Engaging new media: prepare to lose control!

The development community never tires of talking about the value of participatory, two-way communication. Every workshop, report and discussion has a dose of this mantra sprinkled all over.

Yet when it comes to actually practising communication, most development agencies I know are so concerned with complete control – they want to edit endlessly, fine-tune their messages to the last letter and comma, and regulate how and where the message is disseminated.

There’s no harm in being organised and focused. But when communication officers are pushed into becoming publicity agents (or worse, spin doctors!) for their agencies, controlling the message becomes obsessive.

I’ve had more than my fair share of this. One example was when working on a documentary for a leading UN agency in Asia that my organisation, TVE Asia Pacific, was commissioned to produce. Now, films cannot be made by committees, but UN agencies never stop trying. At one point, over-zealous agency officials were tinkering with the post-shooting script so much that they edited even the interview clips included in the draft.

That only stopped when I pointed out that hey, those are transcribed verbatim from interviews we’d already filmed!

So imagine how hard it would be for such organisations to let go of the Complete Control over communications that they’ve aspired to perfect for so long.

And yet, as I told a small meeting convened by UNEP in Bangkok last week to plan their next ozone communication strategy for Asia Pacific, that’s not a choice, but an imperative with today’s new media.

In the four years since we worked on the last ozone communication strategy and action plan for the Asia Pacific, we have seen the emergence of web 2.0 – which is really a catch-all term that covers many second generation, interactive platforms and opportunities that have emerged using the global Internet.

Among these are blogs, wikis, social networking sites (e.g. MySpace, Facebook), social bookmarking (e.g. del.icio.us), video exchange platforms (e.g. YouTube), online games and mobile applications.

These and other new media tools enable development communicators to reach out to, and engage, many people – especially the youth who make up more than half of all Asians.

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But that’s part of the challenge, I said, referring to what I call the ‘Other Digital Divide’ – one that separates (most members of) the development community from ‘Digital Natives’, young people who have grown up taking these digital media and tools completely for granted.

I referred to my remarks at the IUCN Asia Conservation Forum in Kathmandu in September 2007, where I stressed the urgent need for the conservation and development communities to cross this divide if they want to reach out to the dominant demographic group in our vast region, home to half of humanity.

Engaging new media is not just setting up a Facebook account, taking a YouTube channel or opening a blog that’s infrequently updated. All that’s useful, for sure, but they represent only the tentative first steps to the wide and varied new media world.

As with the more established print and broadcast media, development organisations need to have a strategy and a plan based on some research, analysis and reflection.

And willing to let go of that control – so cherished by so many development professionals – is an essential part of that adjustment to the new media reality.

Failure to adjust can result in future shocks – and in the very near future! Perhaps I should also have drawn their attention to what I wrote in October 2007: New media tsunami hits global humanitarian sector; rescue operations now on

We didn’t spend too much time talking about new media at the Bangkok meeting, but I did caution that there is a lot of digital hype out there. I’m no expert on this (is anyone, really?) but my team at TVEAP and I keep trying new ways of doing things with the new media. So here are a few quick insights I offered the UNEP meeting:

• New media lot more interactive, which means they demand a lot of time and effort to engage the audience – which in turn generates huge capacity requirements for any development organisation venturing into such media.

• You can’t always control your messages on new media! This unnerves many development agencies and professionals who are so used to exercising such control – in the new media world, they just have to learn to let go!

• A core value is user-generated content (USG). You need to find creative ways to allow your audiences to generate part of the content. Control lost again!

• Citizen journalists have now established themselves online as text and/or video bloggers. Governments and corporations have acknowledged their presence — serious bloggers have recently been granted media accreditation to the UN. What does this mean for future ozone media training and journalists engagement?

• There are many companies and agencies claiming to have cracked the new media challenge – and don’t believe them! Everyone is learning, some admittedly faster than others, but there’s no substitute to actually doing it.

• And there’s no road map to the new media world, which is being created every day and night by an army of geeks and enthusiasts. There are only a few rough guides and travellers’ tales from some like ourselves who have ventured into this realm.

Note: I am grateful to my colleagues at TVE Asia Pacific who have developed and/or tested out some ideas in this blog post: Manori Wijesekera, Indika Wanniarachchi and Nadeeja Mandawala. I stand on their shoulders, hopefully lightly!

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