Humanitarian NGOs: winning back public trust
For a number of years, the humanitarian sector has been the target of criticism from the public and donors. In order to win back their trust, NGOs need to rethink their communication, which is almost obsessively focused on the donor, in a radical way (in the etymological sense of the word). The media are a crucial ally in the battle to win back public opinion, which could, in the long run, turn its back on the humanitarian sector. But in order to establish new practices, it is necessary to consider the changes which the press (in all formats) has gone through and the current state of public opinion.
The days when only a handful of curious individuals had access to information about what was going on on the other side of the planet are over. The advent of the internet and social networks, in an increasingly interdependent world, means that everyone now has the possibility of informing themselves easily and, even, to check information, including in the domain of international solidarity, emergency relief and development aid. The risk now for NGOs is that no one takes any notice of them or that they have to deal with the fall-out from a campaign that is bad for their image rather than not having access to the media. The media landscape has changed enormously.
Does this mean that the individuals who get their information from the web have abandoned the traditional media and that the internet has become the source of information that NGOs need to embrace? This is not what emerged from the study, “S’informer à l’ère du numérique”, led by Josiane Jouët . The French have not abandoned the traditional media; on the contrary, they consult a variety of media forms, including television, radio, the print media and internet. “The print media, which is said to be in danger, continues to have a great deal of legitimacy on the internet”, underlines Josiane Jouët. “Internet users consider the main newspapers to be reliable sources which they consult in order to be well informed, even though they believe that the coverage of events is sometimes partial. For them, the print media remains the most valuable source of information”. Though this analysis is corroborated by the Baromètre TNS Sofres – La Croix sur la confiance dans les médias 2014 [a survey of levels of trust in the media], which found that 69% of French people are very interested in the news provided by the media (in all its forms), at the same time, the poll found that only 55% consider that “things really happened, or more or less happened, as the written press say they did”. There is a real crisis of trust. This is a major parameter, along with the advent of the digital age.
The significant increase in the use of the internet as a source of information is accompanied by a profound change in information methods: skim reading is becoming the norm. “We analysed Médiamétrie Panel’s statistics which show that internet users spend an average of 5 minutes per day on a press website, and read around 6 pages, which means they spend an average of one minute per page”, explains Josiane Jouët. The issue at stake for the online media is therefore to retain the attention of increasingly volatile readers. Is this bad news for those who, like NGOs, try to understand the world and share their analysis? Not necessarily. What needs to be done is to adapt narrative methods and to provide topics which grab the reader’s attention, which challenge them and which help them to move forward. The transferring of links to articles and videos by email or via social networks has become a common practice of internet users, particularly those who are the most involved in issues of public interest, and therefore those who are the most susceptible to be interested in the ideas and activities of NGOs. It is important to use the ‘viral’ potential of the internet intelligently.
 S’informer à l’ère du numérique, led by Josiane Jouët et Rémy Rieffel, Presses universitaires de Rennes, Coll. Res Publica, 2013.