Articles, Human Rights, On Story

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

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.”

Human Rights, On Story, Personal

Navigating Complex Messaging and Content Plans for Issue-oriented Campaigns

For The University of Washington’s Communication Leadership program, I recently completed an extensive transmedia content plan for our Leadership through Communities and Networks course final project.  The project parameters were seemingly quite broad, asking participants to “create, and present an original work that reflects your professional ambitions and relates to a field within Communications.” The intentionally broad parameters were set to help us define our creative voice within the context of a professional community, an important aspect of success within a creative field. After overcoming creative agoraphobia (in itself a worthy exercise), I found direction in the desire to merge past and present, melding my prior experience in working for non-profits with the current impetus to harness digital media strategies in the shaping of a non-profit communication strategy.

I currently work as a media producer for the University of Washington Center for Human Rights, and chose to create a transmedia content plan for the international justice work we’re conducting at the Center.  Although the Center’s work in El Salvador began several years ago, in November we launched the public-facing Unfinished Sentences component of the project. The work of the Center supports recent momentum around Salvadoran efforts for justice following the atrocities of the armed conflict from 1980-1992, while the campaign aims “ encourage public participation in support of human rights in El Salvador.”

Essentially the problem we’re trying to solve in this case is: how do we engage a wider audience in an important issue that seems far away in time and place? One step further, how can current communication technology be utilized to best explain a complex issue and encourage public participation?

Due to the recent launch and current lack of resources, we’ve taken a relatively uni-platform approach to the work since November. The Leadership and Communities class provided the perfect opportunity for me to test newly-learned techniques to craft, and potentially execute, a comprehensive multi-platform content strategy.

The complexity of El Salvador’s history and current efforts toward justice is reason enough to deter people from engaging in the campaign, and/or consuming content. As a result, experimenting (ethically) with storytelling techniques becomes of paramount importance. Constructing the content strategy for this campaign did reveal a significant amount of insight in the process, so I’m including a list of five developing principles the effort has helped form toward navigating issue-advocacy in a networked world.

1) Accessibility: unfortunately not everyone cares about your mission or thinks it’s important.

In my close to ten years in working with non-profits, I’ve spoken with many passionate and wonderful individuals who focus on issue advocacy. Through this work I’ve noticed many people, over time, begin to communicate the details of their work in a way that reduces accessibility to the issue. The combination of passion, experience, and proximity to the issue creates a sense of urgency and nuanced knowledge that serves to segment the individual or organization from the general public. While this serves to advance the work—refinement and nuance are welcomed natural developments to any field—communicators in their respective fields interested in growing a community of action-takers must constantly re-evaluate message through the lens of someone who doesn’t think your mission is very important.

2) Simplicity, then drillability.

Only tell one story at a time, and provide multiple channels of accessibility so media consumers who are interested can choose their level of complexity. Providing a simplified, accessible, version of a complex narrative is important in drawing a larger audience into the issue; however, it’s important that this simplified narrative offers channels to fully understand the issue’s complexity of the issue, or run the risk discrediting the effort.  Sam Gregory from the acclaimed human rights media organization WITNESS, in his assessment of the successes and failures of the Kony 2012 campaign, refers to this important aspect of the issue representation as “moving to drillability alongside spreadability” (Kony 2012 through a Prism Advocacy Practices and Trends). The Kony 2012 campaign was highly effective in spreadability, though it lacked sufficient ways for viewers to dig deeper into the issue, or properly represent Ugandan voices, to name a few. In the current case of the Unfinished Sentences campaign, restructuring the complex front messaging to follow this principle could result in greater mass appeal.

3) Use content more strategically instead of producing more content.

A wealth of perspectives exists within singular subjects in combination with the abundance of social platforms, provides a natural way to seek out and divide “drillable” areas of content over various platforms.  Instead of trying to over-produce new content, think about how a story could unfold utilizing the strengths of a specific platform (Flickr vs Soundcloud vs. Pinterest, for example).

4) Provide concrete actions that strongly correlate to the narrative advocated by the campaign.

Human rights videos should provide a way for viewers to take action on the campaign. Gregory argues that “[the viewer’ s] realistic option to exercise agency should not just be an add-on action at the end of a video but a response that makes sense based on the narrative journey they’ve gone through while engaging with the media.” (2012)

One of the reasons why the Kony 2012 campaign was so successful was the actionable component of the campaign was closely tied to the narrative journey in which the film took viewers. In other words, asking viewers to share a video was directly tied to the filmmaker’s narrative of the Internet’s potential in effecting change (Gregory 2012). This notion had me examining gaps between the messaging and “Take Action” components of the Unfinished Sentences campaign, and re-envisioning how we could best create an effective space for action.

