calling to find out if they involve volunteers, or have paid work that you could apply to do. Volunteer, or work, and get experience.

And go to public meetings by city, county and state officials, the police, the school board, or any other major public entity or significant public official. Watch how people interact with the speakers. Do people seem to trust the speakers? Is it a lecture or is there discussion? Do people understand the process they are witnessing? Is there hostility in the room and, if so, is it being addressed? Are answers clear and to the point or are they evasive? Are people attempting to dominate the conversation? Do you know if one-on-one meetings happened before the event regarding the topic at hand? How are representatives from the press covering the events you are attending? Learn from what you are seeing and hearing – it will all serve you well as you work in other countries.

Also see:

Is it really *impossible* to break into humanitarian work?

Isn’t my good heart & desire enough to help abroad?

Citizens academy – intensive community engagement – my own largely positive experience with the Washington County Sheriff Department’s citizens academy.

When “participatory” & “consultation” are just words

In defense of skills over passion

Misconceptions re: VSO, UNV & Peace Corps

Ideas for Leadership Volunteering Activities /

Ideas for Creating Your Own Large-Scale Volunteering Activity

Promises & Pitfalls of Global Health Volunteering

Vanity Volunteering: all about the volunteer – one of the most popular blogs I’ve ever written

My CV and résumé consulting services for those wanting to work in international development

A plea to USA nonprofits for the next four years (& beyond):

speak upAttention nonprofits: stop believing that you automatically have some kind of magical, wonderful reputation because you “do good.”

Your organization’s future over the next four years depends on your organization rapidly becoming a much, much better advocate for its work as well as the work of the entire mission-based sector.

Over the next four years (and beyond):

Please dramatically improve how you communicate why your organization is necessary. Define it well, and say it repeatedly, in a variety of ways – in press releases, on your web site, in every speech you make, on your Facebook page, etc. Ask the spouses and partners of people that work and volunteer for your organization, people who have NOT volunteered or worked there themselves, to come in for coffee and donuts and a short discussion – and ask them why your organization exists, why it is necessary. Be prepared for them to have no specifics, just a possible, general idea. Use their feedback to create a plan to improve your communications, internally and externally, and to make sure it is clear to anyone and everyone why your organization is necessary. Make it a priority for the next four years to constantly and dramatically improve communication about what your organization does and WHY it exists.

Please dramatically improve how you communicate as to why there is poverty, or domestic violence, or homelessness, or unemployment, or a need for live theater, or whatever it is your nonprofit is concerned with addressing. Please don’t just ask for help for an issue without explicitly saying why the issue exists. And please say so more than once. This is another good opportunity for a focus group to find out just how much you need to improve regarding your messaging. This should also be a top priority.

If your organization does not address a critical humanitarian issue, then you must be even more explicit about why your mission is important. You cannot assume people know why a theater organization, a dance organization, a community choir, an art museum, a history museum, a chalk art festival, a historical society, a cultural festival, etc. is important to a community. Have hard numbers ready, in terms of economic impact, on what your organization contributes to your city or county. Have data on the impact of performing arts on health, school grades, crime, and any other quality of life issue and think of ways to get that data out there, repeatedly, via your web site, social media, press interviews, and on and on.

Make sure your volunteers know why your organization is necessary, even volunteers doing just one-time gigs or micro volunteering, and including your board of directors. Every volunteer, even those coming in for just a few hours as part of a group effort, must be given at least a short introduction to why your organization exists. All volunteers, past and present, microtasking volunteers and long-term volunteers, should be invited to public events. You must turn volunteers into advocates for your organization and nonprofits in general to their friends, family and colleagues.

Please correct volunteers and donors, even very large donors, who misspeak about your mission, or why the issue exists that you are trying to address. For instance, if your nonprofit helps the homeless, and a donor says that people are homeless because they are lazy and do not want to work, correct him and her. Make a list of myths about the issue you address, and the counters to those myths, and go over those myths with all staff, all board members, all leadership volunteers, and all long-term volunteers, at the very least.

If your budget is going to be cut because of actions by the President and Congress, you owe it to your community and to all you serve to say so. And you owe it to those same people to say how these cuts are going to affect your programs and, in turn, the community and those you serve. If cuts are going to hurt your clients, say so. This isn’t being political – this is being factual.

