Tag Archives: public relations

What Mad Men Can Teach Nonprofits & NGOs About Story-Telling

I love the television show Mad Men. The characters and their storylines were immediately and continually compelling and surprising to me. The sets and costumes evoke ever-fading memories of my early childhood – I remember some of those outfits on my mother and the styles of kitchens in particular.

I’ve been rewatching Mad Men in the last few months, and I was struck by something I hadn’t remembered: how much I love the fictional advertising firm’s use of simple storytelling for clients in order to sell ideas. I am as spellbound as the pretend clients on the show during these sessions. With no Powerpoint presentation, no high tech, just words and maybe a still image, the advertising staff use compelling words, tone of voice, eye contact and subtle body language to sell concepts that evoke emotions so strong that, sometimes, clients tear up. It’s theater, without the clients knowing that it is, without the clients knowing there is acting happening. It’s the art of story-telling through talking.

Here are three examples of how effective the Mad Men low-tech approach could be:

Note that the first thing the ad person in these scenes does is set a mood, just by talking. You see moving images as they start pitching an idea, even though no moving images of whatever they are trying to sell are shown. Every time, they are telling a story, and you want to hear that story. You are intrigued, and you listen.

I have no idea how many times I have sat in an audience or meeting room and waited for someone to get the computer started, get the wireless network connected, get the software booted up, make sure the sound is working, and on and on, in order to start or continue telling me about some idea. By the time they begin, or continue, the room is often not in-the-moment anymore, and there’s nothing the presenter can do – the presentation can’t be altered based on the changed mood of the audience and the presentation can’t adjust the message to the moment.

I also have no idea how many times I’ve changed how I am going to do a workshop or presentation because of reading the room. I walked into a room to do a workshop and found just five people in my audience, so instead of turning on the overhead, I had everyone come up to the front of the room, we sat in a circle, I opened my laptop in case I needed to reference it, but I did a discussion instead of the lecture. We talked. I still did my presentation, but it didn’t feel like a presentation. It wouldn’t have worked with 50 people. As a result of experiences like this, I always ask to have a flip chart and markers in the room where I will present because I may suddenly find that we need to have a spontaneous brainstorming session in order for me to keep the room engaged and to ultimately sell the idea I’ve come to pitch to the group.

Mad Men reminds me of the importance of being able to not rely entirely on a pre-programmed presentation and technology, and instead, knowing what the heart of a message is, the key points, the essence, and being able to say such in a way that feels honest. Polish isn’t the most important thing – the substance and feeling of sincerity is, as well as a clear speaking voice. Yes, of course, I use visual aids and technology sometimes – but I always remember that it’s the message, not the tech, that needs to shine.

I’ll save my thoughts about the way Mad Men perfectly shows what women in the workplace face, even today, for another blog…

Also see:  PowerPoint / slide shows: the antithesis of thinking

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:

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:

Behavioural Insights at the United Nations – Achieving the 2030 Agenda

The United Nations has embraced the use of behavioral science to help it craft effective development activities and interventions. As it notes on this November 2016 blog:

Across the globe, all people – poor or rich – sometimes make choices that are not conducive to their own well-being. Saving enough for retirement, eating healthy, investing in education – all too often we humans postpone intended actions to ‘tomorrow’, succumb to inertia or get stuck in habits.

In light of the extensive research on the cognitive biases that influence human decision-making, there is a broad consensus that traditional economic models are insufficient for effective policy-making. Behind every policy lie assumptions about how humans will behave in light of new regulations and why we act the way we do.

UNDP has embraced the idea of network nudges, where people are influenced by the behavior of friends and members of their extended social network, and that people observe other people’s behavior as guidelines for what’s acceptable and desirable. UNDP has been cooperating with the UK Behavioural Insights Team since 2013, and UNDP’s report, Behavioural Insights at the United Nations – Achieving the 2030 Agenda, advocates this approach for inclusion in every policy maker’s toolbox and presents 10 valuable case studies. This is from the page at the aforementioned link:

In 2016, the UNDP Innovation Facility collaborated with the newly engaged UN Behavioural Science Advisor to work on behaviorally-informed design with 8 UNDP Country Offices in all 5 regions: Bangladesh, Cameroon, China, Ecuador, Jordan, Moldova, Montenegro and Papua New Guinea. This Progress Report highlights the potential of behavioural insights to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and provides an overview of the 8 initiatives.

