National Societies implement well-developed external communication and coordination strategies and mechanisms, which enhance coordination with external actors.
In certain situations, misperceptions about the National Society’s humanitarian purpose and action can have deadly consequences. Such misperceptions may stem from insufficient communication and networking with key stakeholders, which are required to foster relationships of trust and gain support and consent for the National Society to carry out its mandate and roles safely.
In sensitive and insecure contexts, fear, mistrust and suspicion hold sway, and the use of one inappropriate word or tweet can be disastrous not only for the reputation of the National Society as a neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian organization, but also for the safety and security of its response teams.
It is crucial for the National Society to communicate strategically and consistently in order to maintain its image as a neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian actor, particularly in situations where the government, to which the National Society is auxiliary in the humanitarian field, may be actively involved in events.
For effective external communication in sensitive and insecure contexts, it is best to err on the side of discretion and caution. This helps avoid being used by one group or another to pursue its own ends, fuelling disputes or being dragged into controversies or propaganda. Communication must be employed strategically, to correct misinformation, misperceptions and threats to your National Society’s reputation and to raise its profile and activities, positioning it for better acceptance and safer access.
Such a strategy should aim to reach selected stakeholders, when needed, with specific key messages – whether to advocate for respect for and protection of people in need or to promote the National Society’s mandate and roles, its adherence to the Fundamental Principles, its identity and the basics of international humanitarian law.
By ensuring their messages are complementary, not contradictory, Movement partners will contribute to a harmonized and coherent Movement image and thus to a more coherent response.
- Understand the context and its various characteristics and sensitivities.
- Map key stakeholders (particularly those who influence or control your access and security), their interests and perceptions of your National Society and the Movement.
- Develop a context-specific communication strategy and plan, based on the knowledge and information gathered above, with a view to preventing and managing any reputation issues, increasing your National Society’s acceptance, security and access and enhancing your efforts to assist and protect people in need.
- Implement your communication strategy and plan, mobilizing your network of staff and volunteers around a set of common messages designed to promote understanding of and respect for your National Society’s and the Movement’s respective mandates and roles, identity and the Fundamental Principles.
- Use your website and associated social media platforms as effective communication tools.
- Develop a social media policy and ensure systems are in place to monitor compliance by staff and volunteers.
- Determine how closely you will liaise and coordinate with other actors, keeping in mind the need to preserve the image of your National Society as neutral, impartial and independent.
- Complement your community engagement strategy by reinforcing two-way communication with communities, recognizing them not only as valuable contributors to the development of appropriate programming, but also as the source of relevant information for your organization’s safety and access.
Table of Contents
- 7.0 Introduction
- 7.1 External communication strategy and plan to support action in sensitive and insecure contexts
- 7.2 Broad awareness and acceptance of mandate and roles in sensitive and insecure contexts
- 7.3 Promotion of International Humanitarian Law (IHL)
- 7.4 Advocating for the respect and protection of affected persons, using IHL
Each staff member and volunteer of a National Society is a communicator. In an insecure context, every action you take or discussion you have, be it with community members or leaders, the public authorities, donors, partners, armed actors or other stakeholders, will leave an impression, either positive or negative. The image of the National Society and of the Movement as whole is reflected in – and their reputation built on – what you say or do, and sometimes what you do not say or do.
Communication practice and training for personnel deployed in insecure contexts often differs substantially from that in disasters or even day-to-day peaceful environments. In insecure contexts, communication is less about promoting activities, fundraising or recruiting volunteers and more about reducing the negative consequences of violence or tensions on affected people and increasing the National Society’s ability to reach them safely.
Above all, the choice of whether to communicate and how must be governed at all times by the Fundamental Principles, in particular humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence.
- Have you established and implemented an external communication strategy and action plan, supported by templates, tools, equipment and training?
- What strategies do you employ to promote knowledge and acceptance of relevant domestic legislation and the National Society’s statutes, policies, agreements and plans among key stakeholders?
- How do you go about promoting the national implementation of international humanitarian law and support the public authorities in its dissemination to key stakeholders?
- Do you promote compliance with international humanitarian law among key stakeholders and advocate for the respect and protection of affected people and communities?
- How do you communicate and enforce your social networking policy and guidelines for staff and volunteers?
- In what way do you conduct regular operational communication – who we are, what we do and how we do it, in accordance with the Fundamental Principles – targeting key stakeholders?
- Do you use online and electronic media to preserve the dignity of and to protect people and communities, in coordination with Movement partners?