Stop talking about volunteer value primarily in terms of their hourly monetary value. When you do that, you justify a government saying, “Cut your paid staff and just get volunteers to do that work.” Governments HAVE done this, and it’s very likely the incoming USA federal government will do it too, and that this thinking will trickle down to state governments as well. When you talk about volunteer value primarily in terms of an hourly monetary value, you are saying that their PRIMARY value is that they work for free.

Use your web site to be absolutely transparent about who runs your organization, what it does, how much money is in its budget, where the money comes from and how it spends the money it gets. AND KEEP IT UPDATED. And be proud of it – no apologies for paying competitive salaries, for having offices that have adequate parking and lighting, for having clean offices, etc.

Make sure politicians know and appreciate your organization. Have a representative from your organization at every local public meeting by your state’s US Congressional Representatives and US Senators, and send those officials press releases about your organization’s accomplishments and impact. Invite representatives from their offices to every public event you have. Here is more advice on how to get a Congressperson to listen to you, which notes that posts to social media are largely ineffective because they are so easy to ignore, that paper letters are more effective than email, and that phone calls RULE. You need to do similar outreach with your state legislative representatives and senators – in fact, they should be much easier to meet with, in-person. Go in front of your local city council at least once a year to speak during the public comment: announce a new program, remind the council of something you are doing, tell them what a budget cut is going to do in terms of how it will affect your clients, etc. You have about two minutes: use it.

Make sure the nearest weekly and daily newspapers, and the nearest CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox affiliate TV stations know why your organization exists, what it accomplishes, and the underlying issues it addresses. And when they get a story wrong about the causes of homelessness, addiction, unemployment, domestic violence, poverty, etc., CALL THEM and SAY SO. Volunteers can help you monitor the media and look for opportunities for correction.

During the 2016 election, a worldwide audience, not just the USA, heard repeated disparaging remarks by the two main Presidential candidates about each other’s philanthropic bodies. Regardless of the truth or not of their attacks, many people have been left with the impression that all philanthropy – all nonprofits, all charities, all NGOs – is corrupt and conducted primarily with the goal of achieving more power and a good public image, rather than a genuine desire to improve people’s lives, improve communities or help the environment. Every nonprofit has to keep that in mind as it looks at the financial information on its web site and annual report, as well as in addressing the aforementioned communication issues.

Henry Berman said, in an article for an article for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, “We must tell our stories and the stories of those who benefit from our philanthropy, lest we allow the unchecked rhetoric of the campaign trail to define who we are, what we accomplish, and how we operate.” I couldn’t agree more.

You will not have your nonprofit status revoked for doing any of the above. Do not let anyone threaten such a thing. The aforementioned is all mission-based work. You aren’t endorsing a politician or a political party, and you are not directing people on how to vote, things that are strictly forbidden for 501 (c) (3) nonprofits.

Also see

“Every nonprofit organization and nonprofit cause or mission that relies on federal regulation, executive orders, or other non-legislative approaches to implementation is at risk of profound change or elimination when Donald Trump takes office in January.” An excellent warning from the Nonprofit Quarterly.

It’s Day One of the Trump Era: Let’s Defend Philanthropy

How Will Trump Presidency Affect Humanitarian Aid & Development?

My consulting services (I can help you with your communications strategies!)

January 6, 2017 update: Forbes has this excellent article on how corporations should have a crisis communications response in case Trump attacks them. It is a step-by-step guide on what that planning should look like. Have a look and think about how your nonprofit or government agency should create a similar guide for your mission-based initiative. If your mission has a focus on LBGTQ people, on helping immigrants, or helping women access abortion services, or is affiliated in any way with the Clinton Foundation, or has any Islamic affiliation, or works to help refugees, or has any other focus “relevant to the president elect’s hobbyhorses,” your organization REALLY needs to read this Forbes article.

February 27, 2017 update: With aid under attack, we need stories of development progress more than ever – from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), the UK’s leading independent think tank on international development and humanitarian issues.

