Visibility, aid and advocacy: balancing effective yet sensitive communication at MSF

Madeline Lunney interviews Avril Benoît, Director of Communications at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) / Doctors Without Borders Canada.

Avril Benoît
Avril Benoît, Director of Communications, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)/Doctors Without Borders Canada

Canadians are a generous bunch. According to the most recent Canada Survey on Giving, Volunteering and Participating (2007), 84 per cent of Canadians over the age of 15 make donations to a charity on a regular basis.

Most frequent reasons cited for making a charitable contribution were:

  • – compassion towards people in need (90 per cent)
  • – wanting to help a cause in which the donor personally believed (86 per cent)
  • – wanting to make a contribution to the community (80 per cent); and
  • – having been personally affected or knowing someone affected by the cause the organization supports (62 per cent)

Many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) include public education in their mandates. Additionally, the vast majority of NGOs rely on donor contributions in order to do their work. It’s clear that public opinion plays a major role in the outreach, education and fundraising efforts of NGOs.

Interview focus: Do public relations strategies differ for non-profits in comparison to private sector organizations? If yes, how? Also, what PR practitioners should understand about NGOs.

Madeline Lunney (ML): What strategies has MSF employed successfully in educating and engaging the public?

Avril Benoît (AB): We have three strategic pillars and there’s a lot of overlap.

The first is visibility, which I think most organizations and companies can relate to from a PR perspective: you want what it is you’re offering the public to be known.

The second—most important from our perspective as an international humanitarian organization—is acceptance of our work. We need the people in the countries where we’re working to understand that we’re: independent; we’re impartial; and we’re not there to solve their wars. That’s why MSF focuses on its medical services agenda; we’re not about politics, which would endanger our team and the people we serve.

The third one is leverage to do the advocacy that’s sometime necessary. A big part of our role at MSF is to bear witness, to shake up the system, if you like. If we can’t get access to patients to get them what they need to stay alive, or we can’t do the work we need to do to alleviate their suffering, then we try to shake things up, with news releases or what we call “quiet diplomacy.”

The Canadian component of this strategy is one part of our international communication efforts.

ML: In terms of your campaigns—I’m thinking in particular of the Refugee Camp in the City—what has been particularly effective in reaching various segments of the public with your message?

AB: A lot of what we do is media relations, based on the belief that the closer we can connect reputable journalists with our operations, the more we can achieve the visibility and acceptance I mentioned earlier. We have two media officers, one in Montréal, Quebec and one in Toronto, Ontario. These media officers try to convince journalists that they should pay attention to under-reported crises. That is in many ways the bread and butter of our work.

More recently, we’ve invested quite seriously in social media. Internationally, I think MSF has 75 Twitter accounts. I’m a member of the committee setting our global strategy and guidelines for social media. To date efforts have been comprehensive in New York and Toronto, but not so big in the rest of the world.

Promotional events are very expensive to hold, but they accomplish something we often can’t achieve in our other areas of work: give people a visceral experience—as close as we can possible recreate it.

For example, a sense of what it’s like to work as part of an MSF team. And, in the case of the Refugee Camp in the City exhibit, what it would be like to arrive to a camp “displaced” and have to figure out how you’re going to survive. The camp tours are given by aid workers; a lot of materials come directly from various operations in refugee camps. It’s the best kind of storytelling: a personal guided tour.

We find that the one-on-one connection for the visitor is gold, but we can’t afford to do it all the time. We’ve decided to do it every two years and go to four cities. So, next year we plan to visit Atlantic Canada in the autumn.

ML: Would you say that there are particular ideas that resonate with the Canadian public? Are there standard themes that you look to develop in your work?

AB: The identity and the integrity of the fieldwork drive everything for us. All of our communication goes through a clearance process: a clearance process that is so complicated that I think it would make most who work in the public relations industry blanch! But this is necessary, because what may be strategically important for one team to highlight could cause people in another part of the country to lose permission to do their work.

