Stealing some time from the finest comms minds at #commscamp15

Room full of people some sitting some standing

My pitch at CommsCamp was a shameless request for help.

I asked people to come and help me write a communications plan for the Standby Task Force. Explaining what Standdy Task Force does from a standing start in 20 seconds turns out not to be that easy. So item one for the comms plan: we need an elevator pitch for SBTF.

This is what I should have said

Standby Task Force is a global network of crisis mappers. We mine social networks and public sources following natural disasters and provide maps and other resources to humanitarian agencies. Our aim is to help agencies understand what the situation is on the ground faster, so they can target support more efficiently and people more effectively, We have no paid staff, in fact up until the end of 2014 we had no funding whatsoever. I’ve been a volunteer since 2011 and I joined the core team this year.

One of my roles on the core team is to focus on communications and that, hopefully obviously, necessitates a comms plan / strategy. I couldn’t miss the opportunity to harness the collective wisdom of a bunch of communications professionals. It’s very easy to get too close to an organisation you are involved in and lose the objectivity you need to do a decent comms planning.

A great bunch of people did come. They quizzed me, they made helpful suggestions, and really helped me to reframe my thinking. Just spending 45 minutes explaining what SBTF does, what the strengths and weaknesses of the model are, what we’d like to do and what we worry about really helped me get some clarity. And I think they, maybe, got some insight into what SBTF and other digital humanitarian organisations get up to.

Here’s my current thinking on a comms plan after the discussion.


Relevant staff in humanitarian agencies globally know what SBTF capability is and activate us when we could assist.
SBTF volunteers feel motivated and involved in between deployments.
SBTF volunteers feel motivated and involved enough to respond in large numbers when we do activate
People with relevant skills and interests know what SBTF is and continue to join us.

So this gives us three key audiences:

– humanitarian aid workers (working in disaster response)
– SBTF volunteers
– potential volunteers

And some broad approaches:

We need to make it easy to understand what our capabilities are.

This should help recruitment as well as helping humanitarian aid workers understand us a bit better. For example the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team builds maps of poorly mapped areas hit by disasters. That’s pretty easy to understand (and actually they do more than that).

SBTF has always innovated and tried new things. That’s a really important part of what we are, but it also may make it hard to get a handle on what it is that we offer. It may be time to list some specific products that we can provide to support humanitarian response. This wouldn’t stop us continuing to work at the cutting edge as well but it would make it easier for agencies to understand what value we can add in the current situation.

We do have a page which sort of describes what we get up to but it could be much clearer.

It might also help internally with training and engagement. If we can link the training and skills development for volunteers to the key products we provide it may help volunteers to see the value of investing their time and effort.

We need case studies.

And SBTF does have case studies, we’ve been around for five years this year and our volunteers have worked on a huge number of deployments. If you’ve heard of a natural disaster over the past few years it is likely that SBTF volunteers were supporting the humanitarian response.

We have some public outputs and some outputs that we can’t share in public. We’ve got blog posts, after action reviews and academic studies (and a book, not just about us but featuring us heavily).

But we don’t have the sort of case studies that comms people are after. They want 250 word, highly visual, tightly structured documents. We have all the raw materials to enable us to produce these (apart from maybe the visuals see next item).

If we develop a “menu” of products, it becomes easier to think about what case studies to work on. So one of the products we would be likely to list would be a “crisis map” showing all the images or reports relevant to the disaster accurately on a zoomable map. Ask any experienced volunteer “what’s a good case study to illustrate that”? and they’ll quickly be able to list several really good examples.

We need imaginative visuals

One thing the group was very clear on was the power of visuals. They are not wrong of course. Photographs create an emotional connection in a way almost nothing else does.

We struggle with photos of our work. Practically we are a bunch of people sitting at computers. We produce resources to help humanitarian agencies in disaster zones but even then the people we are directly helping are themselves sitting at desks trying to plan and coordinate humanitarian support in extraordinarily difficult situations. We can’t really ask them to nip out and take pictures of disasters.

That said, what we could do, is talk about the whole humanitarian response and point out how we were are a part of this. This is a subtle difference to how we tend to talk about things right now. We talk a lot about our specific work (which you would expect) and the specific agency that requested our support. We could probably think more about taking a step back and looking at the wider response, which we have been part of it.

But we also need to square the circle that we will never get that many images from the areas we are working to help but we need images to help all our audiences understand and connect with our work.

I think we need to find more ways to use visuals of our volunteers. One of the privileges of being on the core team is I get a really good view of how diverse and widespread our network really is. Most people don’t get that same sense. We can say “we’ve got 1600 volunteers from over 100 countries” but that’s not the same as showing you photos, videos or testimony from our volunteers (where they are happy to do that).

I keep returning to a fundamental truth about SBTF, we are 1600 volunteers, and our volunteers are amazing.

And we DO have maps and data and with a bit of creatibe input we could make these much more visually engaging.

We need a work plan

We’ve started a small comms team within the SBTF network and we hope to exapnd that a little. Assuming we agree on the broad approach the next step is to translate that into a sensible action plan. Instinctively I feel that this will need to be limited by the time our volunteers have available but does it? If we have a sensible, workable plan then could we apply for funding or pro-bono support from a PR/marketing agency?

That’s a genuine question. We need to make sure we protect the things that make SBTF uniquely flexible and effective. We are a volunteer network but we could, potentially, access funding for activities that will support the voluntary heart of our work.

What happens next?

I hope that this post will stimulate some discussion about whether this broad approach is sensible and what a work / action plan would look like.

We need to discuss that within the SBTF network as well as with the wider stakeholders.

I’d really value any comments in the comment field below or to or on skype:likeaword

Image credit: CommsCamp15-045 by W N Bishop, used under a creative commons NC-SA licence. 

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