Also see:

Survival Strategies for Nonprofits

Folklore, Rumors & Misinformation Campaigns Interfering with Humanitarian Efforts & Government Initiatives

gossipUPDATED:

Preventing Folklore, Rumors, Urban Myths & Organized Misinformation Campaigns From Interfering with Development & Aid/Relief Efforts & Government Initiatives

Folklore, rumors and contemporary myths / legends often interfere with development aid activities and government initiatives, including public health programs – even bringing such to a grinding halt. They create ongoing misunderstandings and mistrust, prevent people from seeking help, encourage people to engage in unhealthy and even dangerous practices, and have even lead to mobs of people attacking someone or others because of something they heard from a friend of a friend of a friend. With social media like Twitter and Facebook, as well as simple text messaging among cell phones, spreading misinformation is easier than ever.

Added to the mix: fake news sites set up specifically to mislead people, as well as crowdsourced efforts by professional online provocateurs and automated troll bots pumping out thousands of comments, countering misinformation efforts has to be a priority for aid and development organizations, as well as government agencies.

Since 2004, I have been gathering and sharing both examples of this phenomena, and recommendations on preventing folklore, rumors and urban myths from interfering with development and aid/relief efforts and government initiatives. I’ve recently updated this information with new information regarding countering organized misinformation campaigns.

Anyone working in development or relief efforts, or working in government organizations, needs to be aware of the power of rumor and myth-sharing, and be prepared to prevent and to counter such. This page is an effort to help those workers:

  • cultivate trust in the community through communications, thereby creating an environment less susceptible to rumor-baiting
  • quickly identify rumors and misinformation campaigns that have the potential to derail humanitarian aid and development efforts
  • quickly respond to rumors and misinformation campaigns that could derail or are interfering with humanitarian aid and development efforts

And, FYI: I do this entirely on my own, as a volunteer, with no funding from anyone. I update the information as my free time allows.

Also see:

fake news, folklore & friendships

gossipIt wasn’t getting a journalism degree, or being a journalist, that made me a skeptic when it comes to sensational stories. It was a folklore class. Urban Folklore 371, to be exact. It was a very popular class at Western Kentucky University back in the late 1980s, both for people getting a degree in folklore studies and for people needing humanities courses for whatever their degree program was, like me. Class studies focused on contemporary, largely non-religious-based legends, customs and beliefs in the USA. One class might focus on watching a film about the games kids play on a playground and how those games explore the things they fear – marriage, childbirth, stranger danger, being ostracized by their peers, etc. Another class might review the difference versions of the “vanishing hitchhiker” story and why such stories are so popular in so many different cultures, and how the story changes over time.

I heard at least one student say, “That’s not a true story?! I always thought it was!” at least once in every class. Because of that class, I realized there were legends being told as truth all around me, by friends, by family, even by newspapers. “I heard it from my cousin” or “My friend saw it in a newspaper” or “My Mom saw it on Oprah” was usually the preface to some outlandish story told as fact. But the class taught me that, in fact, no woman was ever killed by spiders nesting in her elaborate hairdo, that there has never been a killer with a hook for a hand that attacked a couple in a parked car in a nearby town, that there is no actor who has never had a gerbil removed from his anus, and on and on and on.

I became the “um – that’s not true” girl at various places where I worked. And then via email. And I still am, now on social media. And what I have learned from being little Ms. Debunker is that people REALLY do NOT like these stories debunked. In fact, pointing out the facts that prove these stories aren’t true, no matter how gently I try to do it, often makes people very angry.

Back in the 1990s, a friend sent me yet another forwarded email. This time, the text said the email was from Microsoft Founder Bill Gates, that he’d written a program that would trace everyone to whom the email message was sent, and that he was beta testing the program. The email encouraged people to forward the message and said that if it reaches 1,000 people, everyone on the list would receive $1,000. Of course, it wasn’t true – I knew it as soon as I saw it. She’d sent me several of these type of emails – one that said people that forwarded the message would get a free trip to Disney World, another said we’d all get free computers, and on and on. I had been deleting them, but I was tired of it. So I looked online, found a site that debunked the myth, and sent her the link. I didn’t make any judgement statements; I just said, “This is a myth. Here’s more info. You might want to let everyone know you sent to, as well as the person you got it from,” or something similar.

She was not happy with me. In fact, it almost ended our friendship. She told me that the Internet was “a place for having fun” and “you can’t win if you don’t play” and what did she have to lose by forwarding the message even if it sounded fishy?