That’s a good part of the reason why we don’t use celebrity spokespeople. Ideally, we use aid workers in the field or people freshly back from overseas work—not the high-profile talking head, executive director or charismatic spokesperson. The campaigns are very much rooted in our field actions.

We’ve discovered that, occasionally, there is a disconnect between what the media and members of the public think we do, versus what we actually report in our communication. For example, nine out of 10 MSF field staff members are from the countries where we’re working. In our photos we try to reflect this reality by avoiding the stereotype of a Caucasian, Swedish nurse holding a black baby.

Some of our concerns: 1. We don’t want to exploit or victimize our patients. 2. We’re very sensitive about maintaining confidentiality.

There are steps we go through so that anyone depicted in our communications agrees to the profile, as we’re very protective of our patients. It would be very easy to push out the type of communication people expect of us, but the reality is that this could compromise our operations.

Many marketers in the private sector indicate a desire to partner with us and see the benefits for their companies’ own marketing and publicity. But we usually decline, needing to remain totally independent. This is because at the field level perceptions are everything. You can’t be seen to be an agent of any government, or taking money from foreign corporations. The downside is that this constrains us in our communications work because there are a lot of projects that we could tour or special websites we could put together if we had that possibility of partnerships and more resources.

ML: What should PR professionals know about MSF? I imagine that there are people who would like to donate services but maybe that doesn’t happen if you can’t accept sponsorships.

AB: Actually lots of firms do pro bono work for us! In fact, Cossette Communications is one of our great partners and we very much enjoy working with them. We also have professional translators volunteering their time. Plus a lot of our photography is done by top-calibre photographers who come along with our teams while doing work for clients in the media world. They donate a few photos to us, as thanks for sheltering them and protecting them. We have printers who give us reduced rates and web developers who work for a pittance.

This is how many people express their interest in humanitarian work. We’re always aware that it’s much harder to interest Canadians in “the other,” in those people, programs and services that they don’t know. The charities with the strongest fundraising are the direct service providers. Think about the university you attended: you feel a certain attachment. Or the hospital where you take your kids: you personally witness the good work medical staff do.

MSF (and many NGOs) are battling against indifference and donor fatigue, a sense that the world is just a mess and people don’t want to look because it’s so ugly. Sometimes we’re battling prejudice. Generally, the people who do support MSF with pro bono work or discounts are people who are well-travelled, are quite plugged in internationally and may even have witnessed the work that we do. That’s why we’re always encouraging media outlets to send their correspondents “out there” to see for themselves what’s going on in the world.

What we don’t do is organize rubber-chicken banquets and big-charity concerts. We’re not part of the machinery of “marketing” humanitarian work. We’re a little more niche, but those who know us and support MSF are really loyal.

Social media

We’ve had a lot of attention from social-media experts since the Haiti crisis. We already had a fairly active presence on Twitter and Facebook, but the earthquake really turbo-charged our follower base. We found that social media became a critical piece in spreading the word about what we were dealing with in Haiti.

Yet it proved a mixed blessing, as it was more work for us to “feed the beast” with meaningful interaction.

On the other hand, we recognize that this is the future. We’re focusing a lot of our attention in the digital sphere with an online presence, with all of the tools that make our message useful and interesting to those who will mobilize on our behalf.

ML: These days there’s less time and fewer resources for journalists to explore an issue over time. How does this affect MSF?

AB: There’s definitely a pressure for hyper-local news; a sense that if stories aren’t about celebrities they should be about your backyard.

We observe that there are fewer Canadian journalists traipsing around the world. And those media outlets that do have bureaus don’t have the travel budgets to leave those bureaus, so in essence they’re doing desktop journalism.

That’s lamentable. And it makes our work that much harder.

It places the onus on MSF: not so much to become a news organization, but rather to recognize that we must find the capacity and opportunities to get stories out, sometimes through alternative methods. That’s why we work to create supplementary audio slideshows, podcasts and magazines. And it’s why we collaborate with documentary filmmakers.

