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Crisis and Media Event – Stephen Cassidy Transcript and Video

March 12, 2011

While every humanitarian crisis inflicts enormous pain and suffering, the media doesn’t give them similar attention and they aren’t covering them still. Why not?

CauseShift and Oxfam International gathered leaders from the humanitarian aid sector together with innovators inside and outside the sector for a special two-hour event in NYC.

To begin the evening, we assembled four different people to share their perspectives. Rejecting the traditional panel approach, we convened what we term a “Conversation Gauntlet”, which is a consecutive series of one-on-one interviews with the same moderator. Here is the fourth of four conversations:

  • Brian Reich (Moderator) – SVP and Global Editor, Edelman Digital and author
  • Stephen Cassidy – Chief of Internet, Broadcast & Image Section, UNICEF

Transcript:
BRIAN REICH, SVP and Global Editor at Edelman Digital:
Last, but certainly not least, before we head into the brainstorm, Stephen Cassidy runs the media division at UNICEF and is a former CNN producer. There’s an interesting embedding, if you will, of media expertise into the work of a humanitarian organization. Steve and I have known each other for a long time. He was nice enough to endorse my first book, and I promised that I wouldn’t hold his opinions as UNICEF opinions in the context of this discussion. I’m just going to ask you this: What does it really look like, from a communications standpoint within an organization like UNIEF when a humanitarian crisis rolls out?

It’s very easy to sit here and say, “Oh, well, we should throw up a Google spreadsheet and put this information in, and we should think to deploy some really smart people with the right technology, to tell these stories in a certain way, and we should have a well-thought-out editorial plan when an earthquake hits, so that we can report all the stories we want.” But I know, in reality, that these crises unfold very quickly. They unfold in places that you don’t necessarily have, you know, people on the ground, or the ability to deploy people quickly, to tell your stories. So what does that initial response look like, from a media and communications standpoint, from within a humanitarian organization, that would be instructive for us trying to rethink the way that humanitarian organizations might communicate, and educate, and engage people, more thoughtfully?

STEPHEN:
First of all, let me thank you for asking me to join you. Thanks to Scott, pleased to be with these really smart people. A lot of important things said tonight. You know, the thing is that it’s different every time, but then when you look back at it, it looks a lot the same. But it’s different every time.

There’s a humanitarian crisis emerging, right now, at the border of Tunisia and Libya — a thousand people crossing every hour, mostly young men who are there as migrant workers — fleeing the violence. A majority of them are Egyptian. They couldn’t go the other way, because it was too far to go to Egypt, so they went into Tunisia. There’s nobody there. The Tunisian army is trying to do something. UNHCR got some tents and some stuff in there, over the weekend. How big will it be? Nobody knows. We’ve gotten some pictures out. The story’s evolving. We’re trying to tell that story. Other people are trying to tell that same story.

That looks pretty much the same, except there’s a big difference. And that’s that it used to be, we had to rely on the media — guys like me, in my former career, to tell that story, to get it on my radar, to get it then. But now, the means of mass communication are in the hands of every person on the planet. Anyone, anywhere, armed with the new technology, is capable of communicating, as we’ve seen in the Middle East. We’re seeing, right at this hour.

Interestingly, I heard Andy Carvin on NPR, this weekend. He admits that he is in direct violation of the policies of NPR, because he’s acting as an advocate. Not only is he aggregating all the tweets and other stuff that’s coming out of there, but he’s also sort of acting as a bit of a cheerleader. And he was asked, “Are you in direct violation?” He said, “I absolutely am, but management has been very supportive.” I’m not quite sure what to make of that, except that I would suggest that he’s not a journalist, in the way we, in the past, understood that. He’s a magician as a technologist, and he’s got an editorial sense. But I think his sense of right and wrong outweighs his sense of objectivity. That was just my perception, you know, it was interesting to see that he admitted to that.