And that kind of reaction kept happening. Three new friends I made back in 2010, after I’d moved back to the USA, all unfriended me on Facebook the same day, outraged that I pointed out several things they were posting as their status updates – about how Facebook was going to start charging users, about how putting up a disclaimer on your Facebook page would stop the company from being able to sell your information, and on and on – were all urban legends, all untrue. Their reaction was almost verbatim of what that friend via email had said: Facebook is “a place for having fun” and “it’s better to be safe and share it” and what did they have to lose by sharing the message even if it sounded fishy? Also, they said they did not have time to “check every single thing online.”

Now, in 2016, I have friends that are furious with me for posting science-based web sites that debunk their posts from quack sites like the “Food Babe” claiming that GMOs cause cancer or that vaccines cause autism (to be clear, these are MYTHS). Two journalists – JOURNALISTS – were mad at me when I pointed out that a status update one had shared – it urged users to use the Facebook check-in function to say they were at Standing Rock in North Dakota, that this would somehow prevent the Morton County Sheriff’s Department there from geotargeting DAPL protesters – was promoting false information. I wasn’t just annoyed by the message – I found it imprudent, and yet another example of slackervism or slacktivism: people truly wishing to assist the protesters were checking in on Facebook rather than doing something that would REALLY make a difference, like sending funds to support the protest efforts or writing their Congressional representatives in support of the protesters. It also misdirects people from the nefarious ways law enforcement really does surveil people on social media. I would have thought journalists would know better than engage in such behavior.

Contemporary legends online cause harm, and it’s bothered me long before the Standing Rock/Facebook book check-in myth. Since 2004, I have been gathering and sharing examples of how rumors and urban / contemporary myths often interfere with relief and development activities, and government initiatives, including public health initiatives — even bringing such to a grinding halt. These myths create ongoing misunderstandings among communities and cultures, prevent people from seeking help, encourage people to engage in unhealthy and even dangerous practices, cultivate mistrust of people and institutions, and have even lead to mobs of people attacking someone or others for no reason other than something they heard from a friend of a friend of a friend. With the advent of social media like Twitter and Facebook, as well as just text messaging among cell phones, spreading misinformation is easier than ever.

Based on my experience as a researcher and a communications practitioner, and everything I’ve read – and I read a LOT on this subject – rumors that interfere with development and aid/relief efforts and government health initiatives come from:

  • misinterpretations of what a person or community is seeing, hearing or experiencing,
  • from previous community experiences or their cultural beliefs,
  • willful misrepresentation by people who, for whatever reason, want to derail a development or relief activity,
  • unintentional but inappropriate or hard-to-understand words or actions by a communicator, or
  • the desire of an individual or community to believe an alternative narrative, a desire that is stronger than the facts

That list of bullet points was central to the long list I made of recommendations on preventing folklore, rumors and urban myths from interfering with such initiatives. I made that list to help aid workers, particularly people leading public health initiatives. For years, I’ve updated that list and felt really good about it being comprehensive and realistic, and I’ve employed some of the methods myself in my work.

But are these recommendations enough anymore? I’m not sure. Because BuzzFeed reported that fake news stories about the USA Presidential election this year generated more engagement on Facebook than the top election stories from 19 major news outlets COMBINED – that included major news outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, and NBC News, and on and on. And a new study from Stanford researchers evaluated students’ ability to assess information sources, and described the results as “dismaying,” “bleak” and a “threat to democracy,” as reported by NPR News. Researchers said students displayed a “stunning and dismaying consistency” in their responses, getting duped again and again. The researchers weren’t looking for high-level analysis of data but just a “reasonable bar” of, for instance, telling fake accounts from real ones, activist groups from neutral sources and ads from articles. And the students failed. Miserably. And then there’s my own experience seeing the reaction a lot of people have to references to sites like snopes.com or truthorfiction.com or hoax-slayer.com or the Pulitzer Prize-winning site Politico that debunk myths; those people claim that “These sites aren’t true. They’re biased.” And that’s that – just a simple dismissal, so they can continue to cling to falsehoods.

