Simon and I both did a Masters in European Communications Studies in Amsterdam in 2008-2009. Equipped with the driest of English humour, he introduced me to the joys of Belgian beers, and later on after I had moved to the UK, surfing on the Welsh West Coast. We caught up in mid-May, he in his Bangkok flat with a digital William Turner Zoom backdrop, and I in London, without any digital aids.
One of my aims with this conversation was to learn about work-life in such a well-known organisation. And we did get to that, but first Simon provided a whistle stop tour of UNICEF’s history for those (including myself) who might not be familiar with the background.
“UNICEF is a humanitarian organisation created in 1946 to support children and mothers affected by the second world war. A lot of our money comes from governments and public donations. Our mandate is to defend the rights of children, linked to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, so we cover lots of different areas; health, nutrition, education, water and sanitation.”
So what does a day look like for a regional comms specialist? Unsurprisingly, it’s recently been dominated by Covid-19, but in more normal times Simon’s focus is on content creation for digital platforms.
“My team basically looks at how we can use communications to advocate for change, amplify young people’s voices, and to show how we’re helping children and families across the world. Day to day it’s finding stories about our work and figuring out how we can promote these on our different social media channels. So working with our country offices and comms people to see if they can adapt it for their country and if I can support them in any way. Other days it’s writing and editing stories, providing training, or hiring people.”
The content Simon works on is used in a variety of ways, including showcasing the impact of UNICEF’s work as a fundraising vehicle and as an advocacy tool. This could include gaining support for policy changes or promoting behavioural change.
“We have something called Communications For Development, which is about using our channels to change behaviours. With regards to Covid-19 the most obvious example is handwashing. So a lot of messaging at the beginning was around how to do it and why it's important. Now that’s shifting to something more nuanced as countries are bracing for the socio economic impact. Covid-19 will likely have a much bigger impact on children in that respect.”
Photo by Simon during a trip to Papua New Guinea
As many communications professionals can attest, leading with people is one of the most effective ways to generate interest in content. Historically, charities and NGOs operated in poor countries, doing concrete work such as building schools. This made it easy to tell a good story. But as the nature of work has changed, telling stories about UNICEF’s impact is becoming more challenging.
Part of the reason is the increase in political advocacy work that UNICEF does, which involves speaking with politicians and pushing for new laws. A complicated judicial and political process does not naturally lend itself to a straightforward story. Despite this, Simon is adamant that a story still always needs a face.
“An example from a few years ago in Thailand involved a cash transfer scheme for children; families who earned less than a certain amount would get money from the government each month. This was pushed through in part thanks to UNICEF’s advocacy, but the process took a long time and we needed to tell the story of how this helps people. So the original thinking was to write a story saying what the government will do. But we knew that wasn’t really going to work, so we went to the field and got a story from a struggling family, asking them how the money would impact their lives. It’s always better to have people tell the story for us.”
Part of Simon's role involves training colleagues in field offices to communicate for more impact, by identifying human interest stories and avoiding the common challenges of focusing too much on the technical aspects of the story.
“Sometimes people are not visual enough, when they have a story - it’s almost impossible to get it out there without a good photo. Sometimes people also focus too much on the central theme and miss the human element. All stories are about people, in technical fields it’s easy to forget that. When people sit down to write something they forget what it is they like about stories. It’s almost like it’s too obvious.”
With a region spanning 27 countries, and many different cultures, I’m interested to understand if this creates any communications difficulties. Simon believes that the time he spent in Laos (and before that, Niger) before moving to the regional office in Bangkok helped him better understand local perspectives. His ability to quickly adapt to different situations and people has also helped him to become a trusted colleague, even among his colleagues in North Korea.
A boy being vaccinated during a flooding emergency in Southern Laos
“I’ve been there six times now and I have a good working relationship with the national staff. The first time I went I was the first comms person going to the field for UNICEF to get stories and the government was very suspicious. They were quite tough with me the first week, but after spending time in the field they understood I was trying to help show UNICEF’s work and that I wasn’t a threat. Working with different cultures can be challenging in comms, I have to check myself to make sure I don’t make assumptions.”
One situation where cultural differences become pronounced is disagreements. In many offices these feelings are not explicitly expressed.
“You have to notice if they don’t agree with you. In a lot of South-East Asian countries you won’t hear that they don’t agree with you. Instead you’ll later notice things didn’t happen even though you discussed it. It becomes quite obvious after a while, there is a certain smile and yes you get and you know that’s not actually a yes. But I think I’m quite good at gaining trust, I’m not sure exactly how. I’m not that serious I guess, so perhaps I’m not that intimidating.”
The fact that Simon ended up in Bangkok isn’t completely random. When he visited the city as a teenager he remembers walking past the office near Khao San Road, wondering what it would be like to work there. So, is it how he thought it would be?
“UNICEF is a big big organisation, our budget last year was 7 billion dollars. And it’s the UN, so the bureaucracy can be frustrating. I like the fact that we are a humanitarian organisation, so we work on current emergencies, which means that the work can be quite fast paced. Our mandate is hard to argue with; the rights of children. It’s probably the best UN agency to work for if you’re in comms. When I was in Laos the comms team was quite large in comparison to the other agencies, and that’s considered a small office. So there is a lot of emphasis on comms. It’s a pretty exciting organisation to work for, I’ve been to Papua New Guinea with David Beckham and deep in the field in North Korea.”
Pictures of children Simon interviewed during a field trip to North Korea
And what does Simon think about the impact of Covid-19? Will it put further pressure on UNICEF and other UN agencies already seeing a shift in political mood in many countries and widening criticism of international agencies?
“There is a global shift politically and that can mean that governments push back against multinational institutions, which can impact funding. We are in a stronger position than some other UN agencies since we have a big brand. But we also rely on a lot of public fundraising activities that are not happening this year.”
Covid-19 has also intensified discussions around how UNICEF work and if some of its traditional approaches in areas such as education are still fit for purpose.
“Covid-19 is triggering a lot of questions; how we do schooling, how we work together in our offices, how we work with governments. We’ve already seen people drop below the poverty line and a lot of people are staying at home, so there will be lots of mental health issues as well. We might need to do a lot more in that area in the future.”
In my conversation with Lynn Luckow, he mentioned the importance of partnerships in the non-profit sector in the US, and the recognition that the go at it alone approach is not the best way to be impactful. Simon agrees and says that UNICEF have been discussing this frequently in the past few years.
“We’re rightly being asked more and more to look at the role of partnerships with the private sector. UNICEF has always been quite strong in this area – you’ll see our name attached to big brands and we do work in CSR too. But there’s definitely an appetite to do more as big businesses, technology firms and other institutions can help a lot in helping the lives of children.”
That’s all we had time for, as we both had other video calls to join in this time of never ending virtual meetings. I briefly considered the merits of implementing my own digital background, but figured it was a bit too high-tech for me, for now.