The many lives of PI: Crisis communication and spin doctors


Where does public information (PI) work end and public communication (PC) work begin?

And how can we separate public information work, which is mostly institutional propaganda, from public communication of issues and knowledge directly relevant to saving lives or improving them?

This is the question that we often grappled with this week in Geneva, during the Global Symposium+5 on ‘Information for Humanitarian Action’ organised by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA). The meeting, held from 22 – 26 October 2007 at the Palais des Nations, brought together over 200 persons involved or interested in information and communication aspects of humanitarian work. I was part of working group on ‘Communicating with affected communities in crisis’.

I raised the importance of separating PI from PC from the very beginning of our discussions. PI and public relations (PR) both have their place, I said, but it was not in the same league as communicating issues and knowledge.

Members of my working group – drawn from humanitarian organisations, UN agencies and the media – broadly agreed with this view. But many couldn’t help sliding back to their own agency’s PI/PR agendas during our discussions!

This is no accident. In this age of spin and soundbites, many development and humanitarian agencies are under pressure to raise their individual profiles in the public eye. In trying to do so, they give far higher priority – and resources – to PI/PR than to engaging in issue-based communication, or, to use one of their own favourite phrases, ‘evidence based advocacy’.

For public communication to assume its rightful place in the development process and humanitarian intervention, all key players will need to be more restrained with their PI/PR agenda. But looking around the massive UN complex in Geneva, where a dozen UN agencies are competing with each other for the public’s and media’s attention, I can’t quite see this happening soon.

I touch on this in an essay in August 2007 titled Cheque-book development corrupting the media. Here’s an extract:

As development organisations compete more intensely for external funding, they are increasingly adopting desperate strategies to gain higher media visibility for their names, logos and bosses.

“Communication officers in some leading development and humanitarian organisations have been reduced to publicists. When certain UN agency chiefs tour disaster or conflict zones, their spin doctors precede or follow them. Some top honchos now travel with their own ’embedded journalists’ – all at agency expense.

“In this publicity frenzy, these agencies’ communication products are less and less on the issues they stand for or reforms they passionately advocate. Instead, the printed material, online offerings and video films have become ‘logo delivery mechanisms’.

So the first step would be to deliver less logos and more real information.

Read my other relevant blog posts:

August 2007: Cheque-book Development: Paying public media to deliver development agency logos

April 2007: Say MDG and smile, will ya?

April 2007: MDG: A message from our spin doctors?

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