On Message: Promoting progress in the social media era

Photo by: Pixelkult

This is the era of Twitter and Facebook, of following and followers. But for development communicators to reach an audience and make real impact in the world, they need to lead.

I don’t have to tell you this. If you’re reading this, chances are you, like me, are a development communicator yourself. So you know there are plenty of tools that allow us to tell the story of our organization or program in real-time and in visually compelling formats like never before. But that doesn’t make it easy.

Navigating the fast-changing development communications landscape can be daunting. Every day can bring a new crisis in the mainstream media, a challenge from wary official donors, or a threat from up-and-coming social entrepreneurs using savvy messaging to punch above their weight. And as development communicators working on everything from policy and advocacy to donor and beneficiary messaging, all eyes turn to you.

This is a blog about development communications for development communicators. So whether you work at an NGO, foundation or donor agency, I want to hear from you about the challenges you’re facing that are unique to the work we do. And doing communications for development is different. Here’s why:

Our messages must appeal to vastly different audiences in our ecosystem. 

Donors want stories that highlight data and impact. NGOs and implementers want stories that showcase success. Online audiences wants stories that speak to their passions and motivations. Voters want to hear about hot-button issues and value for money. And the press is often only interested when things go wrong. How can you communicate in a way that resonates with each of these important audiences? For communicators, it means being multilingual.

We have difficult human and environmental issues to communicate. 

Whether it’s ethnic conflict or child marriage, development communicators are often tackling complex and controversial topics. We face some audiences who flat-out disagree with the goal — as with climate change — and others who want to use language that can be condescending to the very people we’re trying to support. It’s our job to learn how to shape and contour images and words into packages that translate from one medium to the next without losing authenticity, power, or respect.

The rules of engagement and influence are ever changing. 

Organizations have become brands with voices and personalities. Communications professionals are no longer the sole gatekeepers of our messaging. Your chief executive officer, your employees, and your individual donor base all have a role in curating your public perception. When that messaging is done right, it can boost your initiative’s influence to the next level. When it fails, it could cost you loyalty and trust.

So how do we keep up in this challenging and ever-shifting landscape?

What I’ve learned in my seven years as a development communicator is that hitting the mark can be tough. You have to commit to experimenting frequently and learning quickly. In my first job working at a small advocacy group, I became a jack-of-all-trades. I learned how to craft viral tweets, pitch journalists fresh takes on issues that don’t always make it above the fold, and say no to images and messages that didn’t fit our brand.

When I joined Devex five years ago, I was charged with getting our newsroom up to speed on social media. I coerced some reluctant reporters into participating in their first Twitter chats and experimenting with tools like Periscope and Vine. Looking back, our newsroom has come a long way from just pushing out our daily news stories, but it hasn’t been easy. Today, our team of reporters around the world drive important conversations including #AidToo and #GlobalDevWomen and creates meaningful dialogue around issues like universal health coverage and smart cities. Launching over a dozen major campaigns in partnership with leading communicators from a range of development agencies, major corporations, NGOs, and social enterprises has taught me a lot too.

In this new blog series, On Message, I hope to first and foremost listen and drive a conversation among development communicators. What are your challenges? What strategies and tools are you using or do you need advice on? How can we — together — navigate this fast-changing space?

I’ll be bringing you insights into some of the latest social media and multimedia techniques, advice on crisis communications, and thoughts on how to approach audience segments and branding in today’s expanding and competitive global development ecosystem.

And through interviews with some of the leading development communicators out there, I’ll share some of the best practical ideas that you can take on for your own work.

So, development communicators: What comms challenges are keeping you up at night? What initiatives are you itching to launch, but need advice? What tools are you eager to try, but aren't sure how? What topics are the toughest to communicate — and where have you found success? Shoot me an email or tweet me at @CarineUmu.  

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.