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Crisis and Media Event – Kathleen Hessert Transcript and Video

March 11, 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 second of four conversations:

BRIAN REICH, SVP and Global Editor at Edelman Digital:
While Kathleen comes up, Kathleen is, Kathleen, I couldn’t even describe Kathleen. She’s absolutely amazing. The place I want to start, one of the things that you do is, and I was going to make this the second part of our conversation, but there’s an interesting segue that Ayesha brought up, which is you work a lot with athletes and celebrities, to help shape their humanitarian commitment and their work in response to disasters. Ayesha made a very interesting point that human beings are more likely to respond to, certainly a peer or someone in their community, or even a virtual person in their community, an avatar, than they are to a celebrity in the context of a serious issue. I think the argument behind that is the credibility of somebody who…

KATHLEEN HESSERT, Founder and CEO of BuzzMgr and Sports Media Challenge and media advisor to Exercise 24:
Of their intent.

Of their, well, sure. But, you know, one of the top environmental advocates is Leonardo DiCaprio. But he doesn’t really want for anything when he makes 15 or 20 million dollars a film, so the sacrifices that I have to make as an individual are not likely to be the same ones as he makes. If he wants to build a house out of bamboo or drive a hybrid, that’s much easier for him than it would be for me. That’s obviously a challenge when you’re working with people who have significant awareness built in, and significant celebrity built into their day jobs. What does it take for the commitment by a celebrity to be genuine, so that we can tell the difference between someone who’s actually having an impact and someone who’s just there for show?

Well, in some ways, it takes continuity of their intent. Peyton Manning has been one of my clients since he was a junior at the University of Tennessee. When Peyton went pro, one of the things that we talked about was choosing something to do. I mean, he was always in the give back mood, because that’s the way their family did things. But choosing something where he would have an ongoing, very important role, where he could add impact, not just be a face and another name to it. All these years, he’s still working with that same charity, CASA, Court Appointed Special Advocates, and has made a huge impact in terms of children in need, in Tennessee, Indiana, and New Orleans.

I think one of the biggest opportunities is what they can bring from their sponsors. Maybe it’s easier for them to give so Peyton and Eli to take a plane down to New Orleans, because New Orleans was their home and it was devastated in Katrina, is one thing. They did it because it was from their heart and they wanted to do something, personally. But I think the bigger impact that they had was how they were able to amass from all their sponsors, all the stuff that they brought down there that had the impact in that particular community.

Shaquille O’Neal – I launched Shaq on Twitter – and it was an easy marriage. It was right, it worked, because of who he was and how he approaches things. I remember the first time that he said on Twitter, very soon after he started, I’m going to be in ‘X’ city and I’m going to be with, you know, a charity that dealt with children and hunger. He said “We’re going to collect 10,000 peanut butter jars for charity tonight and, and send it to Africa”. Well, you know, it was a natural thing, you know, he had already been associated with that organization, he was going to that city, because he had a game there that night. So it wasn’t contrived in any way. The flood of people saying “I’m so inspired, where can I donate?” was amazing to me. I kept going back to the charity and saying, “You need to be aware of this, be prepared, because this, that, and the other thing’s happening’. I think that, in terms of genuine, there’s got to be continuity. It can’t be a one-off, because the one-offs are too easy. It needs to have some kind of organic connection to them.

Both of the examples that you gave, and I think that the majority of the examples where an athlete or a celebrity is involved, ultimately is focused on fundraising. It’s focused on maybe the collection of some kind of, you know, goods or similar, primarily short-term, moderate to low-impact types of things. Good for awareness, not so good for sustained involvement. Not so good for, you know, demonstrable change and things like that. Is there a limit to the impact that celebrity can have on the sort of spectrum of engagement, in terms of awareness and then obviously education and deep knowledge and understanding of how to respond to a crisis, etc.?

More than I ever imagined.

Are we just not using celebrities well?

I think both, but more than I ever imagined to have. My Sports Media Challenge business works with sports and celebrities. My Buzz Manager business monitors social media and does strategy and execution. Last year, I was involved in something called Exercise 24, which was a disaster preparedness exercise through San Diego State University’s Viz Lab. Seventy-nine countries were involved and we created the social media strategy for monitoring it all. We learned a whole lot.

From there, I went to the University of Virginia Darden School for Business for a supply chain management program on disaster relief. I was amazed at the politics involved. Everybody was asked, “What is the biggest clog in the system?” and one of the things they said was celebrities, because when the celebrities everything stops get involved. The politics is “stop whatever you’re doing, help them, we have to do that.” I started thinking those who really care and really are doing it because they want to make a difference have no idea the problems they’re creating doing this. We have to find new ways to use them, so that they can truly be a human being who cares and uses what resources they have to make a difference – short-term and long-term. That means making huge changes in the way they’re used right now.

One of the things that I came up with at the Darden School – one of the ideas that we talked about – was creating a social game because people learn very well in fun ways to teach people how to respond in disaster. Teach them if they see on CNN a story about all these pets in Haiti that now have nowhere to go and so on, and they send a hundred thousand dog booties as a result of it, you know, what that does to clog the system. In the game, we can actually create a system so you see this. Let’s say you want to do this and in the game you do this. The game will create the ramifications of you doing this and give you an option to take another choice and do something that would be productive to actually achieve your intended goal. One of the things with celebrities that I thought of was, well, instead of them clogging up the system, if we got them to be the characters in the game, dub the voices in the game, and to promote the game, they could do what they wanted to do in terms of create real, significant, sustainable change, and do it in a way that was going to be productive, instead of counter-productive.

Part of that challenge seems to be that we’re missing all the really basic stuff, right? The idea that sending a hundred thousand dog booties to Haiti, to anyone who pauses for one second to think about that and it’s not that absurd an example, actually there are almost apocryphal stories in every major disaster over the last decade or two–

Suzanne Somers thigh masters sent to Haiti. Swear to God. Absolutely remarkable. Down jackets sent to Indonesia. Somebody just wanted to get them off their books, get a donation, and they sent them and clogged the system. 90% of it is lost. It’s buried, it’s thrown away, because it’s counter-productive.

What are the basic things that in the Exercise 24 study that you put together and in your work on the social and the buzz side of things? What are the basic things that we know work, and that, not to misuse the word, but can sort of be exploited for, to create a more significant constructive response to a humanitarian crisis? What are the basic things that we’re overlooking, that we’re just not even getting right beyond the — I don’t make the argument we should just stop collecting donations, for example, you know, because there are more constructive ways, to use individual time than convincing them that a donation has solved a certain need or not.

I was appalled at the politics in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. I was just blown away. I’m like but aren’t we trying to do this, so why would this NGO not want an automated system like Buzz Manager that would aggregate all the Tweets, Facebook updates and so on, to be able to respond better? We have people all over the world, that are collecting this and are we doing this with every disaster? I’m like, “All I’m trying to do is give you a tool, to make it more efficient.”

One of the things that I found was that we need to educate people. I say it all the time – experience does not equate to expertise. Just because you Tweet, you’re on Facebook, you’re on LinkedIn or you’re doing YouTube, doesn’t mean that you’re doing it well.

I found that a lot of the governmental bodies and the NGOs in the exercise were actually sending out information, using it only as a broadcast mechanism, not as a communication mechanism. When they were listening to what people on the other side were telling them, and they weren’t listening much, broadly, deeply, consistently, they were not saying “I hear you,” to at least give a sense of “We’re coming, you know, we understand it.”

I think there needs to be many, many changes in the way the listening occurs to make sure that it’s more comprehensive. That there’s a priority inbox that tells you when to respond and who should be responding, and it should be directed, and so on. I also think we need to look at the language of social media in disaster. Somebody said to me, you know, if you’re sending out a tweet and it’s only 140 characters, it can’t say too much. So we should ask people “What do you see” and I said “Wait a minute, but there are people who are not visual, but they’re more auditory, and there are things that are happening that require smell more than what you see.” I think there needs to be a great deal of study in the language of how to use social media to elicit the kind of information you need to respond more effectively.

I also think we have to move the people in charge to a very different cultural focus. Trust obviously is a big issue. Many of them, I understand, have been doing the same thing for many years. Now, I’m a neophyte in this area, I will be the first to say this. But they know when they get a piece of information from ‘X’ entity, on this piece of paper, in this format, that they can trust it. They factor that into their decision-making. They don’t have a clue what to do when they see a Tweet, or something on Facebook or a YouTube video. They don’t factor it into their decision-making and don’t respond effectively to it. We need to teach the people who are responding the best practices of social media. We need to change the language that we use and we need to teach the public how to communicate most effectively to get the kind of help that they’re looking for, as well. There’s a massive educational campaign that I think is critically in need right now.

One last quick question. I agree with you that we need to essentially reeducate and almost reorganize the way the organizations operate in response to a disaster. You work with media organizations, you work with corporations, you work with humanitarian and nonprofit organizations, and you work with sports entities. All of which are good at, presumably, something. Is there a segment of an organization or an example from, within a league or within an organization, that you think does demonstrate what’s possible?

The reason I ask that is I do a lot of crisis response and people always say, “What’s the best way to respond to a crisis?” The example I always give is David Stern. When the NBA referee crisis broke out, a couple years ago, David Stern stood up the next day and did, possibly, the longest press conference anyone had ever done. It was like two and a half hours long. He said “I will stand here and answer every question you have, but I will not answer a question after today, so come here and ask them, now.” And he did and he answered them all and he answered them as truthfully and openly as a lawyer who happens to be the head of a major billion dollar league would do.

The issue went away. I mean, it was still there. It tainted the league, but it was not, you know, a continual conversation and scandal. No one ever looks at David Stern, the head of the NBA, as a model for Toyota, Crayola or anyone who gets into some kind of trouble in a different environment. Since you’ve worked in all these other environments, what would be one or two that you might pull from that the humanitarian response effort could study as a starting point?

I will go with the NBA, because they seem to be more progressive in many ways. You look at Dikembe Mutombo and what he is doing in Africa. The NBA is a very global organization, unlike other sports leagues. They are doing it to spread their league. I’m not saying it’s altruistic by any means. But, years ago, they had 60 people on the ground in China, because they were spreading the NBA to China. They’re at least open to different cultures and the ways of thinking. They have feet on the ground – they now have an African initiative. I’m very focused on Africa, because my daughter has an NGO in Africa, and so I’m watching everything in that area. I think they’ve made major progress.

I don’t think the NFL understands. They are actually putting the carrot in front of their players and saying “All right, we want to take some people to ‘X’ country this summer, to make an impact.” But the players don’t care that much, and it’s just a good PR move.

Golf is an international sport. The PGA gives a tremendous amount to charity each year. The RNA governs golf all over the world outside of the United States. I think they have a huge upside and potential to do this. I don’t think that they’ve done it yet. So I think there’s a long way to go, which means there’s a lot that all of us in this room can do to educate them and get them on board.

All right. Well, thank you.

Thank you.


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