NGOs Can Reclaim the Newsroom! The Changing Landscape of Media and Humanitarian Communications

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NGOs Can Reclaim the Newsroom! The Changing Landscape of Media and Humanitarian Communications

raimirza, Instagram, One Acre Fund, Ethiopia, farmer
The days of throwing together a quick press release and making a few calls to one’s media contact to help launch a new advocacy report are over. Large NGOs’ Media Liaison Officers and Communications Officers now need to ensure that their reports not only have high quality images that illustrate their points, but that they also produce accompanying infographic summaries of their key findings, podcasts that discuss key issues and videos that give lead researchers a space to convince people to engage with their reports and act accordingly. This is what it takes to capture the mainstream media’s attention today. To get their positive news out to the world, comms officers have to make busy journalists’ jobs as easy as possible. After all, many media people’s noses are better tuned for the scent of the latest humanitarian disaster or ‘aid scandal’.

It’s little wonder that we’re now seeing NGOs reclaiming the ‘news space’ in some innovative ways. While international non-profits still benefit from the support of mainstream media outlets, they can afford to boldly step out of the top-down approach to gaining coverage in this age of citizen journalism and open media platforms (where anyone can be a reporter). Here, we take a look at some of the ways in which development organisations are telling their own stories and engaging with the public through alternative routes.

raimirza, Instagram, One Acre Fund, Ethiopia, farmer
Using the power of social media, NGO field staff can instantly share insights into their work with supporters.


In 2015, aid workers from Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders, or MSF) rescued almost 7,000 migrants from the Mediterranean Sea. They’d been attempting a perilous crossing from Africa to Europe. In 2016, the organisation’s boat set sail on a further three rescue missions. Rather than contributing to the horrific, sensationalised news stories saturating the media during what was dubbed the ‘European Refugee Crisis’, MSF’s personnel told their own stories by vlogging directly from the decks of the rescue ship (if you aren’t following, ‘vlogging’ is verbal or video blogging on camera, as opposed to the written form of blogging). This was a viewpoint that many mainstream media agencies would have given anything for. Recognising the unique perspectives of their logisticians and doctors during rescue missions, and an opportunity to broadcast the reality of the situation, MSF turned its aid workers into ‘reporters’. The video accounts of the rescue missions were more touching, frank, interactive and insightful than any news story we came across.

Vlogging can really work in favour of international humanitarian non-profits. Why? Well, they hit the mark in three particular ways:

  1. They enhance accountability to the public and donors by directly demonstrating how money is being used to achieve real results.
  2. By raising awareness of the amazing work NGOs are doing, vlogs can prompt further donations from the public.
  3. They provide a counterpoint to ‘aid scandals’ (which occasionally pop up in the media, tarnishing organisations’ reputations) by highlighting how tough the job is and giving a more nuanced view of the trials and unexpected realities encountered.
vlog, MSF, European refugee crisis, rescue ship
Vlogs provide a unique insight, and give NGOs complete control over the images and news broadcast about their work. Here, Ed Taylor vlogs on board MSF’s rescue ship in the Mediterranean.
Vlogging affords NGOs complete control of the images, news and information they want to broadcast without involving the media as a third party. MSF vloggers also encourage comments from viewers in the space below their videos, and also respond to these, making this an effective way of engaging with the public. Last year, MSF took a vlog diary made by one of its doctors who was responsible for treating Ebola survivors, and edited it into a video case study that it then sent straight from Sierra Leone to the BBC. This goes to show the power of this format as a hard-to-contest, visual, digital morphing of the press release.

Getting overseas staff onto social media

Another way to help the public hear from those on the ground is for NGOs to get their field staff onto Twitter and Instagram. Journalists will often follow the personal social media accounts of key development and humanitarian professionals to gain access to the field and get news first-hand. These days, employees frequently state their roles and organisation names on their accounts for this very reason, or else create separate ‘work’ accounts, fully encouraged by their employers. Like vlogging, this allows many more voices to contribute to external communications, rather than just the Communications Officer’s. This helps to generate fresh, interesting insight and newsworthy information from those who are best-placed to report reality, as opposed to the tweets by comms personnel who are generally stuck in a faraway office and usually limited to broadcasting second-hand descriptions.
social media, computer, mobile phone
With the easily accessible ‘publishing power’ of the Internet at everyone’s fingertips, wherever they may be, we no longer have to rely on journalists to tell us what’s going on overseas. Of course, we need to be very wary of putting too much pressure on field staff to constantly keep their Twitter accounts up to date; but where opportunities present themselves, it’s great to take advantage of them!

Giving people a microphone

We cannot, of course, underestimate the PR momentum to be gained from a globally recognised media giant giving a non-profit positive exposure. Nevertheless, in this digital age where we can all self-publish online, share opinions and cover stories, there’s greater potential than ever to let people tell their own stories. The last decade saw a trend within large NGOs of hiring Communications Managers with journalism backgrounds and strong media networks, who could turn their offices into newsrooms and apply their media-savvy heads to promoting the NGOs’ work. This did not seem to correlate with many organisations’ claims to be ‘giving people a voice’. And yet, there are nonetheless organisations who’re specifically known for using their visibility as a platform for journalists from the countries and communities they support. For example, BBC Media Action is championing a shift towards more democratic reporting, and is employing bloggers and reporters from the Global South.
My Media Action, films, Shabana Mohammadzai, Afghanistan
BBC Media Action’s film initiative, My Media Action, is giving grassroots C4D projects a platform to talk about their work in videos. Watch for yourself as Shabana Mohammadzai describes how a radio show is helping to protect children’s health in Afghanistan.
International non-profits’ overseas contacts’ ability to tap into local media sources allows such NGOs access to information that some mainstream journalists would see as gold dust. Exploiting this gives rise to win-win outcomes: NGOs get interesting stories, while journalists of the Global South get a chance to develop their skills and reach wider audiences. Some organisations, like Internews and Media Support, dedicate themselves entirely to supporting such journalists and the media outlets they’re associated with, such as by strengthening their financial management skills to ensure the longevity of their outputs. After Hurricane Matthew, for example, Internews collaborated with the Haitian news and blogging platform Ayibopost to launch a platform that allowed people space to tell their own stories about the natural disaster (read our post on the role of storytelling in communication for development (C4D) to learn more about this project).

These are just a few of the ways in which NGOs are taking media content generation back into their own hands. We would love to hear about other innovative forms of storytelling and journalism, and we’re always keen to collaborate and assist organisations in this capacity. Communication for Development Ltd offers training to staff in videography and photography skills; we’re also particularly happy to help clients get started with vlogging and beneficiary video diaries to complement monitoring and evaluation (M&E). Do get in touch if this sounds useful!