BRIAN:
In your old job, when you were at CNN, you would see a crisis emerging, like a thousand people crossing the border, and you would say, “We only have a 22-minute broadcast, or in CNN’s case we had 24 hours, but we seem to only fill it with 22 minutes of news, and then repeat it on a continual basis.” That story is not as pressing, or not as coverable, even in this social age, as maybe the earthquake in New Zealand, because there are more deaths. Or maybe the protests in Libya, because there’s an interesting political dynamic to it. Is that same pressure in existence at UNICEF, or do you actually have the different problem of figuring out how to essentially cover every emerging humanitarian crisis, which unfortunately, under the umbrella that UNICEF covers, could potentially be a –

STEPHEN:
Our mandate is broad and, yes, that pressure exists. We have to, we should have something to say, some story to tell, some involvement. Now, in the case of the Tunisia story, at this point, because it’s not our constituents — it’s not women and children — we don’t have a lot to say at this point, but we’re watching it very carefully, and we may or may not have something to say, in the coming days. Right now, it falls to our sister agency, UNHCR, the refugee guys.

BRIAN:
So what is your purpose in communicating? What is the outcome that you hope to achieve, because –

STEPHEN:
We’re doing exactly what the experts, here, have said that we should do. You know, in the first couple of hours, or couple of days, or couple of weeks of an emergency, the interest rate is very high, because it came as an unexpected event — breaking news, you know, so the public interest is high. There’s a lot of consumption of the various media that’s produced — the pictures, the sound, you know, all of that stuff. But as Haiti moves from the headlines, into the back pages of the newspapers and the second sections of the television, and deeper and deeper into the Google search, you know, we try to continue to tell the story.

You know, in the time that I’ve been at UNICEF, we’ve got over 2,000 stories that are about the issues that are associated with the long slog, which is human development. We’ve got more than two thousand videos on our YouTube channel. We’ve logged seven and a half million views. We’ve got 750,000 people following us on Facebook, who are counting on us, to tell them what’s going on. Another 250,000 people following our Twitter account.

We’re trying to grow that, because we think that, anybody in the world, when they hear about something like this, they’re going to know what to do, they’re going to know what to do. They’re going to have a good sense of how they can help, and I have to say, as nice as it is, to have activity on the social media networks, the thing that is most transportable and most affective at the end of the day — whether it’s Tunisia, or Haiti, or Pakistan — is money in the hands of people who know how to use it, right. In the hands of people who know how to use it.

Because, you know, with all due respect to Shaq, 10,000 jars of peanut butter might be a problem. First of all, it’d be really heavy, and like, how would you move it? And by the way, UNICEF has something called plumpy nut, which is a version of peanut butter, which is enhanced with nutrition, and it is made in the developing world. And so that means developing world people are doing the work, to make this stuff, as opposed to some Jiffy peanut butter factory in Ohio. You know, and in the mean time, it’s already pre-positioned in places. So, while it’s great that Shaq’s trying to get 10,000 jars of peanut butter, it’d be better if he were to tweet about, and try to drive people towards the people who have a certain level of expertise, and already have a footprint in place. UNICEF is in 190 countries around the world.

BRIAN:
That is the central question or the challenge that UNICEF has, which is you have to communicate differently than a media organization would, even though you operate with all the trappings of a media organization. Because simply telling the story — and anybody can tell the story, now — is not actually going to get you to the outcome that you want.

STEPHEN:
We should make a distinction. You know, we are taking advantage of the new reality. You know, we are telling our story, and we’re trying to push it onto the multiple platform, on-demand reality that exists today. But we’re not journalists. We don’t operate by the same rules that the New York Times, or CNN, or anybody like that, is. We don’t enter the arena with an objective point of view. We go there with a point of view. We’re for kids. We want to go to the furthest place, find the sickest kid, and save him, as a surrogate for good people, like you. Because YOU can’t go. But UNICEF is in a position to go. So that’s different than what the New York Times’ intent is when they’re trying, now, to get to Tripoli, if they’re not there already.

BRIAN:
It seems like, and obviously this is in an ideal world, it’s an easy question. There shouldn’t be a difference, though. Because, ultimately, the goal in a response to a humanitarian crisis should not be ratings, or should not be value in advertising dollars, or should not be PR benefit to the corporation. It should be the ability to save lives, the ability to rebuild communities, and things like that. So media and UNICEF, professional mainstream media and UNICEF, should be ultimately telling the same story, and doing the same pushing, the same types of behavior, because it’s for the good of the globalized society — it’s for the good of humanity. I’m not discounting the charge that the publisher of the New York Times, or anybody else, has, in terms of meeting their bottom line. But I also know that, in a humanitarian crisis, it’s a different situation. There is a critical urgent need, a life dependence, that this media needs to contribute to. So why is it that you feel the need, to make the distinction between the types of stories and the types of media that UNICEF does, and simply the type of media, and conversation, and education, awareness-building, and engagement that’s necessary, in response to a humanitarian crisis?

