Articles, Human Rights, On Story

Making Access to Truth Convenient for Human Rights Advocates: Insights and Lessons from the Yellow Book

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This post originally appeared on December 10, 2014, on the University of Washington’s Flip the Media blog, an online publication of the Communication Leadership Graduate Program at the University of Washington.

On September 28, 2014, International Right to Know Day, the University of Washington Center for Human Rights, in coordination with the National Security Archive, and The Human Rights Data Analysis Group, co-published The Yellow Book (El Libro Amarillo), the first document to be publicly released from the archives of El Salvador’s military intelligence. The 1980s-era document identifies almost 2,000 Salvadoran citizens considered “delinquent terrorists.” An estimated 43% of the names in the book were found to be victims of murder or extrajudicial execution, forced disappearance, torture, detention or arrest.

Though compelling for many reasons—the document indicates the systematic planning of the Salvadoran government to terrorize and exterminate its own citizens—multiple attempts to partner with major news outlets in the US to cover the release of the document proved fruitless. As a result, the UWCHR decided to self-publish the document through its Unfinished Sentences’ website and associated social media channels, in addition to publication on the National Security Archive’s website.

However, the Unfinished Sentences project had less than one year of a public presence and as such, relatively scant visibility. The lack of media interest in the US was initially seen as a disappointment: a vital source of information for the numerous people still searching for the fate of their lost loved ones, information that would aid in the fight for truth, justice, and accountability in El Salvador, ran the risk of lingering into obscurity on the Unfinished Sentences website.

A Case Study for Overcoming the Communication Challenges Encountered by Nonprofits

The communication challenge posed by Yellow Book, however, isn’t unique to the UWCHR; rather, the Yellow Book represents the typical communication challenge of nonprofits: Distributing information seen as essential by one subset of the population often becomes judged as esoteric by another.

So how did the Yellow Book’s publication unfold?

In August, pre-release of the Yellow Book, the Unfinished Sentences website had received 166 visitors for a total of 284 views. However by October, the website received 6,643 visitors for a total of 141,976 page views–an increase of almost 4,000 percent in visitors and 50,000 percent increase in page views.

Page views Unfinished Sentences website

Publication of the Yellow Book and traditional and new media outreach efforts resulted in a significant jump in visits and page views for the Unfinished Sentences website.

Visitors have also downloaded the 266-page document close to 800 times and converted into additional forms of engagement.

Though the data might be seen as modest by many larger organizations, this is “viral” for an organization of the size and scope as the CHR. Most important, the quality of the connections trumps hard numbers. The story was covered in at least 27 articles and in 24 newspapers and blogs, including BBC Mundo and La Prensa Grafica.

Distribution Tactics to Help Ensure Success

Key tactics to help ensure the success of the Yellow Book included making key materials included leveraging essential partnerships and making key materials easy to share and disseminate.

Leveraging Essential Partnerships

Phil Neff, Unfinished Sentences Project Coordinator, commented on the approach used by the partnership, a combination of tried-and-true fundamentals and new media tactics: “We owe much of the Yellow Book success to essential partnerships in the US and abroad, with key organizations in El Salvador such as COPPES, the Committee of Former Political Prisoners…These groups organized a press conference the day of the release in San Salvador, which was attended by the major news outlets in El Salvador … El Faro, the premier online newspaper in El Salvador, also ran a piece one week in advance of the release, stimulating a great deal of interest.” A take action component, formed with COPPES, also provides another important way for viewers to become engaged after viewing the Yellow Book material.

Making Key Materials Easy to Share and Disseminate

On the digital front, The Unfinished Sentences team made the Yellow Book, and associated material, easy to share and disseminate. The book itself was scanned and placed on the Unfinished Sentences website as a Creative Commons PDF and as a Google Drive link, in addition to JPGs of all 266 pages, and a downloadable copy of the HRDAG analysis. Just days after the Yellow Book’s release, graduate students from a University in Mexico followed up with a network analysis of the relationships in the Yellow Book.

The Unfinished Sentences team also made a short video trailer about the release, in English and in Spanish, providing ways for blogs and news organizations to embed content. The Spanish version of the You Tube trailer has over 14,200 views, indicating the population most interested in the material, and the outcome of the Salvadoran partnerships. An example of the You Tube video composing the content of unaffiliated news organization Genteve can be found here.

Summing it Up: Four Key Strategic Insights from the Yellow Book Release

So what lessons can we glean from the release of the Yellow Book? Here are just a few:

-Relationships matter. Much of the success of the distribution came from contacts that were forged face-to-face. With this in mind, take the time to reach out to and physically meet strategic partners.

-Sometimes simpler is better. We now have so much access to affordable technology—HTML5, animation, dynamic maps, user behavior activated events, visualization of user generated content—I tend to get down in what a story could be or look like over just providing straightforward ways to access information. However, providing bits and pieces of shareable content remain important in the distribution effort. The YouTube video trailer, downloadable reports, and case examples, all provided ways for other organizations and individuals to engage with the Yellow Book content, facilitating story development.

-Speak to your base. It’s not always necessary to shape communications efforts to appeal to the widest audience possible. For example, the English version of the YouTube version only has 412 views compared to 14,200+ views in Spanish, indicating much higher success for the intended audience of Salvadorans and the greater human rights community.

-Remember for whom your efforts are meant. Media tactics aside, on this day, International Human Rights Day, it’s essential to note not only the compelling nature of this information itself, but how it is intrinsically tied to thousands of people in the world who seek any information for the whereabouts of missing loved ones, and who continue to fight for truth, justice, and accountability.

 I find the best insight to be gained from the words of Hector Recinos, a political prisoner profiled in the Yellow Book, in response to the research on the book. “The only thing we can do is seek justice. We are going to persist, we are stubbornly seeking answers. There is a lot to be done, this is only the beginning. But it’s good that things are coming to light.”

Articles, Technology

Avant-garde or Autocrat? Navigating Creative Leadership and Change

Recently, in the Communication Leadership program at the University of Washington, our cohort discussed the intersection of Creative Leadership in the context of the Rhode Island School of Design’s (RISD) controversy over the hiring of John Maeda as the prestigious design university president in 2008. The series of curated articles painted an interesting trajectory of a creative leader hired with great anticipation for change, denigrated for acting dictatorial in his process (which led to a vote of no-confidence in 2011), then _______? In March 2012, the RISD’s board of directors renewed Maeda’s contract until 2015. But then this past December Maeda left for a position in silicon valley.In light of his 2011 release of a book on leadership, aptly entitled Redesigning Leadership, Maeda’s bumpy path of the past few years leaves me questioning whether time will prove him a long-term leader, or a temporary motivator.

Maeda was intent on modernizing the operations of the university, instituting sweeping changes to communication, and radically adapting RISD’s stead curriculum. Maeda was a known twitterphile, and desired to usher in a new era of transparency and open communication across university operations. Upon first review of Maeda’s detractors, Maeda’s plans appeared to fall into two themes common: his vision and language failed to match his most visible behavior; and he attempted to execute his agenda without respecting and building necessary relationships. Classic politics, it seems, plays an important role even within the climate of a university internationally renowned for it’s avant-garde graduates and cutting-edge creative work.

Maeda’s trajectory lends itself to generalizing this tension between the evolving and The Establishment, raising many questions pertinent to those poised for creative leadership: How does a leader separate true vision from self-driven interest? In times of disruptive change, how much of our old system does one preserve in the design of a new approach? Or more appropriately, how closely do we listen to the voices of the requisite resistance?

If successful leadership is classically defined as the ability to build and maintain relationships, these questions, and Maeda’s first “failures” become even more interesting upon RISD’s board of directors three-year renewal of his contract in March 2012. Was Maeda successful in blending old and new dynamics, merging physical connections with digital relationships?

With Maeda’s recent departure, the success of his leadership will hopefully be vindicated by the staying power of his technology-driven values, defining his leadership experiment more as leadership entrepreneurship.

What have you learned about navigating relationships and change in our current communication landscape?

Convenience, and Everything in Moderation

Twitter Founder Reveals Secret Formula to Getting Rich Online

From WIRED 9.30.2013

Wired’s interview with Ev Williams, one of Twitter’s cofounders, re-emphasizes classic business advice for success, with adaptations and caveats for the digital age: focus on our most fundamental human desires and make them increasingly more convenient. However, don’t take convenience too far, because want we’ll end up with is big agriculture in the garden of our social connections.

Here an excerpt:

“The internet is not what I thought it was 20 years ago,” Williams said. “It’s not a utopian world. It’s essentially like a lot of other major technological revolutions that have taken place in the history of the world.” He compares it to, well, agriculture. “[Agriculture] made life better. It not only got people fed, it freed them up to do many more things — to create art and invent things.”

The rub is that we often take convenience too far. “Look at the technology of agriculture taken to an extreme — where we have industrialized farms that are not good for the environment or animals or nourishment,” he says. “Look at a country full of people who have had such convenient access to calories that they’re addicted, obese, and sick.” He likens this agricultural nightmare to our unhealthy obsession with internet numbers like retweets and likes and followers and friends.