Dmitry Chernobrov is Lecturer in Journalism, Politics and Public Communication at the University of Sheffield. He has been working on a SIID-funded project, interviewing humanitarian agencies, charity funds and journalists in Europe and Russia about the difficulties in the relationship between aid agencies and media. This blog examines the problem of branding in light of these conversations.
It does not take long in a conversation with an aid worker or a journalist to discover that the relationship between the two professions has many hidden problems. They are ‘uneasy bedfellows’, as a senior humanitarian worker with over 25 years’ experience puts it. Yet, it is a vitally important relationship, as most charity funds, aid and humanitarian agencies depend on donations, and the stream of funding is directly linked to media coverage of a crisis and of the agency’s efforts to address it.
Dozens and hundreds of non-governmental and non-profit organisations have been involved in addressing major humanitarian crises and persistent societal problems. 1994 Rwandan genocide and the accompanying humanitarian crisis, and 2004 tsunami in South-East Asia are striking examples of what Cottle and Nolan (2007) have called ‘the crowded aid field’. A former IFRC Information Delegate working in the Goma camp at the time described the situation there as ‘cut throat competition for media attention and, of course, funding’ among many, particularly smaller, NGOs. This manifested in a variety of forms: not only did aid agencies display logos everywhere (from plasters to water tanks) to increase brand recognition and media exposure, but whole operations were run for publicity. Lindsey Hilsum, one of the very few Western journalists in Rwanda at the time of the genocide, in her contribution to the book The Media and the Rwanda Genocide gives an example of an American aid agency unnecessarily airdropping dirty clothes and inappropriate food (quickly perishable cheese labeled ‘needs refrigeration’, biscuits labeled ‘do not drop’ and chocolate) to Goma as ‘an example of an agency sacrificing appropriateness to act quickly and get into the media spotlight’.
While media are often accused of sensationalism (seeking a fast and big story at the sake of accuracy or complexity), branding has become an often-mentioned problem with aid organisations, no matter how big or small. Some consider branding inevitable: a growing number of aid agencies means greater competition for funding and media attention, and greater attention to promoting the brand and avoiding reputational risks. But what if we were to look beyond the well-known relationship between western aid agencies and major western media? I have interviewed a variety of aid players and media, including in Russia, where the aid sector is much younger and the media system is different. This allows me to suggest that branding is experienced by aid organisations differently, depends on national legal and media contexts, and can have some positive, as well as negative consequences.
First, the traditional view on branding, as an activity that targets media and audiences to increase recognition and funding, does not apply to all aid agencies in the same way. Many of them draw on a complex mix of funding sources, including private and business donations, governmental contributions, grants, and commercial activities. The exact funding structure determines to whom these agencies are primarily accountable, and to what extent media profiling forms part of this accountability (as opposed to, for example, reporting directly to the UN or to government officials via diplomatic channels). This is not to say that branding is not a problem for governmentally-funded agencies, but its manifestations and risks are different from those experienced by agencies that rely on private donations (for example, the former could be more political and less funding-centered). Second, some agencies are already well established and recognised, others only emerging and without big audiences of their own. Several representatives of humanitarian organisations and charity funds have told me that smaller and less well-known NGOs with significant dependence on private donations are the most exposed to branding.
Neither does branding happen in the exactly same ways in western and non-western contexts. For example, many Russian charity funds and aid organisations complain of major media not mentioning them when covering their activities. Media widely regard these mentions as ‘hidden commercial advertising’, and attempts by aid and charity funds to resolve this problem with major Russian media are often met with a question: “Are you doing this [aid work] for PR?”. A press officer of a major charitable organisation supported by the Russian Orthodox Church, complains that when charities and humanitarian agencies try to take credit for their work, the public often sees this as ‘violating their unspoken pledge to humility’.
Anonymity of aid and its successful outcomes causes another issue at the fundraising stage. The aid sector in Russia is less crowded and therefore not yet too competitive, as most interviewees claim. Their main difficulty is not yet in competing with other agencies for a larger proportion of public donations, but in establishing donating to charities as a popular and respectable activity in the first place. They try to do so by demonstrating that aid is socially responsible and transparent. A media officer for the VERA Charity Fund, also echoed by the Russian Humanitarian Mission, suggests that it does not yet matter which fund or charity the donation goes to, as long as it’s a reputable and established organisation that does real work and is transparent: ‘There are many shady organisations or outright scams collecting at underground stations or selling balloons, and you can never trace where the money goes’. Regular media presence of the transparent charity funds and aid organisations, as well as wider coverage of crises and societal problems for the public to be aware, are given as the only way new donors can find out where their help would be most effective.
Finally, some of the interviewees are hopeful that social media and online platforms can start a new, direct conversation between aid organisations and the public. At the moment, of course, these audiences are yet incomparable in size with the outreach of major media. However, new formats of communication can significantly change the pressures and dependencies in the aid agencies – media relationship. There is a sense of a coming digital revolution in humanitarian communication (some interviewees already talk excitedly about the ‘Digital Humanitarians’ project), but its exact shape is yet to be established.