STEPHEN:
I don’t think we have the luxury, to be like them, because, often times, we know more about it. Not me, but my colleagues — the program people. UNICEF has been around, responding to emergencies and working in human development, for more than sixty years. You know, the New York Times has been telling the story for 100 years.

BRIAN:
160.

STEPHEN:
160 years. So, okay, but those are two different experiences. So we have a certain expertise. We have a certain level of understanding, at the programatic level, that I think that the journalist is not bound by or bound to. And so that’s why I’d like to make the distinction between what they do and what we do. We are trying to raise awareness so that when people hear about something in an emergency, they’ll do the right thing, which is to somehow support us. And that can take many forms. And a ‘thumbs up’ can be all somebody can offer — that’s great — maybe they can spread the word amongst their group of people. But at the end of the day, we need support, not just financial support, but we need, you know, support for advocacy, to change the way people think. We need support in the ballot box. You know, we need support with all kinds, just the way we think. We need to change the way people think. That’s what we’re trying to do.

BRIAN:
So one last question, very quickly. Specifically, what is it that you would like individuals who are taking action, to not do — to stop doing, in response to a humanitarian crisis? You said ‘we assume that people will do the right thing’ — all evidence would suggest that that is not, unfortunately, 100% of the time, to be the case. So –

STEPHEN:
Hope springs eternal.

BRIAN:
Absolutely. I get up every day with that belief. But what is it, when you see a horrific earthquake in Haiti, and a society destroyed, that you don’t want that knee-jerk reaction for an individual, to be?

STEPHEN:
Right. You know, I don’t have an answer to that question, and maybe my answer is another question, because I’ve seen something happen in a very short time. The number of people responding to the tsunami – 5-6years ago — was, I think, the agencies and the NGOs — it was like 500 different groups that were represented out there. You know how many there are in Haiti? I think there’s like 20,000 registered, registered with the government, is like NGOs. And there’s this phenomena occurring, which is like M-Y-N-G-O, or ‘My NGO’, right. And the question that this sort of poses for me, is have we — UNICEF, the United Nations, and other groups, like us — have we lost the trust of people, so that they don’t really want us, to act on their behalf as surrogates? But they want to rather act for themselves. And is that all right? Is that good? I don’t know.

BRIAN:
I have an answer for that, but I’ll save it for another time.

STEPHEN:
No, no, let’s hear it. Let’s turn the tables on you.

BRIAN:
I, for every day, I’ll tell you this, every day for the past week, I’ve seen a story about a new nonprofit organization popping up, to do some kind of humanitarian good. And I have, you know, tweeted or said something that basically said, Oh, damn it, another nonprofit organization popping up, to do, probably, another set of activities that is already being done by an organization that has resources, that has reach, that has understanding, that has experience, and maybe needs some augmentation into the way that it operates, or some efficiency, into the point that Kathleen made about the way that they used technology’. Those skills and those understandings, from the people in the technology place or similar, could be very well applied inside organizations, like UNICEF, as opposed to, in a competing capacity.

And when you look at a year out, plus now, from Haiti – 20,000 organizations, and they’re not necessarily focused in the right ways, they’re not delivering the right services. No, I think, I don’t know if they lost trust. I would submit it’s probably because of the information gap, they just aren’t even aware of the fact that you exist, and how good UNICEF is in some cases. And in other cases, there’s just really stupid politics.

Like in the response to Katrina, when UNICEF requested of the Bush Administration for permission, to go in and provide humanitarian support, because that’s what you guys do, and the United States said, “No, no, we’ve got it,” for a variety of reasons, which I’m sure are much more complicated than we can get into. You know, the point is, there are organizations that do things very well, and we don’t often let those organizations do what they do very well. And we need to figure out ways, with the information, and the technology, and the sharing, and the connectivity that we have, to only be doing well in response to a humanitarian crisis — because every time we don’t, people die, communities fall apart, the world suffers, and because we’re all connected, we’re all impacted. Really uplifting way to go into the brainstorm. Stephen, thank you.

STEPHEN:
Thank you, and thanks everybody for coming.

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