Closing the loop: accountable communications in a digitally-connected world

[Individual articles from the Fall 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

In March, shortly after a group of MCC staff travelled to Syria, MCC Canada Executive Director Rick Cober Bauman wrote a reflection featuring the story and photo of a woman we had met. We used a pseudonym to protect her identity. Four days later, we received an email from the MCC representatives to Lebanon and Syria that the woman, Rahaf Abdo, had seen the story on Facebook (after a friend shared it with her) and she wrote to request that we use her full name.

It was an easy change to make, but a good example of how storytelling changes in a more digitally connected world. MCC has long reflected on whose stories we are telling and what role partners and participants play in shaping those narratives: new forms of digital communications prompt renewed consideration of such questions. MCC has an opportunity to hear directly how our stories are seen by the people featured in them. This will be an especially valuable lesson for a communications team, and an organization, that is overwhelmingly white and from Canada and the U.S.

For many years, the stories MCC told were primarily distributed in print and in person (at church meetings, for example). If there was feedback from the people in the stories, it would come much later. Today it is easy for the people featured in the stories to read the posts and articles and watch the videos we have made about them—and for those people to tell us what they think.

This can be a positive experience for everyone when the stories are told well. When we shared the story of Boniface Anthony, a peacemaker in Nigeria, on Facebook, he commented on the post, writing: “Thank you MCC for sharing my story and [I] hope it will inspire others to join the peacebuilding train.”

But sharing stories online can also lead to painful lessons, sometimes learned publicly. Recently we posted a story on a school that brings together students who are Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian citizens of Israel. The original headline to the story was “Jewish, Arab children learn together.” When the story was posted on Facebook, two commenters criticized the headline. One comment took issue with using the general term Arab because they felt it erased the Palestinian identities of the children, while the other felt the headline and was incorrectly comparing a religion (Judaism) with a nationality or ethnicity (Arab). After internal conversations between communications and program, we took the story down, reassessed the language and wrote a new headline.

Taking criticism publicly on social media or the web for communications mistakes doesn’t feel good. But the opportunity to get that feedback quickly and directly from the people featured in our stories, or who are part of those communities, is an important opportunity to improve MCC’s communications.

Online communication also provides opportunities for international MCC partners to share their stories directly—for MCC to amplify their voices, while also telling MCC’s story of collaboration with them. This is an area where MCC can and should do better. We have started to share more stories online and on social media from staff and from participants in young adult exchange programs. But this content continues to consist primarily of stories from around the world told by white people in the U.S. and Canada. MCC could seek out and share more content created by MCC’s local partners and participants in our programs (although that would of course mean dedicating some of MCC’s limited time and resources for communications to such efforts). We have on occasion used content produced directly from partners, such photos from Syria. But there is space for improvement on this score.

The internet continues to break down the barriers between organizations and the people with whom they work and serve. MCC needs to continue to grapple with the question of how much we can or should shape the narrative and how much to let go and allow the individuals and communities with whom we work to both inform our stories and tell their own.

Emily Loewen is digital content coordinator for MCC.

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