Don’t let agencies and influencers ru(i)n your development communication!

I didn’t want to end my 2018 blogging year with another critical post, but the two recent development communication fails from the Netherlands seem to warrant a response.

I recently wrote about ICRC’s communication fail with a travel blogger in Papua New Guinea (which he has now deleted without comment) and also remembered Oxfam’s “The Heist No One Is Talking About” video from late 2017 that was also quickly criticized.

I totally understand that most aspects of NGO work are professionalized these days and that it’s tempting to try out innovative and/or provocative formats. It’s also increasingly difficult in polarized media systems to get traditional advocacy and fundraising campaigns heard.

As the CEO of A&O Hotel confirmed in a recent radio interview with Germany
s Deutschlandfunk (in German) the company will no longer work with social media influencers to promote their no-frills hotel/hostel experience.
His major points of critique were that “all Instagram accounts are looking the same these days in their quest for authenticity” and that some of the influencers did such a bad job that the brand was no longer recognizable (“we draw the line at being called A&B hotels”). Both MSF Netherland’s Ebola campaign and Nas Daily’s trip to PNG are suffering from similar problems that ultimately do a disincentive to established global humanitarian brands.

Launching a product such as Oxfam’s fancy campaign video or Amnesty Netherlands glam magazine through PR agencies also comes with the risk that potentially a lot of money is spent for a product that at the end of the day isn’t really a product but is subjected to similar agency processes. Well-produced short viral videos or provocative magazine covers have always been part of public debates and usually follow some old PR mantra that “there is no such thing as bad news”.

Is there really no such thing as bad news?
Some of the immediate backlash to the Dutch campaigns seemed to be driven by an increased understanding within the development sector that issues of dignity and “otherness” need to be tackled in a sensitive way. From criticizing the sexualization of (female) refugees on the cover of Glamoria magazine the debate also hinted at recent discussions about racism in the aid industry and how to engage in a meaningful way with citizens in the global South-be they Ebola patients, refugees crossing the Mediterranean or citizens of Papua New Guinea.
Keeping your partners, local organizations or “beneficiaries” silent and from view is becoming less and less acceptable. The development industry and its supporters demand more-even if it’s “just” a short video or a hashtag-based campaign.

Communicating beyond dropping influencers
A “quick fix” is not to work with “influencers” that have no sustainable connection to aid work, NGO campaigning & meaningful global engagement.
I can’t see any benefit coming from these engagements and generating a few tweets, Insta posts and signatures to an online petition are some kind of development communication plastic engagement that will only pollute an ocean of mediatized engagement and get an innocent sea turtle entangled in your web of single-use campaign fast food waste.

I would also urge organizations to be more careful, perhaps even conservative in their approaches of working with agencies.
At the end of the day development communication is neither a new product nor are some of the topics suitable for viral outrage. At the end of the day communicating solidarity, complex global problems, local approaches to address them and positive multi-cultural messages is difficult in an age where Northern charity brands are struggling to (re)define their roles while their money is still needed in humanitarian crises and shrinking civil society spaces in many countries. 


I also believe that authenticity only grows within the organizations themselves. MSF is usually very good using their blogs, Twitter feeds etc. to communicate their work in a self-reflective way that often criticizes parts of the aid industry and provides a realistic picture of operating in the sector.

Other organizations can and should do more communication work themselves and hire professionals who know both communication and development and can provide valuable feedback before negative Facebook comments, Tweets or Guardian articles arrive in your Inbox…

And if you now urge for a little bit more academic background reading on the topic of “doing good versus looking good” you should check out my colleagues’ Florencia Enghel & Jessica Noske-Turner
s recent book!

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