National Public Radio did a story a few days ago about a man in Los Angeles who decided to build fake news sites that publish outrageous, blatantly false stories that promote stories that extreme far-right groups in the USA (also known as “alt-right”) would love to believe; he thought that when these stories were picked up by white supremacist web sites and promoted as true, he and others, particularly major media outlets, would be able to point out that the stories were entirely fiction, created only as bait, and that the white supremacists were promoting such as fact. But instead, thousands of people with no formal association with white supremacists groups shared these stories as fact – reaching millions more people. He wrote one fake story for one of his fake sites on how customers in Colorado marijuana shops were using food stamps to buy pot. Again, this story is NOT TRUE. But it led to a state representative in Colorado proposing actual legislation to prevent people from using their food stamps to buy marijuana; a state legislator was creating legislation and outrage based on something that had never happened.

BTW, to see these fake news sites for yourself, just go to Google and search for snopes is biased, and you will get a long list of links to fake news sites, most right-wing, all fighting against debunking fact-based sites like Snopes. I refuse to name those fake news sites because I don’t want them to get any more traffic than they already do.

Competent decision-making depends on people – the decision-makers – having reliable, accurate facts put in a meaningful and appropriate context. Reason – the power of the mind to think, understand and form judgments by a process of logic – relies on being able to evaluate information regarding credibility and truth. But fact-based decision-making, the idea of being logical and using reason and intellect, have become things to eschew. The Modis Operandi for many is go with your gut, not with the facts. Go not for truth, but truthiness.

I always thought that last bullet in my list of why people believe myths, “the desire of an individual or community to believe an alternative narrative, a desire that is stronger than the facts,” was easy to address. Now, given all the aforementioned, I’m not at all sure.

I’m going to keep calling out myths whenever I see them, and if it costs me Facebook friends, so be it. I prefer the truth, even when the truth hurts, even when the truth causes me to have to reconsider an opinion. There is a growing lack of media literacy and science literacy in the USA – and, indeed, the world. And the consequences of this could be catastrophic – if they haven’t been already. People need to be able to not just access information, but also to analyze it and evaluate the source. That’s just not happening. And I’ve no idea how to change things.

Also see:

8:10 am Nov. 28, 2016 Update: Filippo Menczer, Professor of Computer Science and Informatics and Director of the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research at Indiana University, Bloomington, authored the article Why Fake News Is So Incredibly Effective, published in Time and The Conversation. Excerpts: “Our lab got a personal lesson in this when our own research project became the subject of a vicious misinformation campaign in the run-up to the 2014 U.S. midterm elections. When we investigated what was happening, we found fake news stories about our research being predominantly shared by Twitter users within one partisan echo chamber, a large and homogeneous community of politically active users. These people were quick to retweet and impervious to debunking information.” Also of note: “We developed the BotOrNot tool to detect social bots. It’s not perfect, but accurate enough to uncover persuasion campaigns in the Brexit and antivax movements… our lab is building a platform called Hoaxy to track and visualize the spread of unverified claims and corresponding fact-checking on social media. That will give us real-world data, with which we can inform our simulated social networks. Then we can test possible approaches to fighting fake news.”

1:05 pm Nov. 29, 2016 Updates:

Donald Trump and the Rise of Alt-Reality Media: You think the truth took a hit last year? It’s about to get worse. A lot worse. from Politico.

For Some, Scientists Aren’t The Authority On Science from NPR

Dec. 3, 2016 Updates:

Spread of Fake News Provokes Anxiety in Italy from The New York Times

Dec. 6, 2016 Updates:

A North Carolina man read online that a pizza restaurant in northwest Washington, DC, was harboring young children as sex slaves as part of a child-abuse ring, so he drove six hours from his home to the restaurant, and not long after arriving, he fired from an assault-like AR-15 rifle. No one was injured, and he’s been arrested, but, as The New York Times notes,  “the shooting underscores the stubborn lasting power of fake news and how hard it is to stamp out. Debunking false news articles can sometimes stoke the outrage of the believers, leading fake news purveyors to feed that appetite with more misinformation. Efforts by social media companies to control the spread of these stories are limited, and shutting one online discussion thread down simply pushes the fake news creators to move to another space online. The articles were exposed as false by publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post and the fact-checking website Snopes. But the debunking did not squash the conspiracy theories about the pizzeria — instead, it led to the opposite. ‘The reason why it’s so hard to stop fake news is that the facts don’t change people’s minds,’ said Leslie Harris, a former president of the Center for Democracy & Technology, a nonprofit that promotes free speech and open internet policies.”

