On Message: 5 lessons from humanitarian storytellers

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WASHINGTON — We live in an era where protracted crises are the new normal. Globally, the rising need for humanitarian assistance and issues of fragility have created a humanitarian system that is under unprecedented pressure and demand. For humanitarian communicators, it can be a daunting challenge to make sense of the current landscape for their audiences in ways that are tangible and showcase the impact of their work.

Devex spoke to communicators at Save the Children, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the International Rescue Committee, and World Vision International to learn about challenges and opportunities for communicators in the humanitarian space.

Here are five lessons from leaders in humanitarian communications.

1. Return to the basics

Humanitarian work is challenging, complicated, and complex — and capturing those complexities for an external audience is a challenge in itself. For humanitarian communicators, it’s also an opportunity to reach donors, policymakers, and the media, and to give them a chance to engage with the organization’s work.

Across global development communications, we are seeing an intentional return to the basics. More and more organizations are pivoting to a focus on individual stories, relatable entry points and, in some cases, more unfiltered and raw content from the frontlines.

A key driver of this trend is technology such as social media and video streaming. “Technology allows you the ability to bring these situations to people in an intimate way on their phones and computers,” said Erin Taylor, director of communications for humanitarian response at Save the Children. People respond and engage with more direct and personal content — all of which is made possible by digital tools that have made “going live” easier than ever before. It’s not uncommon for organizations to open a real time video stream from emergency response centers, refugee camps, or search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean sea.

When I spoke to Matthew Cochrane, media and advocacy manager and spokesperson at the IFRC, in the days following the Lombok earthquake, he shared that an unfiltered cell phone video uploaded in the first hours of the earthquake outperformed all other content on their feeds.

“There’s a sense that people are becoming cynical to highly polished and produced pieces of content,” he said. “There’s a real interest in authentic, ‘rougher’ content [of] what’s actually happening on the background.”

 2. Acknowledge the frustrations of your audience

Experts I spoke with noted the “insatiable appetite” in the media for “killer quotes and killer facts” when talking about humanitarian issues. Teams have to be able to react quickly to breaking news with powerful images and commentary in order to push complex emergencies into headlines. But for some of the worst emergencies, sustained traction can be hard.

“Yemen is the worst humanitarian emergency, yet it’s hard to get sustained traction,” Taylor said. “You have to constantly be looking for and developing new opportunities to tell the stories that need to be told.”

Coupled with the 24-hour news cycle is the general frustration of modern news consumption. “Whether you’re in Europe or in America, there’s an exasperation happening around the way in which we all consume news and information,” says Oliver Money, global communications director at the International Rescue Committee. “We have to be more deliberate about knowing who we’re talking to and how we’re talking to them.”

3. Lean into the complexity of — and hope behind — humanitarian issues

Most of us are familiar with compassion fatigue — when the number of simultaneous crises overwhelms and leaves an audience feeling hopeless. For some leaders in humanitarian communications, the idea of compassion fatigue presents an opportunity to reframe the way humanitarians talk about crises.

“I would challenge the [narrative of] fatigue,” said Tennille Bergin, director of external engagement communications at World Vision International. “There is a complexity [about humanitarian issues] and people want to know more.”

To answer this quest for knowledge, experts share that organizations should focus on equipping their audience with facts, inspiring stories, and a historical perspective on the conflicts. Analytics show that people respond to hope, says Cochrane. The opposite only further drives divide and ultimately, disengagement.

“We can’t be relentless with the misery,” says Money. “[Storytelling] has to be coupled with the action that can be taken, efforts to drive forces forward, [and] examples of where things have improved.”

4. Keep human dignity at the core — and give those affected by crises the microphone

Unique to humanitarian communications is the highly visible emphasis on both aid workers and the people they're supporting at the core of storytelling efforts. Ongoing campaigns such as the #NotATarget hashtag expose us to both the personal narratives of individuals receiving aid and humanitarian aid workers. The stories underlying the hashtag illustrate a powerful example of holistic storytelling of the issues of our day.

First-person stories from children displaced by war or an aid worker on the frontlines provide an avenue to connect to audiences in ways canned messaging or even catchy slogans might not be able to. These types of stories reinforce that humans are at the center of the work.

At World Vision International, members of the communications team remove themselves from the story as much as possible. They put an intentional emphasis on having children tell their own stories, says Bergin. “Nothing is more powerful or authentic than the story of a child told in their own words or through their own eyes.”

5. Protect your teams

The nature of humanitarian emergencies is highly reactive. There’s pressure to show impact to donors, to diversify action in the crowded humanitarian space and to attract the media’s attention. But in communications especially, quick reactions done wrong serve a cautionary tale. Humanitarian communicators have to resist the urge to be everything and say everything to everyone; instead, they should rationalize where to put their weight and bear influence.

“There’s a pressure to speak up on a daily basis and to say something,” says IRC’s Money. “You’ve got to protect yourself and your team from commentary and make sure you’ve got space for really creative, thoughtful storytelling.”

About the author

  • Carine Umuhumuza

    Carine Umuhumuza is a former associate director of communications at Devex, where she wrote about the latest trends, tips, and insights on media and communications for the global development community. Previously, Carine led digital initiatives at Devex for development agencies, major corporations, NGOs, and social enterprises.