Tag Archives: communications

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.

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:

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.

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:

Insecurity in the Humanitarian Cyberspace: A Call for Innovation

ALNAP (Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action) has a fantastic blog posting, Insecurity in the Humanitarian Cyberspace: A Call for Innovation, by Kristin Bergtora Sandvik. An excerpt:

“Over the last two decades, innovations have fueled the creation of a humanitarian cyberspace. It is now time for the task of addressing the challenges posed by the humanitarian cyberspace to be prioritised on the humanitarian innovation agenda… The traditional notion that the ´virtual` world is a different social space than the ´real world` is by now obsolete, also in the humanitarian context… While the traditional threats to the humanitarian space persist, the humanitarian cyberspace broadens the scope of humanitarian action – which means that, instead of shrinking, the humanitarian space is actually poised to enter an expanding frontier. As illustrated by the increasing reliance on mobile cash transfers in food aid, the humanitarian cyberspace also offers new options for the constitution and distribution of relief. The notion that access to information and humanitarian data constitutes a form of relief in its own right illustrates how technology is reshaping the very definition of aid. The emergence of ‘digital humanitarians’ exemplifies a shift in the understanding of who is an aid provider and the possibilities for providing aid from a distance. At the same time, the humanitarian cyberspace has engendered a new set of threats, which impinge on the humanitarian space and which needs to be taken more seriously in the context of humanitarian innovation.”

Another excerpt:

“The use of social media by fieldworkers may undermine principles of neutrality and impartiality and endanger recipients of humanitarian aid as well as aid workers. The dilemma is well-known: In the humanitarian field, the free speech of aid workers must be balanced against the vulnerability of aid recipients and the particular dynamics of the emergency context. However, social media exacerbates the risk, also for humanitarians themselves…While the medical and social work professions (among others) are developing more robust, binding and enforceable industry standards with respect to social media, the humanitarian sector is lagging behind. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are largely perceived as ‘private’ platforms, even when used actively during and for work. Additionally, the tension between security concerns and fundraising priorities seems to exacerbate the difficulty of developing strong and innovative approaches to responsible social media use.”

This entire blog is a MUST read for anyone working in international development, as well as any nonprofit, government or other mission-based organization. It is based on a roundtable at the 4th bi-annual IHSA World Conference on Humanitarian Studies and Sandvik’s recent article in the Third World Quarterly ‘The humanitarian cyberspace: shrinking space or an expanding frontier?’

The Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP) was established in 1997, as a mechanism to provide a forum on learning, accountability and performance issues for the humanitarian sector.

Propaganda for good

I am fascinated with propaganda – information meant, specifically, to encourage a particular way of thinking – and with social engineering, the social science regarding efforts to influence attitudes and social behaviors on a large scale – call it propaganda for good.

Propaganda is communications not just to create awareness, but to persuade, to change minds, and to create advocates. It’s communications for persuasion. These are communications activities undertaken by governments, media, corporations, nonprofits, public health advocates, politicians, religious leaders/associations, terrorist groups, and on and on, and they aren’t automatically bad activities: such messaging has inspired people to wear seat belts even before there were laws requiring such, to not drink and then drive, to engage in activities for sex that prevent HIV, to read to their children, to spay and neuter their pets, to a lessening of intolerance among different groups, and on and on.

I use these techniques myself, to a degree, in trying to get nonprofits and government agencies to embrace virtual volunteering and in recruiting for diversity and in creating welcoming environments for everyone at nonprofit organizations and within government initiatives. I’m not just trying to create awareness about those concepts and practices; I’m trying to create buy-in for them, to break down resistance to them, to get initiatives to embrace them. I’m evangelizing for those concepts.

My fascination with propaganda is why I track how folklore, rumors and urban myths interfere with development and aid/relief efforts, and government initiatives, and how to prevent and address such. That subject was almost my Master’s Degree thesis; I decided the data I’d collected before I abandoned the idea of it being my thesis was too helpful not to publish, and I’ve continued to research this topic and update this resource. And I have attempted to apply my elementary understanding of social engineering in my work, most recently when I drafted Recommendations for UN & UNDP in Ukraine to use Twitter, Facebook, Blogs and Other Social Media to Promote Reconciliation, Social Inclusion, & Peace-Building in Ukraine (PDF); it offers considerations and recommendations for social media messaging that promotes reconciliation, social inclusion, and peace-building in Ukraine, and provides ideas for messaging related to promoting tolerance, respect and reconciliation in the country, and messaging to counter bigotry, prejudice, inequality, misperceptions and misconceptions about a particular group of people or different people among Ukrainians as a whole.

My fascination with communications for persuasion, not just awareness, is also why I’m fascinated with the rhetoric in the USA about how Daesh – what most Americans, unfortunately, call ISIS, ISIL or the Islamic State – uses social media to persuade. There are few details in the mainstream media and in politicians’ rhetoric on how this is really done – just comments like “He was radicalized by ISIS on Twitter,” which makes it sound like the app is somehow causing people to become terrorists. That’s why I was so happy to find this blog by J.M. Berger, a nonresident fellow in the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at Brookings and the author of “Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam”. The blog, “How terrorists recruit online (and how to stop it),” provides concrete information on how Daesh uses social media to recruit members – and it sounds a lot like the same techniques various cults have used to recruit members, before social media. The blog also provides concrete ways to counter the message, and how reporters can avoid robotically amplify the Daesh message.

Here’s the manual that Al Qaeda and now ISIS use to brainwash people online, which provides an outstanding summary of what it says – that echoes the aforementioned analysis.

