Madeline Lunney interviews Avril Benoît, Director of Communications at 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.
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 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).