Behavioural insights draw from research findings from psychology, economics and neuroscience. These insights about how people make decisions matter for development. They matter for policy-formulation and addressing last mile problems.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon noted that, “In order to succeed, Agenda 2030 must account for behavioural insights research… Our organization, our global agenda – and most importantly the people worldwide they are intended to serve – deserve nothing less than the best science available. A human-centered agenda requires a rigorous, research-based understanding of people.”

The report shows that approaching development challenges with behavioural insights leads to better diagnoses of problems and to better designed solutions. Public policy and programme officials around the world can achieve better outcomes — often at low or no cost — simply by leveraging our current understanding of human psychology and behaviour.

In January 2016, the UN Secretary-General appointed two “Behavioural Insights Advisors” for initially six months. They worked with the UNDP Innovation Facility to improve uptake of an e-waste recycling solution in China, crowdfunding efforts for green energy in Ecuador, the anti-corruption initiative ‘Phones Against Corruption’ in Papua New-Guinea, and more.

Wikipedia actually has some good pages that provide an overview of these and related subjects:

And here are some of my own resources on these and related subjects:

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

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

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:

UN, NGO efforts to counter hate

UNLogoOn December 2, 2015, the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) held a Symposium on Hate Speech in the Media, with senior officials calling for a global mobilization of citizens to help counter messages that promote xenophobia, violent extremism and prejudice. The symposium was the first of a series that UNAOC will host, called Tracking Hatred,. The next symposium will be held in Baku, Azerbaijan, in April.

The UN Counter Terrorism Executive Directorate (CTED) also organized two days of panel discussions later in December, a collaboration between the public and private sector, called “Preventing Terrorists from Exploiting the Internet and Social Media to Recruit Terrorists and Incite Terrorist Acts, While Respecting Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.”

@unaoc, @friendsunaoc, @UN-CTED and other agencies, UN and non-UN alike, are using #SpreadNoHate and #Reclaimingtheweb on Twitter to promote messages from these efforts. I’ll be using them as well, as appropriate, often.

Cristina Gallach, UN Under-Secretary-General for Communications & Public Information, said during the UNAOC event, “Hate speech has been with us for a long time. We will never forget the slaughter of over 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus during a brief three month period in Rwanda in 1994. We will never forget either the six million Jews plus five million others who perished because of one hateful vision… Today, however, more than ever, individuals are using hate speech to foment clashes between civilizations in the name of religion. Their goal is to radicalize young boys and girls, to get them to see the world in black and white, good versus evil, and get them to embrace a path of violence as the only way forward.” She wasn’t just referring to Daesh (also known as ISIL or ISIS), though they are the most high-profile right now and, therefore, they were the primary focus of this event.

From what I’ve read about the symposium, there were lots of comments by speakers about enforcing laws that prohibit incitement of hatred or violence, and about social media companies being compelled to quickly delete content. I’m wary of this kind of talk, as governments use cries of “hate speech” to arrest people that are critical of the government or a religion, such as this 14-year-old boy in Turkey, or these teens in Egypt, or Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia. I much prefer strategies focused on communications activities that establish and promote a narrative that pushes back against hate and prejudice, and was glad to see that strategy as a focus of two of the CTED panels, one called “privacy and freedom of expression in the digital age” and another that I am very interested in, called “Use of Internet and communications technology for counter-messaging purposes” – the link goes to webcast of the panel, moderated by Steven Siqueira, Acting Deputy Director, CTITF Office- UN Counter-Terrorism Centre (UNCCT) – so wish there was a transcription from this panel! If you want to listen to just a bit, here’s my absolute favorite: go to around the 14:00 point and listen to Humera Khan, Executive Director of Muflehun – she gives realistic, practical advice on mobilizing youth to counter online messages of hate. And then listen to Jonathan Birdwell of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, right afterward, talking about teaching young people to critically engage with what they read online, and the importance of digital literacy. And then jump to around 36:00 and listen to Abdul-Rehman Malik, who has a provocative, assertive, right-on challenge to governments on this subject. The questions and answers after these three present is worth your time as well. The entire session lasts about 90 minutes, and is really worth your time to listen to (please, UN, release it as a podcast!).