Dec. 9, 2016 update

“Fakes, News and the Election: A New Taxonomy for the Study of Misleading Information within the Hybrid Media System”

Giglietto, Fabio and Iannelli, Laura and Rossi, Luca and Valeriani, Augusto

November 30, 2016. Convegno AssoComPol 2016 (Urbino, 15-17 Dicembre 2016), Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2878774

Abstract:
The widely unexpected outcome of the 2016 US Presidential election prompted a broad debate on the role played by “fake-news” circulating on social media during political campaigns. Despite a relatively vast amount of existing literature on the topic, a general lack of conceptual coherence and a rapidly changing news eco-system hinder the development of effective strategies to tackle the issue. Leveraging on four strands of research in the existing scholarship, the paper introduces a radically new model aimed at describing the process through which misleading information spreads within the hybrid media system in the post-truth era. The application of the model results in four different typologies of propagations. These typologies are used to describe real cases of misleading information from the 2016 US Presidential election. The paper discusses the contribution and implication of the model in tackling the issue of misleading information on a theoretical, empirical, and practical level.

Also see: Feuds in the nonprofit/NGO/charity world

Gossip’s toll in your workplace

gossipBack in March 2010, an article (registration may be required for access) in Workplace.com highlighted a study in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography regarding workplace gossip. It reviewed how rumors among employees about a company can dilute authority, can poison workplace congeniality and contribute to staff turnover, all of which can cause harm an organization without ever becoming public (external to the organization). The study is focused on paid employees, but, of course, its findings are important to nonprofits and volunteers as well. The study’s author, sociologist Tim Hallett, calls such gossip “reputational warfare,” and says that once a bad reputation has been solidified, justified or not, it usually sticks — often with negative consequences for the entire organization.

Employees and volunteers will always talk internally about how things are going at an organization, what they think the future holds, what obstacles they see facing the country, etc. There’s nothing wrong with that. But a misunderstanding, a small fear, an unanswered question or an observation by someone uninformed about a situation can turn conversations into negative gossip, layout the foundation for mistrust, conflict, and negative public relations.

Don’t try to stop conversations about the internal workings of an organization – those conversations can be important informal training for new staff and help you discover and address issues before they become full-blown problems. But do work to make sure conversations by staff – employees, consultants and volunteers – are fact-based and within the bounds of your confidentiality policies, and work continually to create a culture where employees and volunteers share their fears, questions and suppositions early with supervisors, without fear of retribution for merely expressing a fear or asking a question.

Gossip tends to crop up when there are voids in communication. Therefore, address fears, questions and suppositions quickly and regularly. Filling the void with information — about possible office relocation, promotions, layoffs, firings, conflicts with funders or partners, budget shortfalls, etc. If a situation must be kept confidential and can’t be shared with employees, consultants and/or volunteers — for instance, the reasons why a staff person was fired — then explain why such information is kept confidential, in such a way that employees realize that you will honor their personnel issues, positive or negative, in a confidential manner as well. If the information could be damaging to the organization if released too early, then say so, explicitly. If you should have released the information sooner internally, apologize to staff and talk about what you will be doing to ensure that information is not withheld again — or ask them how they would have liked the situation to have been handled.

If you don’t want to commit anything or everything to writing, such as in a company-wide memo, then meet individually with staff and volunteers, have the executive director or a senior manager address individual department meetings, and have all-staff meetings. Give employees multiple opportunities to ask questions and voice concerns about rumors that they have heard.

But how do you know gossip is happening? By having trusting relationships across the organization – including across an organization’s hierarchy. That comes from regular conversations, formal and informal, and by showing explicitly how feedback from staff is heard, how suggestions from volunteers does influence the organization, etc. And building trust would take several more blogs to explore…

In short, you must create a culture of faith and trust among your paid staff and volunteers in each other and in the organizational leadership in order to prevent damaging gossip. It’s much easier to create and sustain such a culture than it is to try to overcome “reputational warfare.”