- How do you participate in external operational coordination mechanisms in a way that preserves independence and confidentiality of information, as required?
- What means do you employ to systematically establish two-way communication mechanisms with affected people and communities?
7.1 External communication strategy and plan to support action in sensitive and insecure contexts
An external communication strategy, including a positioning strategy, an action plan, templates, tools, equipment and training to support the implementation of the plan, has been established and implemented.
External communication is an area where having a clearly defined policy, strategy, plan and guidelines is of particular value, as it is sensitive, complex and multidimensional. When implemented well and systematically, a strategic approach to communication, complemented by the necessary training, can help the National Society fulfil its humanitarian mandate while increasing its acceptance, security and access to people affected by violence or insecurity.
Did you know?
External communication in all its guises can facilitate humanitarian action, provided care is taken to avoid negative repercussions on the organization, its personnel or the beneficiaries of its activities. First and foremost, such communication should always be contextualized and aim to reduce the adverse consequences of insecurity or violence on people, while increasing the organization’s ability to access them safely. It should aim to:
- build trust in and increase acceptance of the National Society by key stakeholders, improving its security and access to affected people, while enhancing its public profile;
- influence the policies and behaviour of others, reinforcing the National Society’s humanitarian advocacy and diplomacy efforts, resulting in better respect for the lives and dignity of the people affected by insecurity and violence;
- empower people and communities by providing them with valuable information that boosts their ability to recover from adversity with dignity;
- attract human, financial and in-kind resources.
Communication needs to be organized and coherent both within the National Society (see “Internal communication and coordination”) and when dealing with external audiences, whether through bilateral discussion or more public means such as a media release.
The strategy should define the various formal communication roles within a National Society. For instance, programme managers and coordinators will need to incorporate a communication component into their implementation strategies and plans. Communication specialists advise branches and headquarters departments on policy and strategy implementation and support them in formulating their own communication plans. They also play a key role in environment scanning, media relations, operational communication and the development of the National Society’s online profile.
The development of tools and templates to enable a rapid communication response in an insecure context completes the package. Needless to say, the contents of these tools and templates must be adjusted continually to align with the context as it evolves.
Deciding whether or not to communicate publicly, selecting neutral language and transmitting the right message at the right time, adapted to its intended audience, are acquired skills in which all personnel must be adequately trained. For, in sensitive and insecure contexts, one ill-advised word or comment can jeopardize the whole National Society’s access and the safety of its personnel.
7.2 Broad awareness and acceptance of mandate and roles in sensitive and insecure contexts
Key stakeholders know and accept domestic legislation, statutes, policies, agreements and plans, which clearly reflect the National Society’s mandate to respond in sensitive and insecure contexts, including international and non-international armed conflict and internal disturbances and tensions, in order to establish the framework for an effective response. (See also II. Legal and policy base)
All personnel need to have a thorough understanding of the National Society’s mandate (derived from domestic legislation and the National Society’s own statutes) to act in all types of sensitive and insecure contexts, including international and non-international armed conflict and internal disturbances and tensions, before this can be effectively communicated to the outside world.
Any individual or group with the potential to control or influence the National Society’s security and access to people in need (“gatekeepers”) must be aware of and accept the National Society’s mandate and roles, and trust and accept that it will deliver its humanitarian services neutrally, impartially and independently. These persons or groups need to be identified and their degree of influence assessed and recorded in a process known as “stakeholder mapping”: they can range from the people the National Society is aiming to assist to representatives of communities and local authorities, religious leaders, the public authorities, Movement components, donors, non-State actors, armed actors, the media, other organizations and businesses.
A typical stakeholder-mapping table might look like this:
Name of stakeholder person or group
(supporter, advocate, neutral, critic,
Degree of influence on security and access
High, medium, low
Their key interests and issues
Desired action or behavior change
Actions and/or key messages; tools required
Who will engage/ timeline
7.3 Promotion of International Humanitarian Law (IHL)
National Societies support the public authorities in the promotion, dissemination and national implementation of IHL, including provisions for the protection of the emblems.
Understanding the type or category of the armed conflict or situation of violence you are dealing with is essential as this will determine the applicable legal provisions. If the violence has reached a certain threshold, those provisions will be drawn from international humanitarian law (IHL).
What does IHL have to do with a National Society’s activities?
- IHL is the foundation of the National Society’s mandate to act in the event of an armed conflict.
- IHL sets down the rights and obligations of all parties to an armed conflict, as well as those of protected persons and the humanitarian organizations that aim to assist them.
- IHL spells out the conditions of use of the protective emblem(s).
Knowing and being able to communicate and explain these links to all stakeholders will significantly enhance your acceptance, security and access.
7.4 Promoting compliance with IHL and advocating respect for and protection of people affected by armed conflict
As part of its humanitarian advocacy and diplomacy strategy and in close coordination with the ICRC, the National Society promotes compliance with international humanitarian law by parties to the conflict and by weapon bearers, advocating for the respect and protection of affected people and communities. (See also II. Legal and policy base)
7.5 Guidelines and compliance on the use of social media
A policy and related guidelines on the use of social networking sites by staff and volunteers have been established and communicated; monitoring and compliance mechanisms have been established to enforce them.
Social media platforms are useful for both receiving and providing information from/to specific individuals or groups. They can be used to gain a better understanding of the operational environment (see “environment scanning”, section 1.2) and to promote your organization’s activities.
However, because of the ease with which information can be posted by anyone and subsequently shared on social networks, it is of the utmost importance for every National Society to develop and disseminate a policy and guidelines on their use, both professionally and personally, by all staff and volunteers. This will help safeguard the National Society’s and the Movement’s reputation, Fundamental Principles and emblems, while enabling us to take full advantage of these innovative and interactive technologies to further our mission (see also section 7.7).
Did you know?
As a Red Cross or Red Crescent staff member or volunteer, your professional and personal activity on social media is bound by your organization’s code of conduct and social media guidelines, as well as by the Fundamental Principles.
In terms of the Fundamental Principles, this means that when posting online in a professional capacity you must show respect for all people equally, without discrimination, and not voice or imply your personal views on political or religious issues or current events and those involved.
Personal use of social media is largely a private matter. However, due care must be taken if it is known that you are associated with the Red Cross or Red Crescent, as your personal opinions and shared information can be perceived as representative of the organization.
7.6 Networking and operational communication
Based on the mapping of all key stakeholders, the National Society conducts regular, targeted and timely operational communication (who we are, what we do and how we work; the emblem) and holds discussions with stakeholders to better understand their perceptions of the National Society, the aim being to enable it to carry out its mandate in sensitive and insecure contexts. (See also I. Context and risk assessment and III. Acceptance of the organization)
Stakeholder engagement and operational communication
The more people know about the National Society, its humanitarian mandate and its adherence to the principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence, how its people, vehicles and buildings are visually identified, the more likely they are to allow and even facilitate its movements and activities in sensitive and insecure contexts, where the norm is restricted and controlled access. Do not underestimate the power of strong personal relationships that engender trust and respect, much needed commodities in tense and violent contexts, where distrust and suspicion abound. All staff and volunteers have a role to play in developing and fostering such contacts and relationships.
Based on the mapping of key stakeholders who have influence on the plight of affected people and access to them, a communication plan would include key targeted messages aiming to positively influence the behaviour of these stakeholders towards affected people and to persuade them to allow and even facilitate the National Society’s access to them.
Two-way communication with the affected people and communities is crucial in order to involve them in identifying their needs and to maximize the effectiveness of the assistance and protection provided. Additionally, reliable information is hard to obtain in an insecure context, so making it accessible to affected people can help their recovery.
For other stakeholders, including public authorities and armed actors, these messages essentially have two major objectives: to build trust in and position the National Society among these audiences and to influence their policies and behaviour in favour of the affected population. National Societies have commonly found it pays off to invest in operational communication, that is, promoting who you are, what you do and how you work, including adherence to the Fundamental Principles, proper use of the emblem and logo, and the National Society’s visual identity.
7.7 Effective use of online presence to facilitate assistance and protection
The National Society uses its online and electronic media in a manner that is sensitive to the context, facilitates the assistance and protection of people and communities and thus preserves their dignity, and prevents adverse effects on them as well as on its own staff and volunteers; the online and electronic media are harmonized with other Movement websites and approaches.
Digital communication and social media
New digital communication technologies bring with them great opportunities to further the implementation of a communication strategy. However, they are not a substitute for face-to-face relationship- and trust-building interactions with affected people, armed actors and other stakeholders, including gatekeepers.
In addition, use of digital technologies is not without risks. Inaccurate or inappropriate information can spread like wildfire on the internet, reaching every corner of the globe in seconds. Moreover, staff members and volunteers eagerly connect to social networking sites, where sometimes they do not stop to consider how posting personal opinions and photos of their work may reflect on their own and the organization’s neutral, impartial and independent image and reputation.