December 28, 2015 addition: in an analysis paper released in early 2015, J.M. Berger and Jonathon Morgan, as part of the The Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, answer fundamental questions about how many Twitter users support ISIS, who and where they are, and how they participate in its highly organized online activities. It notes that, in its 2014 tracking of Twitter accounts that support ISIS, 1,575 of them tweeted more than 50 times per day on average, with 545 tweeting more than 150 times per day. “These prolific users—referred to in ISIS social media strategy documents as the mujtahidun (industrious ones)—form the highly engaged core of ISIS’s social media machine. These users may not tweet every day, but when they do, they tweet a lot of content in a very short amount of time. This activity, more than any other, drives the success of ISIS’s efforts to promulgate its message on social media. Short, prolonged bursts of activity cause hashtags to trend, resulting in third-party aggregation and insertion of tweeted content into search results. Prior to the start of Twitter’s aggressive account suspensions, highly organized activity among the mujtahidun—who at one point we may have numbered as many as 3,000, including bots—allowed ISIS to dominate certain hashtags and project its material outside of its own social network to harass and intimidate outsiders, as well as to attract potential recruits.”

And here’s another article I was pleased to find, Fighting ISIS online, talking about the tiny and not-so-effective effort to counter Daesh online, and which notes:

Humera Khan, executive director of Muflehun (Arabic for “those who will be successful”), a Washington, D.C., think tank devoted to fighting Islamic extremism, says people like her and (Paul) Dietrich who try such online interventions face daunting math. “The ones who are doing these engagements number only in the tens. That is not sufficient. Just looking at ISIS-supporting social-media accounts—those numbers are several orders of magnitude larger,” says Khan. “In terms of recruiting, ISIS is one of the loudest voices. Their message is sexy, and there is very little effective response out there. Most of the government response isn’t interactive. It’s a one-way broadcast, not a dialogue.”…

Social-media research has shown that messages from friends and peers are more persuasive than general advertising. Other bodies of research show that youth at risk of falling into many kinds of trouble, from drugs to gangs, often benefit from even small interventions by parents, mentors, or peers. But so far, major anti-ISIS programs don’t involve that kinds of outreach.

That emphasis is mine. I find these articles fascinating – and woefully ignored by governments and moderate Muslims in the fight online, and via traditional media, against Daesh.

This article from The Atlantic explores the strategy further: “ISIS is not succeeding because of the strength of its ideas. Instead, it exploits an increasingly networked world to sell its violent and apocalyptic ideology to a microscopic minority—people who are able to discover each other from a distance and organize collective action in ways that were virtually impossible before the rise of the Internet.”

I would love to see moderate, peace-focused Islamic social groups with a good understanding of online communications, like MuflehunQuranalyzeit and Sisters in Islam, receive grants to hire more staff, train other organizations, and create a MUCH larger, more robust movement on social media with their loving, pro-women, Islamic-based messages. Such tiny organizations are doing a brilliant job of countering extremist messages regarding Islam, and doing it as Muslims and from an Islamic perspective. But they are drowned out by Daesh. Governments also need to not do this.

December 11, 2015 addition:  Mohamed Ahmed, once a typical middle-aged father and gas station manager, is one of many Muslim Minneapolians to do whatever he can to fight extremism in his state. Frustrated by the Islamic State’s stealthy social media campaigns, Mr. Ahmed decided to make a social media campaign of his own. Ahmed has used his own money to produce and develop his website, AverageMohamed.com. On his site, Ahmed creates cartoons and videos so average people can share “logical talking points countering falsehood propagated by extremists.” More about how Minnesota Muslims work to counter extremist propaganda.

The reality is that the Hulk, Smash! strategy will not work to fight terrorist ideology and the violent results of such. Nazism survived the bombing and defeat of Nazi Germany. Bombing cities is not what marginalized the Ku Klux Klan, and bombing cities does not stop people like (and that have supported the ideas of) Timothy McVeigh or Eric Rudolph or Jim Jones. We know what’s work. Let’s fund it and do it.

Index of my own communications advice

Don’t shoot the questioner

logoGovernment agencies and nonprofits HATE my questions on social media. I ask them publicly because, often, I don’t get a response via email – or because I want my exchange with the organization to be public. Questions like:

  • Where is the list on your web site of your board of directors?
  • Where is the bio on your web site of your executive director/program director, etc.?
  • Where is your latest annual report of finances (income and expenditures) on your web site?
  • I saw your quote in the newspaper, and wondered: where is the evaluation that says your program lead to a 30% drop in juvenile crime? Is there a link on your web site to this study?
  • You have a form on your web site for people who want to volunteer to fill out/an email address for people that want to volunteer, but you never say what volunteers actually do. What do volunteers at your organization do?

Responses, if they come at all, rarely thank me for pointing out missing information on the web site, or apologize for not having such. Rather, most responses are one of these:

  • We’re not required by law to provide that. 
  • Our web site is being redesigned. It will be a part of the new web site. (no date is provided on when the web site will be re-launched)
  • That information is confidential. 
  • That information is on our web site (with no link to where it is).
  • Why are you asking?

I admit that I sometimes ask a question because I’m annoyed that the organization isn’t being transparent, or because a newspaper reporter wrote a glowing story I read about the organization or program didn’t ask these questions – just took every quote from the representative as fact. But I also ask the questions because I’ve sometimes considered donating to an organization, or volunteering with such – and I’m then stunned at the lack of transparency.

None of these questions should bother any organization or agency. None. They are all legitimate questions. Often, they are questions you yourself invite, by talking at civic groups or in the press about the quality of your leadership, the impact your organization is having, the services your organization provides and your value to the community.

If you say you don’t have time to provide this basic information on your web site, one has to ask: what is it that you are spending your time on?

Also see:

Use Tech to Show Your Accountability and To Teach Others About the Nonprofit Sector!
Mission-Based groups are under growing scrutiny. What you put on your web site can help counter the onslaught of “news” stories regarding mission-based organizations and how they spent charitable contributions.