Also see

For Nonprofit Organizations: How to Handle Online Criticism.

Feuds in the nonprofit/NGO/charity world

The importance of Twitter lists

Twitter_logo_blueAs I said in a recent blog, called the awesome power of Tweet tags, I am still a huge fan of Twitter. As I said in that blog, I still get so much more out of Twitter than Facebook, professionally:

  • I get a great sense of what folks are doing in the areas of expertise and work I care about most
  • I can easily find and connect with amazing experts in areas of expertise and work in which I’m intensely interested
  • I can find what I’m looking for and easily screen out what I don’t care about
  • When I tweet, I get replies and retweets and even requests for more info – real engagement – as well as traffic to my blog and web site

Of course you should follow me on Twitter: @jcravens42

But you should also be aware of another way to leverage Twitter for your nonprofit, government or other mission-based organization or program: creating and sharing Twitter lists, where you curate accounts based on some aspect of your program’s mission or location. For instance:

  • an animal shelter should have a public Twitter list of other shelters and animal rescue groups in the area, and another list of accounts tweeting credible information regarding animal care and training
  • a small college or university should have a Twitter list of its own departments, faculty and students using Twitter to talk about their university work
  • a police department should have a Twitter list of other law enforcement agencies in the area and nearby, and another list of accounts by nonprofits addressing issues that contribute to crime prevention (homeless shelters, drug treatment centers, programs to help teens, etc.)
  • a city office should have a Twitter list of other city offices
  • a public school should have a Twitter list of registered nonprofits in the area focused on youth
  • a water and sanitation program in a developing country should have a Twitter list of similar programs in other countries, so staff can look for ideas they can use in their own area, and have a list of programs and organizations in-country that have funded or might fund the WATSAN program
  • an association of managers of volunteers should have a list of all of the nonprofits in the area with Twitter accounts, another list of all student groups at local colleges and universities in the area that regularly engage in public service, and another list of all civic groups in the area using Twitter.

Creating Twitter lists and sharing them with the public affirms an organization’s mission, establishes a program as a leader regarding that mission, creates valuable resources for people you are trying to serve, and creates another way for you to attract Twitter followers. It also makes it much easier for you to be able to check in with what’s happening with specific audiences – instead of following them all on Twitter, you put accounts on lists, and then read those lists when it’s time to catch up on a particular area of interest to you.

Here’s a good example: Northwest Oregon Volunteer Administrators Association (NOVAA) has several Twitter lists. One is made up of nonprofits in the greater Portland, Oregon area that tweet, a list of people tweeting about the management of volunteers, and a list of people and organizations that tweet about volunteerism and volunteer recruitment. By having such lists and sharing them with the public, NOVAA is helping promote its brand as an organization that can help organizations in the area, including nonprofits, schools and government agencies, regarding effective volunteer engagement. What would be great is if they also had a list of all public officials in the area, or that represent the area, that are on Twitter, so that they could easily follow what those people might be saying regarding volunteers and NOVAA members could more easily contact those representatives regarding volunteerism.

Here’s another good example: United Way of the Columbia-Willamette, also in Portland, Oregon. One of its Twitter lists is of its partner organizations on Twitter. Another list is of organizations focused on helping people and families work towards financial stability. Like NOVAA, they also have compiled a list of nonprofits in the greater Portland, Oregon area that tweet. So UW is using its Twitter lists to both promote nonprofits in the area and help people in the area find the services at nonprofits they need – in short, they are using Twitter lists as a part of their mission to “improve lives, strengthen communities and advance equity by mobilizing the caring power of people across our metro area.”

Here’s how it works for me: I maintain several public Twitter lists – lists of people and organizations that regularly tweet about subjects of interest to me. These lists affirm my areas of expertise and my interests as a professional, help establish me as a leader regarding some of these areas, and create valuable resources for people and organizations with whom I want to connect in some way. It also cuts down on how many people I have to follow on Twitter;  instead, I can put people and organizations on various lists, by subject matter, geography, whatever, and then check in with those lists as I like. I pick one or two of my lists a day, and then spend a few minutes going through the tweets of that list.

For instance, there’s my Tech4Good ICT4D, a list of people and organizations that regularly tweet regarding computers and the Internet used to help people, communities and the environment. Or my ework evolunteer list, which tracks people and programs tweeting about telework, telecommuting, remote work, virtual teams, distributed teams, virtual volunteering, etc. Or my CSR  list, which is made up of corporations that tweet about their philanthropic and social responsibility activities, and people and organizations that tweet regarding corporate social responsibility. My several public Twitter lists become both ways to brand my interests and expertise as well as a way to offer resources that others might find useful.

Take Twitter to the next level: make it not only an outreach and engagement tool, make it something that promotes your program through the lists you curate!

Also see:

Tech & communications jargon versus reality

The Guardian, a media organization based in the UK, has a wonderful online program called the Global Professionals Network, “a space for NGOs, aid workers and development professionals to share knowledge and expertise”. They also have an occasional feature called “The Secret Aidworker,” a column written by anonymous aid workers, talking about the not-so-great parts of humanitarian work.

The most recent blog is an aid worker talking about the “dark side” of humanitarian / development communications. Like me, she trained as a journalist, and it affects both her approach and her ethics regarding public relations and marketing. I was so struck by these two paragraphs from her blog:

The international community is too focused on using gimmicks in outreach campaigns rather than considering who their audience is and what they want. I was recently asked to design an outreach campaign to educate the local community we work in about the work we do. So keeping in mind the low literacy rate of our audience and the limited access they have to online and print media, I designed a communications campaign accordingly. However, that was considered old and outdated.

For my organisation, the use of new technology such as apps and social media held priority over the local regional media, even though I explained much of these were inaccessible to the people we were trying to reach. Too often people think that if a country has access to the internet and mobile phones, every one has access. They don’t consider the cost of mobile data, the literacy rate, or if the locals would even use their devices the same way as in the US and Europe.

Oh, I SO hear this! Not just in humanitarian work, but in all communications work for nonprofits, governments and other mission-based organizations, anywhere. I hear from nonprofits wanting to explore using SnapChat that haven’t updated their web site in months.They want to host a hackathon to develop an app while their manager of volunteers is refused money for posters for a volunteer recruitment campaign. They want to know the best engagement analytics software to purchase while their online community is quiet for weeks, with no staff posting questions, no volunteers sharing information, etc. They want a crowdsourced fundraising campaign but haven’t sent thank you’s to donors this year. They want a viral online marketing campaign to promote something but balk at the idea of a staff person visiting area communities of faith and civic clubs to build personal relationships with local people, especially groups that represent minorities that are under-represented within the organization’s volunteer, client and donor base.

Anyone who knows me knows that I have long been a promoter and advocate of ICT4D. I wrote one of the first papers – back in 2001 – about handheld devices, what were then called PDAs (personal digital assistants), in health and human services, citizens’ reporting, advocacy, etc. I am a pioneer regarding virtual volunteering. I use, and advise on the use of, social media to promote a variety of information and network with others. I regularly post to TechSoup’s Public Computing, ICT4D, and Tech4Good community forum branch about apps4good – smart phone applications meant to educate people about maternal health, help women leave abusive relationships, connect people with emergency housing and more. So I certainly cannot be accused of being a Luddite. But with all that said, I also still see the value of, and know how to leverage, printed flyers, printed posters, paper newsletters, lawn signs, newspaper ads, radio ads, radio interviews, TV interviews, TV ads, onsite speaking engagements, display tables, display booths and other “old fashioned” ways of communicating.

This aid workers blog reminds me of the early days of the World Wide Web, when I would hear an executive director of a nonprofit or the director of a government program talk about how great the agency’s new web site was, but as they talked, I realized they’d never looked at it themselves, and weren’t really fully aware of what the Internet was.

wizardToo many senior staff are bedazzled by buzzwords and jargon they’ve heard from consultants, giving their employees orders to do something based only on what they think is “hip” now. I am just as frustrated by organizations that overly-focus on the latest social media fads for communications as I am by organizations that ignore all things Internet and smart phone-related.

What should you do if you face this in the work place? Use small words and lots of data with your senior staff, and stay tenacious. Remember that a list of potential expenses and budgets for time can make a case for you to do a comprehensive, realistic communications plan. And be explicit and detailed on how your communications efforts will be evaluated for effectiveness.

My other blogs that relate to this: