Tag Archives: public relations

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

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:

Taking a stand when you are supposed to be neutral/not controversial

handstopSo many people responsible for communications at nonprofits, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), government programs and international development agencies like the United Nations do their work from a place of fear: fear of negative publicity, fear of reprimand from supervisors or partner organizations, fear of controversy, etc. One of the consequences of this fear-based work style is that these communications professionals overly-censor themselves on social media, avoiding messages that relate directly to their program’s mission, simply because they don’t want to make anyone angry.

It’s impossible to work in communications and not make anyone angry. Impossible. While I think it is very important to be culturally-sensitive/appropriate in communications, the reality is that the work of most mission-based organizations is meant to grow understanding and change minds – and that means, at least sometimes, being challenging, even provocative. I long ago accepted that not everyone is going to like the messages of whatever program I’m representing, even messages that seem quite benign and non-controversial to me. As long as I make all messages reflective of the mission of the program, and ensure all messages come from a place of sincerity and honesty, I make no apologies.

If you want to post a message to social media that promotes something that relates to your program’s mission, but you want to keep negative responses to a minimum – or have a solid response to anyone who complains about such a message, including a board member or donor, here’s what you do: find the message you want to say on your headquarter’s Facebook or Twitter account, or a partner organization’s account, and share it or retweet it.

Here’s an example: I’ve had colleagues at the UN say, “We cannot talk about rights for gay people. It will make too many people angry.” Yet, the UN has a human rights MANDATE that includes rights for gay people. So, what could an office in such a position do in order to promote that human rights message and have a firm defense for doing so in the face of criticism? Follow the United Nations Free & Equal initiative on Twitter (@free_equal) and on Facebook. This is an initiative of the Office of the High Commissioner for United Nations Human Rights (follow that initiative on Twitter and Facebook as well). Share and retweet the messages that initiative says that you feel you cannot say yourself, such as this video from the UN Secretary General in support of the Free & Equal initiative. No one can argue that you shouldn’t share it – unless they can point to a specific, verifiable threat as a result of such a message that could endanger staff.

Another example: while working in a country with a lot of armed conflict going on, our communications office decided that celebrating the UN’s international day of peace with our own messages could be seen as taking sides in the hostilities – saying “We hope for peace” could be interpreted as encouraging one side to “give in” to another. So we decided not to post our own messages – but to share and retweet official UN messages related to international peace day.

It’s a good idea to make a list of Twitter accounts and Facebook accounts that interns and/or volunteers could monitor and whose messages they could share or retweet without pre-approval from a supervisor. You might want to also make a list of accounts they should absolutely *not* retweet or share; for instance, at one work site, I would not allow articles from a certain media outlet to be shared or retweeted via our official account, because I felt the media outlet was profoundly biased against our work and because I felt their articles were often riddled with misinformation.

No matter what: keep communications mission-based. Think about the intent of your message: To educate regarding an issue related to your program’s mission? To encourage someone to do something related to your cause? To celebrate your program’s activities or accomplishments? To create goodwill with a certain community? Always be able to justify any message you want to send.

And did you see what I just did there?

Also see:

Why you should separate your personal life and private life online

 

 

How to Handle Online Criticism / Conflict

Marketing staff: either help promote volunteer engagement or GET OUT OF THE WAY

logoMy blog today is actually for public relations and marketing staff at nonprofits, rather than those managers of volunteer programs. And my message is this: either help promote your organization’s volunteer engagement OR GET OUT OF THE WAY.

I talk to people managing their organization’s volunteer engagement activities – recruiting volunteers, supporting those volunteers, creating the majority of opportunities for those volunteers, helping other staff engage with those volunteers in their work, etc. – and among the many complaints I hear about challenges to their success is this one: the public relations and marketing staff won’t support me.

Those leading volunteer engagement at your organization need a variety of support from marketing and public relations staff:

  • in using the organization’s Facebook page, blog, web site and other online activities to recruit volunteers and tout the accomplishments of such
  • in reaching out to the media about what volunteers are doing
  • in connecting media to those working with volunteers at the organization when the media says they want to do a story about volunteerism
  • in understanding when volunteers are doing something particularly special or innovative, or staff working with such are, such that it would be worthy of external attention (or internal attention, for that matter)
  • in including information about the organization’s volunteer engagement in all traditional publications, including paper newsletters and annual reports
  • in talking about volunteer engagement as more than just the monetary value of volunteer hours

Yet, I hear from staff again and again that the outreach staff won’t create a link on the home page to information on volunteering (though they will regarding donating money, no problem!), that they won’t include any volunteer-related messages on Facebook, that they won’t use any photos from a recent volunteer engagement event in outreach materials, and that they will include information about volunteerism in the annual report only regarding the monetary value of the volunteer time given.

Public relations and marketing staff: if you are not going to create a detailed strategy for supporting your organization’s engagement of volunteers through all of your various outreach methods, then let the manager of that engagement do it him or herself, and stay out of the way as they execute that strategy. If you aren’t going to include information about volunteer recruitment and accomplishment in social media channels as often as you do about fundraising campaigns, then say nothing as staff in charge of managing volunteers at your organization create their own blogs, web sites, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and Instagram or Flickr accounts to share the information they want out.

What would be FAR better than forcing managers of volunteers to do marketing and public relations on their own? If you, public relations and marketing staff, sat down with the staff that work with volunteers at your organization and said, “How can I support you? Tell me what you’re doing. Let’s meet once a month and talk about it.” What you might find is that, instead of additional work, you get much-needed information to raise your organization’s profile online and in the media. Maybe volunteers are taking amazing photos of your organization’s work that you could use in a variety of ways. Perhaps there is a really marvelous story waiting for you to discover: maybe your organization is engaging in virtual volunteering in some really innovative ways, or is involving someone as an online volunteer who could never do so onsite. Maybe some hot current trend, like micro volunteering, is happening at your organization but you don’t even know it. Maybe volunteer engagement has helped your organization engage with communities or demographics you never would have reached otherwise. An organization that involves volunteers can be seen as more transparent and open to the community than one that doesn’t – are you leveraging that image properly in your outreach work?

No more excuses, public relations and marketing staff: support your staff that recruit and engage with volunteers – or get out of the way and let them do their own publicity themselves.

This message brought to you by: Grumpy Jayne

How to apologize to the world

A followup to my earlier post this week, about the PR disaster generated by a PR company, the one formerly known as Strange Fruit PR (ugh!).

In that blog, I quoted their non-apology for the fiasco, and then wrote what their apology should have looked like.

By contrast to that non-apology is the REAL apology from GreenPeace.

GreenPeace did something really horrible: to get the attention of delegates and the press attending the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Peru, Greenpeace activists went to site of the historic Nazca lines in Peru and laid out massive yellow letters reading “Time for Change: The Future is Renewable.” The area around the lines is strictly prohibited, and anyone who gets a permit to walk in the area must wear special footwear, because foot prints could ruin the area. Greenpeace trampled ancient, undisturbed grounds – they harmed something environmentally. Deputy Culture Minister Luis Jaime Castillo of Peru said, “They are black rocks on a white background. You walk there and the footprint is going to last hundreds or thousands of years. And the line that they have destroyed is the most visible and most recognized of all.”

Bad. VERY BAD. This is the apology Greenpeace offered:

We take personal responsibility for actions, willing to face consequences.

Without reservation Greenpeace apologises to the people of Peru for the offence caused by our recent activity laying a message of hope at the site of the historic Nazca Lines. We are deeply sorry for this.

We fully understand that this looks bad. Rather than relay an urgent message of hope and possibility to the leaders gathering at the Lima UN climate talks, we came across as careless and crass.

We have now met with the Peruvian Culture Ministry responsible for the site to offer an apology. We welcome any independent review of the consequences of our activity. We will cooperate fully with any investigation.

We take personal responsibility for actions, and are committed to nonviolence. Greenpeace is accountable for its activities and willing to face fair and reasonable consequences.

I will travel to Lima, this week, to personally apologise for the offence caused by the activity and represent the organisation in any on going discussions with the Peruvian authorities.

Greenpeace will immediately stop any further use of the offending images.

THAT is an apology. It takes full responsibility, it never makes excuses. Well done. Staff at a certain PR company in Austin, and many politicians: take notice.

Also see:

Handling a social media faux pax/ (kudos the American Red Cross)

A PR disaster that has me outraged

Which is worse: founding a company and giving it a name without doing any check on the name or phrase, and then finding out later that the name is associated with a horrible time in history and is deeply hurtful to many people, OR, knowing the name is associated with a horrible time in history and is deeply hurtful to many people and using it anyway?

I really can’t decide.

I know I’m late to the outcry over the reprehensible public relations firm founders in Austin, Texas who decided to call their company Strange Fruit PR – they recently changed the name to something else, after the outcry over the last 48 hours. But I only just found out about it today, and I have to comment. I have to.

When I thought this was a case of people naming a company without doing any background check, I was nonetheless outraged. Trembling with outrage, in fact. One of the things any public relations person knows is that, before you name any project, initiative, program, company, WHATEVER, you research what the name, phrase and any acronyms might already mean. You type it into Google and Bing and Wikipedia. Then you type in the name again along with words like racist and sexist and criminal and scam, just to see what comes up. You get a group of employees or volunteers or clients together and ask them their reaction to the name. If these two people hadn’t done all of the aforementioned, how in the WORLD were they in the public relations business?!

But it turns out the founders of Strange Fruit PR knew exactly what the name meant – and still used it for TWO years. They dismissed the people that brought up the inappropriateness of the name to them. It was only after a recent and widespread outcry online that they decided to change their name.

Here’s what the founders of this PR firm learned when they looked up the name online, and they still chose the name for their company: Strange Fruit means lynched Black Americans hanging from trees. It’s the title of a song made famous after it was recorded by Billie Holiday.

They knew that, and still chose to name their company “Strange Fruit PR.”

And then there is this non-apology from the founders of this PR company – note that they are not apologizing for their mistake but, rather, that you might have been offended.

We sincerely apologize to those offended by the former name of our firm. As of today, we have renamed our firm to Perennial Public Relations. We have always prided ourselves as open-minded individuals and we remain committed to serving our clientele and community. In no way did we ever intend for the name of our firm to offend nor infer any implication of racism. We are grateful for and appreciate the ongoing support of our clients and community.

Cringe-worthy, I know. I shuddered the first time I read it.

I’m a PR consultant. Here’s the apology that this firm should have written:

We sincerely apologize for the profoundly inappropriate name we have been using for our firm. There is no excuse for our choosing that name, let alone using it for as long as we did. It should not have taken this national outcry for us to change our name – we should never have named it that in the first place. While we can assure everyone that we did not choose the name to imply any support of racism or for one of the darkest periods of our nation’s history, to offer any explanation as to why we chose that name would contribute to the perception so many people now have of us: that we are thoughtless and uncaring. And that perception is, at this point, justified.

We have a great deal of work to do: to continue to provide quality services to our clients, to repair our reputation, and most importantly, to educate ourselves about racial and historical sensitivities and to demonstrate that we have learned, and that we do care, deeply, about all people. We welcome your contributions to help us on this journey.

We are so grateful for and appreciate the ongoing support of our clientele and community. Thank you.

And then this agency should call every organization in Austin, Texas that addresses racial inequalities or black American culture, apologize, and ask each if they would be willing to meet and help this agency start its journey to reconciliation, realization and forgiveness. And it should regularly blog about that journey.

Followup: an example of how to apologize.

Also see: