What’s the Message? – Communicating development better together

12/06/2012 at 10:53 am Leave a comment

Guest blog by Franziska Fehr

If the ‘customers’ don’t get the message you’re trying to get across, it’s not their fault – it’s yours. This thought-provoking comment was made by Martin Crotty, a well-known branding consultant at BFK, during the joint Dóchas/IDEA conference, C-Cubed.

This statement seemed particularly timely considering the results of the Ipsos/MRBI opinion poll commissioned by Dóchas. It found that while 85% of people in Ireland strongly support Ireland’s development aid commitments, roughly half believe that Africa is the same or worse off than 25 years ago.

These somewhat counterintuitive findings are challenging us working in Irish development NGOs to ask ourselves about how we talk to the Irish public about development issues.

What is it that people see on the TV or read in the paper that gives them such a gloomy perception of, for example, Africa and other countries is the global South? Do we simply need more ‘positive’ stories, or is there something more fundamental we need to ask ourselves?

A number of speakers at the C-cubed conference pointed to two questions that Irish NGOs might need to reflect on. The first is the relationship NGOs have with the public, who they address, how, and what issues they are talking about. The second is to examine whether NGOs’ communications are in line with their concept of development in terms of their (underlying) messages, chosen channels, styles and means of communications.

A tale of two styles?

The Ipsos/MRBI poll also found that 90% of the Irish population names television as their primary source of information about the developing world.

Encouraged by a similar understanding of the power of TV in this regard, I conducted some research two years ago on the TV communications of three Irish development organisations, critically assessing their messages and representations of the developing world. Based on an extensive literature review and interviews, I analysed their TV adverts from the previous five years in order to better understand what kinds of images and messages the Irish TV audience is confronted with. The findings did not only reveal a number of styles that tend to be used, but also suggested that the use of the different types of appeals are often linked to each NGO’s core concept of development and the different purposes for which their appeals are used.

There is a substantial body of literature on development NGO (TV) communications and adverts and the impact they can have on knowledge and attitudes of people in the Global North. Although aid appeals have undergone some significant changes in the last three decades, the debate still mainly revolves around the depiction of people in the developing world, representations of suffering, the use of images of children as well as implied power-relations.

The literature identifies a number of trends in the styles of NGO appeals as they have evolved over the past 30 years. With many still existing alongside each other, these styles can generally be defined as either photo-realistic or newer post-humanitarian/human rights. (There is not space here for a broader run-down of other styles and frameworks for analysis.)

The ‘photorealistic style’ generally strives to depict ‘reality’ in the concerned countries, often based on an economic understanding of development, suggesting a dependency of the depicted person/community on the viewer’s donations. The literature classes some of the appeals as ‘negative’, utilising shock effects and guilt to elicit a response in the viewer. In contrast, ‘positive’ appeals often present the success of projects, appealing to viewers’ empathy and sense that they can contribute to political and economic solutions. To different degrees, both negative and positive approaches tend to oversimplify complex issues and lack sufficient context in order to address audiences on a very emotional level. This closes down space to show progress that has been made over time or to explain causes and issues at national level. Moreover, in claiming to depict ‘reality’, the photorealistic style functions in a way that uncritically conceals the constructed nature of these so-called ‘realities’.

The ‘post-humanitarian’ style shifts from emotion-laden, realistic representations and traditional notions of ‘pity’ as motivation. Instead, this style uses techniques such as irony, comic relief, animations, cartoons, surprise turns and a focus on branding in order to affect the viewer’s sense of responsibility or social justice on a more rational level, to pique their curiosity or to raise awareness on, for example, human rights issues. The post-humanitarian style also tends to feature voices from the Global South on a more regular basis.

A glance at the Irish context

Looking at the Irish context, it is worth examining how these different styles are related to the type of organisation that employs them, the purpose they are used for and the audiences they are aimed at.

The photorealistic styles, both negative and positive, are mainly used for fundraising, often in a context of humanitarian emergencies. They are tailored to a wider, uninformed section of the population typically not connected to any particular NGO. They tend to seek a fast reaction, communicate a simplified problem with a straight forward solution (usually in the form of a donation). While the organisations utilising this style produce a variety of materials that do seek to more broadly educate the public, these tend to be overshadowed by the popularity of TV and the overwhelming presence of the images of suffering.

Application of the post-humanitarian style seems to be more often employed in a context where a NGO already has an established relationship with a specific audience, for example a faith-based organisation, or by organisations that work from a social justice perspective and whose objectives are to raise awareness, educate about development issues or campaign for policy changes. The post-humanitarian style is, therefore, often used to challenge people’s perceptions, and to offer them a wider variety of actions they can take.

The organisations that I looked at in this context appear to use TV appeals alongside other communications and campaigning efforts and often had other means of raising funds in place (e.g. ‘charity shops’, etc.). It became clear during the research that while the ‘negative’ photorealistic style is used to raise funds for good intentions, it tends to utilise existing preconceptions of the developing world as a place of suffering, offering only the long-established ‘solution’ of donations. Some ‘positive’ photorealistic and post-humanitarian styles, however, tend to inform slightly more about issues and appeal to an already active audience that can make an informed decision and take a deeper form of action.

At the C-cubed conference Helen Shaw, head of Athena Media, made the point that development NGOs need to take their audiences seriously. She said it’s vital that we talk with the public, rather than talking to them – and that means building deeper relationships. In times when social media has the potential to create space for genuine two-way communications, more than TV can ever offer it, a shift to a wider and more integrated variety of employed styles and techniques seems extremely important. This can mean, for example, greater space for voices from the global South that might help to bridge the missing link between the ‘here’ and ‘over there’.

Even though the traditional, established ways of communicating messages about the developing world to the public might seem more successful first glance, a more varied range of empowering communications would be able to more appropriately reflect the work done by development organisations, rather than being at odds with it through re-enforcing stereotypes and outdated perceptions of development work through their communications.

In the Irish development sector, the wide range of organisations with different concepts, approaches and goals, means that the types of appeals for specific purposes vary significantly. But if we ourselves can become clear on why each of us use particular channels and styles, and work to make sure that we don’t send underlying messages that contradict what we do, we can take charge of the effects that our messages have for the sector as a whole.

Conferences and events like last year’s Dóchas/DEEP Added Values seminar or the recent C-Cubed conference are excellent opportunities to enable and enhance vital cross-sector cooperation and encourage conversations about how we can communicate to our different audiences while working together to structurally address existing imbalances – in terms of perceptions of development issues but also in terms of our relationship with the Irish public.

Franziska Fehr is Communications Officer with Progressio Ireland.

Further reading

Do aid campaigns alienate the public and skew the development debate?

The ethics of capturing human suffering

Stopping Kony or Stopping Video Activism?

Imaging Famine

How do we communicate Global Poverty?

Dóchas Code of Conduct on Images & Messages

Journal Articles

Cameron, J. and Haanstra, A. 2008, Development Made Sexy: how it happened and what it means, Third World Quarterly. 29(8), pp 1475-1489.

Chouliaraki, L. 2010, Post-humanitarianism: Humanitarian communication beyond a politics of pity, International Journal of Cultural Studies 13(2), pp107-126.

Lamers, M. 2005, Representing Poverty, Impoverishing Representation? A Discursive Analysis of a NGOs Fundraising Posters, Graduate Journal of Social Science 2(1), pp37-74.

Manzo, K. 2008, Imaging Humanitarianism: NGO Identity and the Iconography of Childhood, Antipode 40(4), pp632-657.

Fehr, F. 2010, Appealing on TV – Development Organisations and their TV Adverts in Ireland: Images, Messages and Representations, DCU Thesis MA International Communications available in DCU library.

Entry filed under: Communications, NGOs.

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