ICRC Communications

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Volume 87 Number 860 December 2005 ICRC communication: Generating support Yves Daccord* Yves Daccord is the ICRC’s Director of Communication Abstract The environment in which the ICRC works and communicates is constantly changing. The ICRC is also constantly seeking support that will allow it to gain access to victims, carry out its work, generate the diplomatic and financial backing needed for that work and ensure the safety of its delegates. The primary aim of communication is not merely to
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   Volume 87 Number 860 December 2005 693 Humanitarian organizations have long been protected by the very nature of their work. Helping people in need, especially in severe crises — armed con-flicts or natural disasters — has always tended to arouse a sense of solidarity and support. Since the early 1990s the situation has become considerably morecomplex. 1 The increase in the number of humanitarian agencies or of othersworking in the humanitarian field — together with confusion over the specificidentity and objectives of each humanitarian agency, how some of them behave,the need to raise more funds and the competition for visibility resulting fromthat increase — and insecurity have made it necessary to rethink some of thestrategies aimed at obtaining and establishing support for humanitarian work. ICRC communication:Generating support Yves Daccord* Yves Daccord is the ICRC’s Director of Communication Abstract The environment in which the ICRC works and communicates is constantly changing. The ICRC is also constantly seeking support that will allow it to gainaccess to victims, carry out its work, generate the diplomatic and financial backing needed for that work and ensure the safety of its delegates. The primary aim of communication is not merely to pass on messages from the organization effectively.It is just as necessary to understand the issues concerning the various audiencesand how they perceive those issues as it is to inform them. The ICRC draws ona wide array of communication strategies and resources, depending on their complementarity and their potential impact, ranging from meetings with local armed groups to the use of mass communication tools. Communication is thus anintegral part of the ICRC’s decision-making process, both at headquarters and ineach context in the field. : : : : : : : * The article reflects the views of the author alone and not necessarily those of the ICRC.   Y. Daccord – ICRC communication: Generating support 694 Like many other humanitarian organizations, the ICRC is faced with thischallenge and its staff  2 encounters it daily. Whether the task in hand is to nego-tiate a passage between the lines for a relief convoy, to set up a field hospital, tobroach the subject of detainee treatment or respect for the Geneva Conventions,they have to establish a minimum amount of trust between themselves and theircontacts. None of the contexts in which the ICRC 3 works constitutes an excep-tion to this rule. From Kabul to Luanda, from Jerusalem to Colombo, fromWashington to Khartoum and from Muzafarabat to Moscow, the ICRC has thusestablished a working method that is backed by more than 140 years of experi-ence and evolves further with each new experience gained.Its approach is based first on a direct, face to face dialogue betweenthe parties to armed conflict and ICRC delegates. To set up and manage thatrelationship is a fundamental consideration of all the ICRC’s communicationstrategies and activities. 4 The changing environment in which its teams workhas nonetheless compelled the ICRC to supplement and expand that approachwith a view to broadening the support base for its work and the principles thatgovern it. 5 The organization must be able to project a coherent identity andmanage its reputation, both locally and globally, in a dynamic process gearedboth to long-term objectives, which must be targeted, and to the very short-term nature of real-time communication.The ICRC must be capable of identifying the key audiences whose supportit would like to obtain and, if possible, to have their support before it is neededso that it can count on them when the time comes — regardless of whether thoseaudiences are political or military authorities, leaders of opinion in civil society,donors, or men and women affected by conflict. Thus, it is not enough to be ableto respond appropriately when news concerning the ICRC breaks.This article describes and analyses certain factors influencing the envi-ronment in which the ICRC works and communicates and the impact thosechanges have had on its communication activities. It goes on to examine thecommunication strategies being put in place by the organization today to meet 1 A number of authors have described this phenomenon. They include Pierre Hasner in Hard Choices:    Moral Dilemma in Humanitarian Intervention , Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Oxford 1998; Larry Minear in The Humanitarian Enterprise: Dilemmas and Discoveries , Kumarian Press, Bloomfield, Conn.,2002; David Rieff in  A Bed for the Night: Humanitarians in Crisis , Simon & Shuster, New York, 2002; orDavid P. Forsythe in The Humanitarians , Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005.2 At the end of 2005 the ICRC had a total staff of 11,375.3 The ICRC is working in more than 80 countries. See Emergency Appeals 2006  , ICRC, December 2005.4 ICRC communication is made up of two complementary parts: public communication and the promotionof international humanitarian law. Public communication is aimed primarily at informing and raisingawareness among the ICRC’s priority audiences. It seeks to strengthen support for internationalhumanitarian law, the work of the ICRC and the positions it adopts, and to present a consistent image of it. The main purpose of promoting international humanitarian law is to ensure that law’s incorporationin particular in the doctrine, education and training of the armed and security forces and in university and school syllabuses.5 The work of the ICRC and the various components of the International Red Cross and Red CrescentMovement is based on the Movement’s Fundamental Principles, the main ones being humanity,impartiality, independence and neutrality.   Volume 87 Number 860 December 2005 695 the challenge of gaining support for its work, with particular emphasis on itspublic communication policy. Support for the ICRC’s work: Reality, perceptions and symbolicdimension The people with whom ICRC delegates interact form an opinion of the organ-ization and its work. That work and its relevance to the situation and the needsof the people give rise to reactions, comments and judgements which the organ-ization needs to address. Perceptions ICRC delegates are required daily to convince the various parties to armed con-flict of their independence, of the impartiality of their approach to assist and pro-tect people without any discrimination and of the appropriateness of their inter-vention. They know that the local trust derived from humanitarian activities andtheir impact on beneficiaries can be influenced positively or negatively by percep-tions due to various factors, such as the delegates’ attitude, the media reportingon the ICRC and its work, or by the people’s own perception of their needs andsituation and by their sense of outrage, humiliation or even helplessness.The perceived relevance of its work to a given situation or context may thus have a decisive effect on the opinion that audiences targeted by the ICRChave of the organization, and hence on their potential support. Symbolic contexts as a prism This notable trend is confirmed worldwide whenever intensive media coverage,be it in the north, south, east or west, endows situations or contexts with sym-bolic significance. These “symbolic” contexts become the main prisms throughwhich the work of a humanitarian organization such as the ICRC will be judged.They are henceforth a factor determining the degree and strength of the sup-port generated by the ICRC.A humanitarian organization such as the ICRC is not responsible fordetermining a context’s symbolic dimension. It must nonetheless identify andunderstand what makes a particular situation or context symbolic and take thepossible effect of this phenomenon on its identity and communication intoaccount.In our view, the symbolic dimension is conditioned by five main factors:the scale 6 of the humanitarian crisis; the existence of powerful images thatstir up emotion and indignation; the rapidity with which those images recur; 6 The scale of a humanitarian crisis is usually “measured” by the number of victims. It can also be determinedby its geographic location, the nationality of the victims or by the type or scale of the violations.   Y. Daccord – ICRC communication: Generating support 696 over-simplification of the situation and the issues at stake¸ and the ability of different audiences to be able to relate to that humanitarian crisis. These factorscombined thus enable certain humanitarian crises to assume a global symbolicdimension, as shown recently by the Asian tsunami and the earthquake inPakistan. Whereas broad coverage has been given to the tsunami, diminishingmedia attention and the difficulty of producing new images and explaining thesituation in Darfur (who are the victims, who are the “baddies,” why are they fighting?) has limited that human tragedy’s impact and symbolic value.One of the most graphic examples of crises with a strong symbolic con-tent is found in Cuba. The camp at Guantanamo Bay was opened by the UnitedStates authorities in January 2002. As soon as the first detainees arrived thereit was given maximum media coverage. Within a matter of weeks the orange jumpsuits worn by the 600 or so detainees at Guantanamo Bay came to symbol-ize the war against terrorism declared by the United States government. It wasa symbol that was sustained by the same powerful images, the same news anddebates, but that triggered radically different interpretations depending on thestance adopted. On the one hand it symbolized the need to fight terrorism, andon the other the humiliation of a community.ICRC delegates have had access to detainees in Guantanamo Bay sinceJanuary 2002. They visit them regularly to ensure that they are given humanetreatment in keeping with the applicable rules and standards of internationallaw. As in every one of the roughly 2,400 places of detention visited by theICRC in 2004, delegates make the requisite approaches to the authorities tothat effect. The content of these approaches and of ICRC reports is confiden-tial and is communicated only to the detaining authorities concerned. In thisway delegates are able to create the minimum atmosphere of trust needed forthe ICRC’s concerns about the situation in places of detention and respec-tive recommendations to be heard and understood, and to ask for necessary changes to be made. Guantanamo Bay is no exception. This course of action 7  has enabled the ICRC to have repeated and regular access to persons internedin Guantanamo Bay and to interview them in private. Its access has also placedthe ICRC in the media spotlight on several occasions and necessitated suchpresence is managed. Making the ICRC’s activities and positions understood Confidentiality should not be synonymous with keeping silent. It is clearly defined 8 and must be aligned with the objectives of those visits and the terms,conditions and procedure of the ICRC’s work. While choosing not to speakabout the conditions of detention, the treatment of the detainees and the 7 See Alain Aeschlimann, “Protection of detainees: ICRC action behind bars,” International Review of theRed Cross , Vol. 87, No. 857, March 2005, pp. 83-122.8 See Jakob Kellenberger, “Speaking out or remaining silent in humanitarian work,” International Review of the Red Cross , Vol. 86, No. 855, September 2004, pp. 593-608.
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