5) Not everything is an emergency. When an issue demands long-term engagement, consider supplementary content and a change in visual and communication style to coincide with narrative arcs.

About once or week, I receive a notice from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that comes off as some sort of crisis—Special interests are taking over! Debilitating defeats require immediate action! The Republicans are turning into flesh eating bacteria!  I find a similar style of messaging in emails I receive from SumofUs, CARE, the National Resources Defense Council and many others. Communicating urgency and crisis might work for short-term actions, but extending this style to long-term engagement results in issue-fatigue. Campaigns could benefit in taking cues from storytelling techniques and thinking about their issue-advocacy as a narrative arc with peaks and valleys, cautiously and respectfully including supplementary content. In the Unfinished Sentences example, oral histories about human rights violations distributed one-month, supplemented by cultural offerings, such as stories about community traditions or regional music, could reduce issue-fatigue and maintain an audience’s attention long-term. Fostering an emotional connection with a wider audience will require content that speaks to dynamism and diversity of an audience’s interests, plus that more authentically represents the spectrum led by the community we represent through our storytelling.

The influence of mass communication on activism is age-old, however the intersection of digital media technologies with activism is relatively new, and constantly being re-defined. The debate around the terminology alone—Storytelling for change, Transmedia Storytelling for Good, Digital Activism, Cyberactivism, Online Activism, Transmedia Activism—hints at the level of ambiguity found in this work: I hope continued work on this project will lead to additional discoveries.

Have any stories or issue-campaigns inspired you to take action in some form, no matter how simple? What about the messaging motivated you? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.

Books, On Story

On Creative Habit(s)

Recently I read The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp, the prolific Emmy Award-winning choreographer of Moving Out (2002-04), Singing in the Rain (1985), and Baryshnikov by Tharp 1984-85) fame. With hundreds of original works to her credit, Twyla is certainly no stranger to the creative process.

 A picture of TwylaTharp's book, "The Creative Habit."

My nicely used copy of The Creative Habit

After reading the intro and the first chapter, I thought to myself, “Here goes another book telling me how creative genius isn’t born, it’s just sweat and tears.” To date these oft-repeated prophecies haven’t done much to spur my inspiration, or rather perspiration, to buckle down into any creative process. They’ve always come across as pleasantries meant to superficially satiate the frustrations of a challenging process, like those proffered by acquaintances upon hearing the sufferings of a rocky relationship, “Relationships are A LOT of work. They’re worth it in the end, but they’re not all butterflies…”

But about 15 pages further in I found Twyla’s words to offer much more than pleasantries; she invites us into her own process of self discovery, and to the “life infrastructure” that has supported her overwhelming success.

In Rituals of Preparation (Chapter 2), Twyla talks about the simple daily routines she performs that prime the mind for work, for creative endeavors. She details her all-important routine of beginning each day at 5:30am to hail a taxi to the gym.In describing her mundane tasks as ritualistic, or even sublime, Twyla comes across as asking us to seek deeper meaning in our daily urban lives, to find the connections between the repetitive and the regal. The Tantric-like approach provides a much stronger impetus to staying disciplined with our routines than simply shouting stay disciplined.

Overall Twyla’s voice comes across as vulnerable, personable, strong and experienced. It’s a powerful combination that inspires trust in storytelling, and one that makes me want to continue the relationship, even without the butterflies and….whatever makes you happy.


On Story, Personal

From Spotted Owls to Memes

Wireless networks. Social networks. Network TV. Neural networks. Some of us think of networks every day; while others just think about them when we look up our neighbor’s wireless network names. Networked thinking, however, according to Brett Friedman, adjunct professor for the University of Washington’s Communication Leadership program and Chief Creative Officer at Rainspark Labs, is more than just thinking about the hardware and physicality of connections. Mastering our behavior, in terms of networked thinking, will be essential to professional success, and making sense of our world.

As an undergrad in New Orleans, LA, studying the ecological sciences, discussions of connectivity in natural systems was par for the course. I still recall a professor commenting on the hullabaloo created by the logging industry and various opponents to proposed logging restrictions within the habitat of the Northwest Spotted Owl. “It’s not about a single species, but the complex set of interactions, both micro and macro, that a single species represents.” According to the tenets of ecology, enormous organic variability springs forth from a fixed set of rules, a hunt to peel away structure from the seemingly unstructured.

I find it serendipitous then, under the shadow of some of the same trees populated by the Spotted Owl, to discuss today’s evolution of communication in terms of networked relationships. Friedman quotes Kevin Kelley, in New Rules to the New Economy, in defining a network as organic behavior in a technical matrix.  Our communication networks, an extension of physical relationships (and as produced by living humans, biological) theoretically operate according to principles that govern networked biological behavior.  Within the seemingly endless variety of content we produce, proponents of network theory argue that success in this realm, or the ability to be “seen” by others en masse, depends on mastering this information flow.

While the search for this “Google Maps” of the Universe, or universal structure, is nothing new, the enormous amounts of data generated by our connected world has unleashed tremendous new insight into the dynamics of systems and human relationships. This potential power of networks is animated brilliantly in this production by Manuel Lima of Cognitive Media, a fellow at RSA (The Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce).

I’m still trying to determine where I stand with network theory providing a unifying theory of structure; It’s odd for me to equate nutrient cycling with, let’s say, how open letters to Miley Cyrus circulate on the web. Yet, I like the implications of this line of thought. Taking this back once again to our relationship with our natural environment, much of the popular face of the environmental movement has historically focused on preserving natural systems for the sake of preserving nature. This has evolved to preserving natural systems for the sake of preserving ourselves. I’d like to fantasize this Miley nutrient cycling brings us one step closer to a “post-environmental world”, one where we view all human behavior as fully governed by natural systems, fundamentally interconnected on all levels, from fluffy viral pop culture memes, to biological connections that foster conservation.

Will our love and obsession with creating, consuming, and distributing media lead us to look deeper into systems overall, or just become more of a distraction? Of course participation in a system doesn’t necessarily generate insight applicable to a wider world, in the way depositing money at my bank doesn’t do much to help me understand financial systems. But understanding how a meme spreads between populations, for example, and its associated network behavior could help change-makers better in building campaigns that lead to more lasting change. The Spotted Owls of today and tomorrow might thank us for it.

If you have any thoughts on how modern communication resemble natural systems, or could benefit conservation, I’d love to hear them!


On Story, Personal

Presentation Reflection #1

The University of Washington’s first stimulating Comm Lead class, from the Community and Networks series,  offered a significant sampling of the modern communication infrastructure. To further employ the analogy, new roads and highways came in the form of Hanson Hosein’s presentations on current trends and changes; transportation analysis and design through Lisa Coutu’s presentation on communication theory; driver education through McGarrity’s dynamic presentation on public speaking;  and the possibilities of new infrastructure to realize destinations through Sandra Jackson-Dumont’s proposition for a new communication system to re-define the Seattle Art Museum.

One of the most exciting implications of our current Storyteller Uprising, as Hanson describes is the tight overlay of new communication strategies with alterations in actual business models–organizational infrastructures cannot support the influence of customer networks without significantly changing the way business services are delivered. Throughout the day, Dave Gray’s Connected Company was brought to life in examples with Starbucks, Lifewise Health Insurance, and Ford.  Speaking to the rise of storytelling and related community-networks, Hanson highlighted a quote from Adobe’s Quaterly Trends, March 2013,  denoting, “[T]he top three priorities for 2013 tell the story of how companies are aiming to build emotional ties that contribute to the bottom line.”

As a communications aficionado, this statement intrigues me; as a human being concerned with truth, transparency, and authenticity, I hesitate at this statement of corporate intention. What is the human capacity for a more targeted emotional tug and pull? What new level of media literacy will consumers need to develop to see through this new delivery of emotion-driven content? Given the potential for greater distrust to develop over time in an emotionally competitive mediascape, how will these narratives affect interpersonal communication?

Where pitfalls persists, so does opportunity. I have overwhelming faith in the public to hold corporations to entirely new standards of truth, transparency, and authenticity, driven by communities created through digital engagement. Storytelling, after all, connects most effectively not when it’s a blind appeal to emotion, but emotion founded upon a value system truly supported by its representative culture. The success of Cain’s Arcade, and the resulting ascendency of its related Imagination Foundation, overwhelmingly speaks to the alignment of value with emotion-driven storytelling.

It’s a fascinating time for the intersection of media and it’s ability to drive business and organizational programming. If you have any additional thoughts on the intersection, I’d love to hear from you.


Be Messy. Be Human. Be Suspicious of Stories.

Tyler Cowen recommends we remain discerning in a world filled with stories; their requisite simplifications and need for order prompts us to think of our lives in terms of a neat narrative. Cowen urges, “You can never get out of the pattern of thinking in terms of stories, but you can improve the extent to which you think in terms of stories and make better decisions.”

Be Messy. Be Human. Also tell the story that’s uninspiring.

Tyler Cowen: Be Suspicious of Stories