Therefore, it is important to adopt a communication strategy that maximizes the benefits of digital communication while preventing or minimizing the risks. A policy and/or guidelines on the use of social media by all staff and volunteers, whether on or off duty, is a necessary feature of such a strategy, and must be accompanied by monitoring and compliance mechanisms.
7.8 Confidentiality and coordination with humanitarian actors
Based on participation in operational coordination mechanisms with external actors, response activities and information exchanged comply with National Society confidentiality guidelines while fulfilling the need to take independent operational decisions and to be closely associated with the operational response coordinated by the Movement.
National Societies are encouraged to coordinate their activities with external actors. However, in order to maintain their independence, it is important that they coordinate with others, and are not coordinated by others. This is especially true in insecure contexts in relation to its auxiliary role to the public authorities, where the precise nature of that role and the imperative for the National Society to apply the Fundamental Principles must be clarified together with the State, ensuring the right balance is struck between the auxiliary role and the National Society’s duty to preserve its autonomy of action and decision-making in all circumstances.
When participating in operational coordination mechanisms with external actors, a National Society must comply with confidentiality guidelines regarding the information shared and maintain its operational independence, while closely coordinating its activities with Movement partners.
Good coordination of Movement communication during large-scale emergencies where several components are active, including in insecure contexts, is also vital. In its communications, the Movement needs to present a unified front, conveying strong and coherent messages that reinforce each other’s position and public profile.
In such situations, a Movement communications framework is especially helpful, defining the coordination mechanisms, decision-making and rapid validation processes, and each component’s roles and responsibilities. When mobilized, it will increase the Movement’s impact, credibility and ability to reach more people, more safely.
7.9 Beneficiary engagement and two-way communication
Mechanisms to ensure two-way communication with the affected people and communities have been established and implemented.
During emergencies people desperately need information to aid in their survival. Is it safe to go back home? How can I find my family? Where can I get water and food? Where is the nearest health clinic? Information can save lives, and lack of access to timely, accurate and trusted information or the spread of conflicting messages or propaganda can create confusion and isolation and exacerbate frustrations, tensions and even lead to disturbances within communities. Lack of effective two-way communication with aid agencies can also increase frustrations around unmet expectations or unanswered questions: Why are we only receiving half rations now? Why is the Red Cross/Red Crescent not doing more to help us?
Information sharing and two-way communication are critical forms of aid that can help increase communities’ resilience by making them more knowledgeable and connected. People affected by crises have the right to know what is happening that might affect them, to ask questions and to participate actively in their own preparedness, relief and recovery. The Movement is committed to ensuring people’s participation in and the accountability of humanitarian assistance.
Through the use of mobile phones and new technologies, local communities, as first responders, are able to organize their own response to a crisis and to engage with diaspora groups, the media, governments and aid organizations more effectively than ever before. They also demand greater transparency and accountability.
New technologies present a great opportunity for communities and aid organizations but also pose a number of risks that cannot be underestimated. While mobile phones are becoming universal, other communication technologies are not accessible for everyone and not at the same pace. Technology can reproduce old inequalities and create new ones in the form of digital, age and gender divides, which in turn can create tensions within a community. In armed conflict, energy, telecommunication and media infrastructure is very often disrupted or controlled, leaving affected communities literally in the dark and unable to access vital news or to communicate with the outside world.
Information shared online is increasingly becoming a critical source for humanitarian organizations to hear and respond to people’s needs, feedback and complaints. But along with the democratization of technology and access to “big data”, there is also a new phenomenon of information overload, rife with rumour, misinformation or propaganda that spreads more quickly in the digital world. This can have a direct impact not just on people’s lives and livelihoods, but also on the National Society’s and the Movement’s operations and reputations and on the safety and security of staff and volunteers and their ability to deliver humanitarian assistance.
Did you know?
Community engagement is the process of and commitment to providing life-saving, useful and actionable information to communities, and using existing and/or establishing two-way communication channels to listen to their needs, concerns, feedback and complaints so that they may participate actively in and guide humanitarian action.
Community engagement is the act of communicating with and for – not about – communities. Crucially, it can help us to better understand the operational context, enhance our profile and increase acceptance, security and access to people in need.
Community engagement is a way of working, a key component of programming, not a distinct, “new” activity. It puts communities at the centre of protection and assistance activities and in more control of their recovery and future lives and livelihoods.
6. Supports people’s right to know: Local communities need to be involved in the management of relief
2. Contributes to saving lives: In the midst of a disaster or other emergency, people need
Helps manage expectations: Dialogue with communities is essential in order to anticipate
Leads to better,