We do have a lot of capacity in-house. And we’re perfectly willing to fill the void of international humanitarian news if necessary. Yet these issues are so much more complex than the usual efforts to get high visibility and name recognition in Canada….

Hope in Hell and other third-party communication efforts

Sometimes things do come about unexpectedly and we’re delighted to collaborate. The book, Hope in Hell, independently written about MSF by Dan Bortolotti, is now in its third edition. It’s proved a wonderful boon, because if people want to know more about MSF, we can direct them to read his book.

We had a doctor working in Sudan, by the name of James Maskalyk, who wrote a blog for us. It’s so beautifully written that he got a five-country book deal to pursue his passion of writing. His book, Six Months in Sudan, is absolutely wonderful.

On the other hand, there are documentary filmmakers who want to shadow an MSF team for a project that would be incredible for visibility. But the MSF field team knows that when they’re stressed out and overwhelmed they’d have cameras in their faces. They don’t want to participate in anything that would slow them down or take away their focus from the medical mission at hand.

Our aid workers don’t want to be perceived as heroes; they hate any focus on them as individuals. That’s also difficult. Canadians sometimes project onto these valiant medical aid workers our own aspirations.

For example, there are people who will give up six-figure salaries to go off and do these kinds of medical assignments for six months or one year. We, as Canadians, want to know that they’re there, and we want to connect with them. Yet the individuals being profiled in documentary films, etc., know that the people who really keep the project going are the Haitians or the Pakistanis or whomever comprises the local team. So the MSF medical volunteers feel embarrassed, because they know that the local workers are the backbone of the operations.

That’s why there’s a mutual MSF goal and desire to shift the focus to those people who are there for the long term.

ML: What has surprised you during your time so far with MSF?

AB: Most surprising was the number of strategic and critical issues in which we have to get involved. From an outside perspective, MSF has the reputation of being very outspoken but, in fact, there’s a lot of restraint. A great deal of thought goes into when we’re going to speak, how we’re going to speak, what we’re going to leave out of the news releases. For example, in terms of abductions or things that are misreported that could damage our operations—I was surprised at the extent to which I was involved in those discussions.

More rewarding is the level of support received from journalists who’ve witnessed our work. It’s golden to us. We are the first to admit that we’re not a perfect organization. All kinds of things can go wrong in a humanitarian crisis. And they do. The mutual respect that exists between serious correspondents and MSF is something that provides me with a great deal of motivation.

MSF social media contact points


Avril Benoît is director of communications for the independent medical humanitarian organization, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) / Doctors Without Borders in Canada. She has played an integral role in developing MSF’s global strategies for emergency and crisis communications, international media relations, social media and accountability. Field assignments have taken her to Haiti, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Nigeria.  Avril invites you to connect with her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Avril Benoît joined MSF in 2006, after more than two decades in radio, television and print journalism. For 10 of those years she was a current affairs host and producer with CBC Radio One.

Madeline Lunney
Madeline Lunney

Madeline Lunney is a consultant to Canadian non-profit organizations who have a keen interest in public response to social issues. Since 2000, Lunney Consultants has assisted some 40 non-profits, consulting in the inter-related areas of public education, fundraising and program evaluation. Her clients include international development organizations as well as local non-profit agencies working in literacy, human rights and to prevent violence against women. A graduate of the International Development Studies Programme at the University of Toronto, Madeline has also lived in Ecuador, working for an Ecuadorian women’s shelter and on a radio program with street youth.  Contact Madeline by email for more information or to suggest an interview subject.

This is the first in a series of occasional interviews that Madeline Lunney has agreed to conduct with public relations and communication leads of NGOs (for publishing on PR Conversations).

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11 Replies to “Visibility, aid and advocacy: balancing effective yet sensitive communication at MSF

  1. Thanks are expressed to Madeline Lunney for agreeing to carve out some time from her very busy professional and personal life to conduct these interviews in an area so well-suited to her talents and passions, and to Avril Benoît for readily agreeing to be the first profile subject; I can’t think of a more fitting start.

    I agree with Toni Muzi Falconi that NGO and public sector public relations are “often more effective, courageous, innovative and advanced than private sector ones” (as demonstrated above) and would add that perhaps this is because the work of organizations such as MSF don’t rely on short-term PR “campaigns,” so much as ongoing work (by all parties), not only in the medical missions but in telling “the MSF story” to as many relevant stakeholders as can be reached.

    Avril, all of the questions posed to you were framed by Madeline, and although I found them very interesting and revealing, I am greedy to ask of you a few more.

    You mention that “many marketers in the private sector indicate a desire to partner with and us and seethe benefits of their companies’ own marketing and publicity.” I know that this interview was conducted several months before the Globe and Mail’s recent article, Candy and charity: Not so sweet a deal, but I did find your response to Madeline’s question most apt, in light of the article.

    I’m wondering how you feel, personally (rather than the official MSF response), about charities linking to such commercial enterprises, as well as to the concepts of colour-identified charities (e.g., “pink” for breast cancer) and twibbons for Twitter avatars (such as the current practice of avatars sporting an electronic poppy for Remembrance Day). Although these demonstrations of support don’t cause direct harm to a cause, do they, in fact, water down the impact of the real messages and/or fundraising, as they appear to be more token than decisive?

    Another question is about social media. You mention how the Haiti earthquake ramped up MSF’s social media presence and profile. But in making the commitment to devote resources (mainly time) to feed the beast, are you actually able to measure a correlation in outcomes, such as donations tied-in directly to social media (only), increased profile and actions to segments of the population that might not have been aware of MSF and its work in the past, etc.? In this case I’m asking about short-term outcomes, although I can see that the investment might actually be considered in a more long-term light, as part of the overall communication mix.

    I’ll limit my questions to one more. I’m a big fan and champion of CBC Radio, which is where I first became aware of your name and work. The CBC excels at researching and telling stories that matter to Canadians, so it doesn’t really surprise me that MSF Canada chose to hire you to do that same work in-house. Having also profiled Mike Spear in PR Conversations (and much earlier, Susan Reisler was a key figure in a post), my question is whether public relations practitioners who have entered the field through more traditional routes should be concerned about the very possible threat of high-calibre, former journalists being chosen for in-house roles in PR that extend far beyond the marketing and short-term “campaigns” role. If they should be concerned about the threat, can you suggest any skills or avenues that PR practitioners can pursue to go head-to-head in consideration for positions?

    Finally, not a question but a comment on the kismet of you mentioning MSF working with documentary filmmakers, as I met Madeline Lunney through her consulting work with Hot Docs in this area. I remember a documentary about MSF that screened for the Doc Soup program earlier (before I had the good fortune to meet Madeline or correspond with you), Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders. In my opinion this documentary (although not about MSF Canada, per se) encapsulated much of what you’ve detailed about the MSF organization, medical workers and effective, yet sensitive, story telling about the missions.

    1. Happy as I am to respond to your questions, you’ll have to excuse the brevity. I’m in the thick of writing MSF’s major accountability report, to be released in December, on our emergency response in Haiti since the earthquake. Cholera has certainly complicated things.

      Personally I don’t have a problem with colour branding for charities, such as breast cancer = pink. Rare are the causes that can make it work. Twibbons that bastardize our trademarked MSF logo, or unauthorized use of our logo on Facebook pages, are usually championed by supporters who have their hearts in the right place. At a certain point, unfortunately, we need to draw the line to assert our right to stop profiteers from trading on their association with us. We’ve had some cases of companies claiming that portions of their proceeds or sales will come to us… and we need to chase them down to receive the promised donations. Mind you, I suspect that these rare instances have more to do with inept bookkeeping than calculated unscrupulousness.

      Partnerships with corporations are rare for us. Over the past year, LG Electronics made a $500,000 donation to MSF USA and donated 50 large flat-screen television sets (to be auctioned off later, with proceeds to MSF) which allowed us to create to raise awareness of childhood malnutrition through a website and multi-media photo exhibits that are touring globally. We are grateful that LG respected our brand integrity, and did not impose conditions we would have been unwilling to accept.

      On the question of social media – and this may sound odd for a relief organization that’s mainly funded by private donations – we’re not in it for the quick cash. The investment of time and creativity on these platforms allows us to keep our supporters informed and engaged. Period. We’re trying to cultivate longer-term relationships.

      A lot of people ask us why SMS, or mobile phone text, donations haven’t really been part of our fundraising mix. Initially it was because the administrative costs were too high; this is less of an issue now that there’s more competition from the phone service providers. More importantly, however, SMS donations are akin to a cash box at a check-out counter: you get a few dollars without the opportunity to follow up with that donor and, ideally, steward them. [Caveat: we’re constantly re-evaluating our strategies as conditions change.]

      Finally, to your concern about PR professionals competing for jobs against high profile journalists, I can assure you that while many of the latter fantasize about “crossing over” to roll up their sleeves for an NGO, there’s no stampede. Few of my old colleagues are willing to accept the salary cut, the need to learn about the sector as charity volunteers for a few years, not to mention the cost and effort required to take MBA or other courses that teach managers how to effectively run things.

      Still, in defense of experienced journalists jumping into public relations, I’d say they bring a number of valuable skills to the table: the ability to juggle multiple tasks in fast-changing environments, the ability to think creatively and pitch ideas, to synthesize complex information, to create stories in multiple mediums, to take charge and stay focused amid chaos, to pay attention to detail, to adapt to different cultural or work environments, etc. Plus, they have a tendency to work their tails off. Speaking of which, I’d better get back to my Haiti report!

  2. Congratulations to Madeline Lunney for a very informative insight, to Avril Benoit for the highly competent and savvy rationalizations of her day-to-day practice and to Judy Gombita for moving ngo’s public relations under the PRC spotlight!

    May I suggest to Madeline to dedicate some future attention to the activities of the Communication Initiative ( and to its leader, the newzealander-turned-vancouverisland-native, Warren Feek?

    In my country [Italy] I can think of two really excellent ngo communication-savvy leaders who would also be happy to dialogue with her who are:

    Giangi Milesi, president of Cesvi (, a former pr director from the private sector who has moved up the ranks to become Ceo of Italy’s most indipendent, dynamic and effective ngo working in development projects in some of the most desperate areas of the world (pakistan, north korea…);

    Giovanni Moro, founder, professor of sociology, past Ceo of Cittadinanzattiva and currently leader of the Active Citizenship Network (, formed by european ngo’s from EU member states.

    As for Avril’s comments, in 1998/9 I had the privilege of doing an assessment of communicative outreach and effectiveness of ngo’s receiving funds from ECHO, the Humanitarian Aid Department, at the time the number one funder in the world.

    It took me a full year to complete my assignment and MSF came out as the most competent, aware, updated, committed and intelligent ngo from a public relations perspective.

    I was extremely impressed and I am happy to see that many of the basic concepts of that assessment on MSF are well integrated into Avril’s viewpoints…

    Finally, I hope Judy’s project will find support. From my perspective, ngo and public sector public relations are often much more effective, courageous, innovative and advanced than private sector ones.

    1. Toni,
      thank you so much for your supportive comments. I share your view of MSF’s achievements.

      I would be pleased to interview the people you mention for future posts, and the opportunity to talk with colleagues about successful communications strategies on social issues. I’ll follow up with you soon.

      Sincere thanks to you – and to Judy Gombita – for the opportunity to contribute to PR Conversations.

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