I hope the people involved in these UN and civil society efforts know that, in the last 24 hours, Muslims on Twitter have hilariously trolled a Daesh leader’s call to violence – humor is a powerful tool in fighting against prejudice, and these tech-savvy Muslims are doing it brilliantly. I hope they know about online groups like Quranalyzeit and Sisters in Islam, tiny organizations doing a brilliant job online of countering extremist messages regarding Islam, and doing it as Muslims and from an Islamic perspective. Or about Mohamed Ahmed, a middle-aged father and gas station manager, and one of many Muslims in Minneapolis, Minnesota frustrated by Daesh’s stealthy social media campaigns, and countering it with a social media campaign of his own, AverageMohamed.com.

AND I HOPE EVERYONE KEEPS TALKING. Because I think they are talking about activities and messages that will really work in stopping the violence, and will make all aid and development efforts – about water, about reproductive health, about agricultural, WHATEVER – actually work, actually be sustainable. I so wish all of these efforts were getting more attention online, in traditional media, among all United Nations agencies, among NGOs, and among politicians.

Also see:

Propaganda for good (blog)

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)

Reconciliation (a blog of frustration I wrote while working in Ukraine in 2014)

Words matter

Back in my university days, for my major in journalism, I had to take a class about ethics in journalism. And it changed my life. My “aha” moment was when the professor handed out two different news articles about the same event – a funeral. Both articles were factually accurate. In our class discussion, we noted that one story seemed rather cut-and-dry: the hearse was “gray”, the women “wore black” and they “cried openly”, etc. After reading the other article, the class said their impression was that the family of the deceased was very well off and very high class – the hearse was “silver”, the women wore “black haute couture” and they “wept”, etc. There were lots more examples we came up with that I cannot remember now, but I do remember that I started paying a lot more attention to words that were used in the media to describe events. And I still do.

I use the following as an example not to invite debate about the ethics of abortion or access to abortion, but, rather, for you to think about words, to think about those debates and the words different people use when talking about the same things. One side talks about reproductive health, personal choice, reproductive choice, health clinics, pregnancy termination, freedom from government interference and abortion access. The other side brands itself as pro-life and uses words like murder and killing and baby parts and abortion industry. You can know which side a politician is on based on which words that person uses. Both sides regularly petition the media to use particular phrasing when talking about any news related to abortion services.

Another example: following mass shootings and murders by different young white men at a Colorado movie theater in July 2012, a Connecticut elementary school in December 2012, a Charleston, South Carolina church in June 2015, and an Oregon community college in October 2015, among many others, the shooters were referred to by police and the media as loners and mentally-ill, their relationships with women were often mentioned, and the words terrorism or radicalized were rarely, or never, used by journalists or politicians in association with the events once the shooters were identified. By contrast, mental illness, relationships with women and similar references was rarely, if ever, discussed by those same people regarding mass shootings, murders and bombings in the USA by young Muslim men in Little Rock in 2009, in Boston in April 2013, in Garland, Texas in 2015, and in Chatanooga in July 2015, among many others (details are still emerging regarding the shooting in San Bernadino this week, so I’ll leave that off this list).

Another example: the estate tax versus the death tax. In the USA, when someone dies, the money and goods that they had that is passed along to heirs, usually children, is taxed by the federal government. When this tax is described as an estate tax, polls show that around 75% of voters supported it. But when the exact same proposed policy is described as a death tax, only around 15% of voters supported it.

Sometimes, our choice of words to describe something is unconscious, a matter of our education or background. Other times, the choices are quite deliberate and meant to add subtext to our message, to sway the reader or listener in a particular direction. As I said on Facebook in response to someone who implied she doesn’t think word choice matters when describing groups, people or events:

If there is anything I’ve learned in my almost 50 years – WORDS MATTER. The words we use influence, inspire, change minds, create understanding or misunderstanding, fuel flames or put them out. Using a double standard to talk about people that murder others brands one “just really sad”, and the other “terrorism.” It demonizes entire groups while letting off other groups that are the same. It’s hypocrisy.

Here is a wonderful web site from a student project at the University of Michigan on the power of word choice in news articles (it includes rather wonderful lesson plans you can use in your own trainings!). It hasn’t been updated in a long while, but the examples it uses – many from the second Iraqi war with the USA – are excellent for showing the power of word choices to influence opinion – and even create misunderstanding. Also see this lesson plan for students in grade 9 – 12 regarding word choice and bias from Media Smarts, “Canada’s centre for digital and media literacy,” for more examples of how word choices can influence our opinions.

Words matter. Choose carefully.

Also see: