Good news: Tools for facing down anti-aid media attacks

A person holds a newspaper. Photo by: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

This is the final part of Devex’s series on the relationship between aid and the media in the United Kingdom. Part one explored the impact of media coverage on the public’s perception of aid. Part two looked at how that influence affects aid work. Here, we explore what aid organizations can do about it.

LONDON — The staff of the United Kingdom Department for International Development work at the edges of armed conflict, in the aftermath of natural disasters, and in some of the most dangerous and complex environments in the world. But in the past few months, DFID staff have been spending time in less conventional aid territory: the British Midlands.

In late March, DFID staff, delivery partners, and volunteer first responders pitched a tent in Birmingham’s snowy Victoria Square to talk to the U.K. public about aid — an effort to make the case to a taxpayer demographic that has grown skeptical of foreign aid, in part as a result of persistently negative media coverage of aid.

Partners including International Search and Rescue and bomb disposal charities such as Mines Advisory Group and the HALO Trust demonstrated how U.K. aid supports their work abroad. “They put on demonstrations which showed, for example, how to locate survivors in the aftermath of earthquakes or to find landmines. The response from the public was hugely positive,” Rhodri Phillips, DFID head of news, told Devex.

Incidentally or not, this region in the middle of England is also where some of the aid-critical tabloid newspapers — such as the Daily Mail, the Sun, and the Express — find their largest readerships. But despite their choice of reading material, research shows this part of the population is not entrenched against aid. While in the past, organizations often succumbed to the temptation to focus advocacy efforts on the more aid-friendly south of the country, the tide is turning, pulling attention toward members of the public who are typically less engaged with aid.

Via Twitter

“From DFID’s perspective, the reason to go after the ‘marginally engaged’ is because they’re the biggest group,” making up 30-40 percent of the British public, Jennifer vanHeerde-Hudson, senior lecturer in political behavior at University College London and one of the researchers behind the Aid Attitudes Tracker, told Devex.

People who are “marginally engaged” with aid efforts sit between those who are “informationally engaged” and those who are “totally disengaged,” according to metrics established by the tracker, which is a Gates Foundation-funded initiative to better understand public engagement with aid. By contrast, the totally disengaged make up about 34 percent of the public, she said, and targeting this group is largely a waste of time.

“We need to be honest with ourselves that really strong and ambitious attempts to get those people on board and engaged are probably naïve,” she said.

“If you want to bring people on board [with the aid project] — if you want to grow the pie of supporters, or at least soften the criticism — the ‘marginally engaged’ is where you’re going to have the most traction, because that’s where the people are.”

DFID’s push in the Midlands is a step in that direction. “DFID is doing this big campaign in the Midlands right now to go out there and try and make the case for aid; bring in some government ministers, some kind of local celebrities, but really make a push,” she said.

She and the other AAT researchers are tracking the effort, and hope that one important finding will be “how well media messaging ... gets picked up and absorbed by the public.”

“If you want to bring people on board [with the aid project] — if you want to grow the pie of supporters, or at least soften the criticism — the ‘marginally engaged’ is where you’re going to have the most traction, because that’s where the people are.”

— Jennifer vanHeerde-Hudson, senior lecturer in political behavior at University College London

Strategically, campaigning among tabloid readers and those members of the public who are skeptical but still possible to engage with is a good start — but it is not enough. Experts told Devex that aid organizations may be partly responsible for creating the conditions that allow misinformation about aid and development to spread. Those organizations are now coming to terms with the fact that in order to undermine the power of biased news, they must both correct the layers of misinformation and put in place creative and effective plans for responding honestly when it strikes.

In Devex’s conversations with researchers, aid practitioners, journalists, and others about how to do this, three clear categories of response emerged: Crisis mode, when aid organizations must act quickly to limit the damage in the wake of media attacks; medium-term solutions that organizations can begin to implement within their current strategies for press and public engagement; and long-term solutions that aid leaders must consider collectively to begin overhauling the way the public engages with aid.

In crisis

A journalist for the Daily Mail — one of the U.K.’s most popular newspapers — who spoke to Devex on condition of anonymity, offered his perspective on how some aid communications professionals react under pressure.

“I was reporting this story about a program with DFID funding, and I contacted DFID for a comment obviously, and a press officer called me almost crying, saying how important the work was, and how would I feel if my mother [was a victim] and all of that,” the journalist said.

“I get that they really care about this work and everything, that it’s important, but by the end of that conversation I didn’t have anything I could use in the article. I contacted them for a response, but I had nothing I could use from that press officer.”

Often, he said, given the chance to comment on allegations — which, he admitted, the Daily Mail “sometimes gets wrong” — press or communications officers in the sector squander the opportunity to respond by trying to derail publication, or deflect “to talk about something completely different.”

“It happens a lot, not just with DFID. I mean, they’re calling me at four in the afternoon, the article is going to publish. What do they expect to happen?”

At the same time, others point out that many tabloids have a reputation for disregarding substantive responses or corrections from aid organizations. When the Mail on Sunday claimed Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, earned a salary of more than 2 million pounds between 2012-2016, the paper printed a response from a Gavi spokesperson but left out the group’s claim that the figure was wrong, according to a Gavi employee who asked to remain anonymous. “We tried to correct the actual figure on a couple of occasions, but didn’t get very far.”

 “It is absolutely right that the media uses its resources to challenge when they think things aren’t working as they should. But at the same time, we want to make sure all the facts are out there to help the British public make up their own minds.”

— Rhodri Phillips, DFID head of news

Still, others frustrated by the lack of substantive responses to exaggerated or distorted claims agree that even if unsure whether the correction will reach publication, an organization’s leadership should make it their business to ensure an accurate and prompt response is made as visible as possible. Chris Mitchell, interim media manager at the ONE Campaign, said that driving this responsibility to the very top of the leadership chain is key to a proactive and effective media response, especially when the temptation at the top of the ladder is to withdraw.

“When the top of an organization is spinning plates, balancing the needs of high-profile internal and external stakeholders, I think there’s a temptation to be reticent and circumspect. There can be moments in the sector where the media elements could be better acknowledged,” Mitchell said. “It’s very rare you will get the luxury of a few hours to decide if you want to do an interview or not. You’ve got to make a call, then to commit to it.”

Acknowledging wrongdoing as quickly as possible, and incorporating an explanation of organizational or sector-wide problems in responses, can also be key to staying in control, supporting organizational morale, and minimizing damaging news cycles, insiders told Devex.

A press officer in the sector who asked to remain anonymous, as they had not been authorized to speak on the issue, said that organizations that act on an instinct of knee-jerk self-preservation or denial can sometimes end up damaging the whole sector in the long run.

“You have to own when you messed up, because the public might now have the impression, because of the more unfair critical press, that the aid sector doesn’t want to take accountability for anything it does,” the press officer said. “The majority of examples of that claim are grossly unfair, but if a legitimate example arises and the organization doesn’t own up, well it’s like the stereotype of one kid in the classroom does something naughty so the whole class gets the punishment.”

One example of a strong attempt to do that is the DFID in the news blog, which highlights and corrects false reporting about DFID activities and elevates correct reporting, although some question whether the tactic reaches far enough, or is publicized widely enough by partners to generate impact.

“On occasion, when we feel a story is false or misleading, we use our blog, DFID in the news, to address this,” Phillips, DFID’s head of news, told Devex. “It is absolutely right that the media uses its resources to challenge when they think things aren’t working as they should. But at the same time, we want to make sure all the facts are out there to help the British public make up their own minds.”

Médecins Sans Frontières has attempted a more direct approach, using its Twitter handle @MSF_Sea to rebuff Twitter users who cite misinformation about search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean.

Via Twitter

Last year, Caitlin Ryan, who manages the Twitter account, told Devex she took a three-pronged approach to responding: Correct false information, such as claims that migrants are “flooding” Europe; humanize the migrants and refugees being rescued; and use humor. The project was controversial within MSF at the start, she said, but “we try to report back often and consistently about how and when it’s successful.”

Over time, the account has become more selective about who it engages with — avoiding trolls, for example, in favor of more substantive debate. Ryan said engaging with trolls just attracts more of them, and — like engaging with the small segment of the population that is entrenched against aid — is likely a waste of time and resources.

In the medium term

Even outside of a crisis, ONE’s Mitchell said leaders of organizations could do better to make media engagement — even if just staying abreast of queries — a priority, understanding the time-sensitive nature of the news and that responses to situations cannot always wait.

At the same time, when it comes to less urgent media engagement, some experts said the C-suite should spend less time in the limelight. Gail Steeden, founder of qualitative research agency Humankind, pointed to the surge in media criticism around charity salaries as evidence that the vast majority of the U.K. public simply cannot relate to executives of any sector. By using these leaders as figureheads or spokespeople in awareness-raising campaigns, organizations may be “missing the opportunity” to utilize staff and beneficiaries who are both physically closer to the work and “more relatable to the general public,” Steeden said.

Will Tucker, a consultant and another researcher involved in the AAT, agreed. “Most people in ordinary life don’t engage with CEOs,” he noted. “That’s partly about the pay differential, but it’s also just more generally about their position in an organization.” Even with a much lower salary, they “still wouldn’t be relatable because they’re still the top of the organization.”

Predominantly, the British public are the kind of supporters who give aid based on need, and the national interest argument just does not resonate.”

— Jennifer vanHeerde-Hudson, senior lecturer in political behavior at University College London

Along the same lines, aid organizations have for years underestimated the public’s understanding and comprehension of the reasons why aid works, some insiders said. Politicians continue to use the soft power argument, also known as “aid in the national interest,” long after evidence has suggested that these arguments get very little traction with the public.

It’s time to “just stop,” said vanHeerde-Hudson.

“Our evidence just doesn’t show any support for it. Predominantly, the British public are the kind of supporters who give aid based on need, and the national interest argument just does not resonate,” she told Devex. “In fact, even when we look across parties, we don’t see a kind of plurality, even among Conservative party supporters, for this kind of national interest motivation for giving aid.”

Instead, the moral argument for aid continues to get the most support among the British public. VanHeerde-Hudson noted that in their research, putting forward the argument “people have a right not to suffer” constitutes “a silver bullet across all subgroups,” she said — with one caveat: The evidence demonstrates again and again that people “don’t like to be preached or moralized to,” and researchers noted that many aid communications have walked a fine line between moral messaging and moralizing.

VanHeerde-Hudson encouraged organizations to assess their previous messaging with an eye toward drawing that line for each program, campaign, or communication and asking how often messages have strayed into “moralizing” territory.

As Comic Relief demonstrated in March when it vowed to revamp its video appeals after drawing criticism for “poverty tourism,” aid organizations are getting wise to the fact that not only are some depictions of the developing world offensive or inaccurate, they also oversimplify a complex problem to a public that knows a marketing ploy when they see one.

“We hear this time and again, [that the public] think people out there are professing to be morally superior to them, which [they are] probably not, but that’s how they’re feeling,” Steeden said. “And feeling morally inferior, they’re feeling actually that their self-worth is being shaken by all these people supposedly doing good.”

The persistence of this kind of imagery may also give rise to the idea that “nothing has changed,” and that aid efforts aren’t working.

In the long run, then, reliance on these images may have played some role in planting resentment, skepticism, and even disdain in the public, creating perfect conditions for tabloids to monopolize the discourse.

In the long term

Some of the most destructive media engagement — or disengagement — habits will also be the most difficult for the sector to break, insiders said. Many of the more entrenched approaches to misinformation have remained intact since what is often seen as a “golden age” of U.K. aid.

“I would like the press and NGOs — certain individuals in NGOs — to stop thinking the way they did in the 1990s through to 2005. I think that was our most recent heyday, the Make Poverty History Campaign,” one communications official in the sector, who asked to remain anonymous to maintain professional ties, commented.

“There are some in the sector that have been around so long, have earned their experience, and are extremely connected and are brilliant people, but we’re just not going to fix stuff in the same way,” the official said. He pointed out that when the Make Poverty History campaign was launched, there was no Facebook or YouTube, adding “you can’t operate in a world where these huge phenomena have come into being without adjusting to it.”

Media shortsightedness reaches deep into organizations, and goes beyond social media, with “a real clash between fundraising departments and their policy departments,” he said. “Media or communications is weirdly caught in the middle.”

On one side, policy departments tend to be politically savvy, crafting narratives with the chief aim of shifting people’s mindsets; while fundraising professionals are goal-oriented and sometimes tend to favor strategies that elicit short-term gains over setting a long-term, coherent example for the industry.

The most expedient way to inspire change has long been accepted to be the kinds of imagery, moralizing, and “white savior”-driven narratives that the public has grown used to — and until recently, those tactics worked. According to a 2012 study by the Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy, “research confirms that the public are more likely to respond to advertisements that demean sufferers than those in which charitable beneficiaries are shown in a more positive light, with the same rights and capabilities as anyone else.”

But those same tactics now see the sector branded as patronizing and paternalistic by some parts of the public. As that paradigm begins to lose its effectiveness, the dynamic is becoming tense.

Similarly problematic is the aid sector’s relationship with politicians. Just as tabloids politicize the aid budget to suit the day’s news, politicians’ vocal associations with aid organizations may be doing more damage to the sector than good.

“I think NGOs cannot ignore the populist tide, but that does not mean they have to succumb to parroting the messages.”

— Communications official who asked to remain anonymous

“There is a lack of trust in politicians across the board, but also perceptions of their competence,” Tucker said. “It’s not just questioning whether they’re good people; it's also, are they competent people?”

The communications official agreed, pointing out that “NGOs achieve change by influencing leaders, but by doing that, they have become so close to political elites that they [are] tarred with the same brush [that] we have seen in these populist movements [that] are fed up with political elites.”

In part, these issues come back to choosing better, more relatable messengers.

“People are pretty untrusting of ... any MPs, including those in their own parties,” Tucker said. “If you're targeting a Daily Mail reader, then it's better to use a messenger that is relatable, so that is someone like a nurse, doctor, or teacher.” Unfortunately, in the U.K., he said, white and Western messengers do test better — but he stressed that doesn’t mean aid organizations should necessarily use Western messengers over beneficiaries.

In an effort to update and legitimize depictions of aid work, organizations are beginning to deepen the narrative in their messaging by telling more complete stories, through more relevant storytellers. For example, this video project by Save the Children, Plan International, Cafod, VSO, and Oxfam depicts a mix of local and foreign aid workers explaining the problem, the solution, and the path to local ownership. The camera also never seems to pan completely away from individuals both benefiting from and implementing the intervention, and it shows a project in process, giving a better sense of how development happens.

#OrdinaryExtraordinary video via YouTube

Pushing against the old model of messaging might help aid organizations get a head start on tackling another troubling media trend: likening global poverty with poverty in the industrialized West. Tabloids have long used the tactic of lining up budgets for aid programs against shortages in funding at home: Claiming NHS shortages could be plugged with money from an agricultural program in Papua New Guinea, for example, or a lack of bin collectors in East Manchester could be solved by cutting an arts and music program in a refugee camp in Bangladesh.

Until recently, many have found it an easy analogy to dismiss, but in an op-ed in the New York Times in January, economist Angus Deaton claimed that levels of poverty in the United States may now necessitate repurposing aid spending for domestic poverty reduction. The claim has its critics, but to some it represents a watershed moment for the aid sector to begin asking how it should be taking a stand in that debate.

“In some ways, we’ve been having discussions with NGO partners about, do we stand to gain anything by linking domestic poverty and overseas poverty?” vanHeerde-Hudson said.

“Partly because Germany has been using a lot of their ODA to deal with the refugee problem, and that has gotten a reasonable amount of support in the German public. So this idea that you’re using aid to address issues in your home country, that’s not unfamiliar to the NGOs — but do they want to go down that route?” vanHeerde-Hudson said. “If you can get people like Deaton saying we should reallocate some of this budget because we have poverty at home now, I don’t think the NGOs are prepared to engage in that kind of debate with any kind of evidence. It’s a new and interesting turn.”

With respected academics such as Deaton on one side, and a rising populist tide pushing against globalization on the other, some predict aid will not be able to avoid getting swept along.

“I think NGOs cannot ignore the populist tide, but that does not mean ... they have to succumb to parroting the messages,” the communications official said, adding that he believed distancing themselves from the political sphere could help.

“I think because we have become so insider and so politically affable because we know at the end of the day these are the ones that make changes, I worry sometimes that might have been at the expense of other things that would’ve made us more real and more valuable,” he said.

The insiders Devex spoke to agreed the time has come to acknowledge the extent to which the sector has relied upon a simplified and controlled public discourse. Correcting the way aid organizations move in political spheres will be tough, but many in the sector said that, to start with, organizations need to have a better understanding of how they actively or passively leverage political power. That will in turn help build understanding of how tabloids and skewed media use political power against them.

Read more stories from the U.K. Media Series, and delve into the debate with Devex’s Long Story Short on aid and the media, available on Facebook, SoundCloud or iTunes.

About the author

  • Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a former U.K. correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.