Charlotte Lindsey Curtet
Director of Communication and Information Management
International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
“We have embedded communications into decision-making processes”
What does social acceptance mean to an organisation like the Red Cross?
It is a core driver of our work. Our basic modus operandi is built around the acceptance model. We have to be accepted by all those party to an armed conflict. We need those who can influence a conflict to understand who the ICRC is, what it does and how it works. This is also necessary for communities and direct beneficiaries of our protection and assistance programmes.
The “Red Cross” is relatively well-known as a humanitarian concept. But everywhere the ICRC goes, we have to explain who we are, our respect for the Fundamental Principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality, independence. We need to demonstrate daily how we live these principles in the way we carry out our humanitarian action. They are the drivers of our identity, our reputation, and our operational effectiveness.
Demonstrating these principles is absolutely critical for our licence to operate because any perception that we are not living up to them creates a real risk not to be accepted as a humanitarian organisation, which can cause major challenges, not just to reach the population in need, but also in terms of staff security.
Which role do communications play in aligning your operations with stakeholder needs?
Communications act as a bridge between a reading of the external environment and a reading of the internal environment. It allows us to understand perceptions and challenges, shape strategies that bridge gaps between the internal and external environments, and reinforce the role that the organisation has to play and to communicate.
For well over a decade, we have embedded communications into the decision-making processes of the organisation. Both outbound communications and the themes for information monitoring are co-developed with operational teams. We look at communications as a part of the holistic response.
How do you enable operations teams to get a good reading of the external environment?
We monitor public sources of information related to the dynamics of conflicts and themes of humanitarian concern. We use this information to inform or adapt our approach. In some conflicts, this can be a very difficult task: we may deal with the military, governments, or sometimes more than 100 armed groups, which fragment daily, as well as other actors who all can help or hinder humanitarian action. We need to understand their communications, how to engage with them in relation to matters such as allowing food or medical convoys to reach a population in need, or to respect the laws of war. So adapting to new challenges on a daily basis is a requirement.
We have also been piloting how big data analytics can help us have a complementary reading of a conflict environment and help engaging with those who can influence a conflict or perceptions of humanitarian action and facilitate our engagement.
Finally we are also focussing more and more on direct engagement with the communities and beneficiaries of our programmes. The objective is to have a real two-way dialogue, to understand their perceptions, where they get information from, and whether there are issues that we could learn in terms of our own programming.
How do use these insights to inform your outbound communications?
In the more than 90 countries where we work, we have what we call operational communications, entirely managed locally, to communicate with parties to a conflict, populations, and those who can influence the conduct of hostilities or facilitate access to people in need.
We work at checkpoints, with community leaders or groups of people to explain our modus operandi, our mandate and our Fundamental Principles. Whilst these don’t change, the tactics are very much adapted to each individual context, languages and vectors used: cartoon magazines distributed in relief parcels on hygiene, radio programmes on how to find family members separated by conflict, or TV spots on the obligation to protect healthcare facilities from attack.
Our public communications reinforces our operational communications. We produce a centralised framework of communications principles based on best practices that we have developed bottom-up, from our field approach. Locally from our field operations, we issue news releases, use social media platforms and a range of communications approaches. From Geneva, we communicate on themes of global significance that we identify with our operations team every three months. We then have regional communications hubs in charge of contextualising this information. They produce communications materials according to any specific local needs, languages or messaging requirements.