The perils of using data as proof

I had a look through a new DFID publication called “Assessing the Strength of Evidence.” It’s a guide for DFID staff to help them better understand and better use data gathered from research. It brings to light an important point often forgotten in the race to use ever more data to support advocacy/communications/humanitarian intervention/campaigns: just having data does not prove your case. Continue reading

Increasing interest in an old story

It’s the eternal complaint I get from my colleagues and clients: “It’s an old story and nobody will listen to us talk anymore about it.” People particularly like to blame the media for not paying attention to “old” stories, but they also point the finger at politicians and donors (cue “donor fatigue,” which most advocacy officers probably say about 10 times a day).

I appreciate that it’s frustrating trying to get a meeting with a politician about a 10-year-old conflict where 200,000 people are still suffering but nobody has a solution and the politician’s country has already spent 40 million Euros trying to help those people. I also appreciate that some media don’t cover the stories I might like them to cover. Yes, less Lindsay Lohan and more Aung San Suu Kyi would be nice in general.

But when people complain to me about how they can’t stir up interest in an old story, I usually tell them to point that wagging finger at themselves. Improving your own advocacy and communications on an old story won’t guarantee you a headline and a policy shift, but I can also guarantee nearly every person I talk to with this problem that they can improve their own work. Continue reading

Being influential across cultures

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting the director of the European office of a large US-based NGO. We had a fascinating conversation about cross-cultural advocacy, communications and fundraising and I thought some of the insights we discussed would make for interesting reflections to be shared here.

Communicating effectively across cultures is a skill required of every job in the international non-profit sector, but few people are really great communicators — either in their own culture and language or across a couple of different ones. Hiring practices in this sector too often, in my opinion, place too much emphasis on specific technical skills and previous experience that exactly mirrors the job at hand. I also know this is a challenge in more industries than just my own.

In the vast majority of situations I’ve been in, poor advocacy and communications are not a result of a failure to grasp the policy issues at stake. Most smart people who are astute analytical thinkers, have a strong work ethic and are adept at reading and synthesizing information can grasp new and complex issues rapidly and well. Rather, poor advocacy and communications are typically a failure to effectively communicate messages — and invariably a good chunk of that ineffectiveness is due to a lack of understanding of the cultural situation at hand. Continue reading

Getting your message across to an audience

I do a lot of media and advocacy trainings, helping people to improve how they speak and get their messages across. I’ve met some amazing and talented professionals in my time, but I have to say precious few of them are good at speaking compellingly on complex issues, whether to the media, in front of a panel or committee, or even to just one other person.

I am not going to attempt here to give every last point about how to be a better public speaker (although you can hire me to do that). But I heard an interview today on the radio that made me grin with joy at the terrific speaker. It perfectly illustrated a few basic practices that can make anybody an effective communicator. Continue reading

Answering the Tough Questions 1: humanitarian solutions vs. political solutions

I read an article today in the New York Times with Filippo Grandi, the commissioner general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN agency created for Palestinian refugees. Grandi makes several important points throughout the article, but I nearly missed his best message when I skimmed quickly over the end. The last line of the piece says,

“‘We need to keep sounding this warning,” Mr. Grandi said. “A political solution needs to be found.'”

This is a terrific message and it brings me to my first post in a series (hope I’m not setting expectations too high for myself here!) on answering the tough questions. As an advocacy and communications professional, I constantly face tough questions about the work of the organization I’m representing. Why did this happen? Why didn’t you prevent it? What are you doing to help? Why is this issue you’re telling me about important? Continue reading

When the humanitarian worker becomes the story

I heard an interview this morning on National Public Radio with the World Food Programme’s regional emergency coordinator for Syria. He had a compelling voice and a lot of empathy, plus good legitimacy when it was mentioned that he was based in Syria even before the crisis broke out.

But the funny thing about the interview was that the key message, and indeed the story headline online, was “risks increase for humanitarian aid workers in Syria.”

I was cooking lunch when I heard it, but it sure did get my attention. Since when do humanitarian aid workers talk about ourselves to the press?

We all know that humanitarian workers face tremendous risks in the field. I’m not debating that point whatsoever. But is it good communications practice to make those risks the point of an interview? Continue reading