The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is a humanitarian organization that aims to give support to those who are affected by armed conflict and other situations of violence. Its institutional strategy is anchored on the statement “putting people at the center”. One of the ways it does this is by engaging with communities – through information, feedback, and participation – to ensure that the people it serves are able to shape the organization’s humanitarian programs.
In the last few months, along with the rest of the world, the ICRC needed to adjust to the consequences imposed by the global pandemic COVID-19. We all figured out early on that what we are all dealing with is not just a health crisis, but an information crisis. Despite the very best of intentions, not all informational materials created by those who want to help are actually helpful to the communities they target. In an evolving public health crisis, delivering accurate information is crucial. This blog entry shares three tips on how to make sure that the information we give is as helpful as possible.
Listen first. The first rule of thumb in giving information is finding out what information people already have and what they still need. By now, we would have encountered a good number of posters, audio messages, and social media posts instructing people everywhere to wash their hands. This is indeed a message that needs to reach people far and wide. However, it is not applicable to all. Those who don’t have access to clean water will not be able to wash their hands for 20 seconds. In such cases, communities might need to know other information, such as what to do in case clean water or soap is not available. Perhaps communities already know handwashing best practices and their bigger concern is understanding who has a higher risk of contracting coronavirus. We can only know this if we listen first.
How should we listen? We ask the communities we serve – “what are you worried about? What would you like to know more?” Beyond asking directly, we can also find out what people are asking each other on social media: look in groups, in comments sections, in what people are posting. Listen to the news and observe what are being expressed as fears or rumors. Observe what patterns of messages people are forwarding in messaging apps. Multiple ways abound on how to listen, we just need to actually do it.
One size does not fit all. Every community is made up of different kinds of people. This means there are different information needs, different communication preferences, and different ways of understanding messages.
First of all, different audiences have different information needs. Women may have different coronavirus questions than men do. The elderly may have a different way of needing to take care of themselves than children do. Healthcare workers require a different set of guidance than members of the general public.
People also prefer different communication channels. Some people prefer to have their information received via social media, some don’t. Some communities do not have access to the internet, while some don’t even have electricity. Some people rely on the communication of local leaders, while some get their information through their casual exchanges of information in their neighborhood. Some cannot read, and instead rely on what they hear or see.
Finally, we must take into account how different groups understand information. In a community, there may be multiple languages that are used. If we turn to the language only spoken by the majority, then what about the information needs of those who speak other languages?
Taking account of the diversity of needs and responding to them accordingly ensures that the help given is in fact what is needed and that every effort is worthwhile.
Make room for feedback. Let’s be honest – we don’t always get things right, and that’s ok. It’s part of the process. Despite our best efforts, we sometimes miss the mark of giving helpful information. What is more important is that we design ways to find out if we are indeed doing it right or if there are perhaps areas for us to improve. Leaving a method for people to give comments, ask questions, or make suggestions is a way for us to do better. As a colleague of mine said, “it’s only a failure if you do it twice.” In order to foster a culture of feedback around your organization’s information materials, be sure to respond to comments regularly and show that you are listening to that feedback.
These three quick tips are not just for creating information meant to prevent or help in the context of COVID-19, but are also applicable everytime we create “info-as-aid”. I hope that this has been as helpful for you as it has been for us in our continuous journey to do better.
Chely Esguerra is Deputy Lead for Community Engagement in the International Committee of the Red Cross. She helps build more systematic approaches to putting people affected by conflict and other situations of violence in the center of the organization’s work through giving helpful information, establishing feedback mechanisms, and enabling participation. For over a decade, she has dedicated her professional expertise on communications in the humanitarian and development sector. Her interest lies in understanding the experiences of users through different services and designing services with users themselves. An avid practitioner of human-centered design, she is constantly reading, listening to podcasts, taking courses to learn more about systems, human behavior, and how to do and be better.