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Young people are learning about humanitarian work through a reality TV show that no one in the sector is talking about. What does this say about how the sector talks about its work?
No one expected British reality TV series "Love Island" to have the influence it did. Airing six times a week, the show attracted 2 million viewers daily and continual media attention. The Guardian sums it up perfectly: "There have been endless broadsheet think pieces written during its two-month run, while it seems as if the tabloids and celeb magazines have written about nothing else." It garnered the kind of press attention most could only dream of and continues to attract headlines by the hour, despite having finished two weeks ago.
Labour MP Keith Vaz even chimed in, saying the real crisis in Yemen was getting far less play than the made-up love games.
"There has been more coverage of 'Love Island' this summer than on the tragic events in Yemen and we must work hard to ensure the population is aware of the event," he wrote on the Politics Home website.
For those unfamiliar with the show, contestants live in an isolated house in Spain, pursue relationships with strangers and try to convince the public of their affections. One of the show's runners up is 28-year-old Camilla Thurlow - a humanitarian aid worker specialising in explosive ordinance disposal. Aside from her job - unusual even in the most eclectic circles - she's more or less like you or me.
If you work in communications in the humanitarian sector, it's likely your aim is to tell people about your work. The show is your perfect match: a popular and topical news peg (Love Island) that relates to work that goes under the radar (the humanitarian sector), told by an identifiable figure (Thurlow). The accessible messaging posted on the widest-reaching platforms to make your work relevant is an opportunity ripe for the picking. You needn't mention the show or Thurlow, just ride the conversation. This didn't happen and humanitarians missed the boat. It's time to update the outdated playbook.
It's easy to turn one's nose up at a show that isn't filled with log frames and screened in lecture theatres, but the sector does this to its own detriment. The show's biggest audience were 16-24 year olds (690,000) a market that brands have aggressively chased for years by branching out to channels young people use and creating a message that means something to a lot (not the Masters-holding few). The humanitarian sector is already failing to bridge the disconnect between its work and the rest of the world, and give people from all backgrounds career opportunities - the social mobility needed to enter the sector in the UK is a separate conversation. Speaking to mass audiences is critical. If you're reading this and have not watched the show - are you aware of the sector's public persona?
An identity crisis
According to this Google Image search a 'humanitarian worker' is usually formally dressed (bomb proof vest or suit), sincere-looking, and engaging in some form of diplomacy (handshakes and hugs interchangeable). Not many celebrities, but quite a few gap year students. Many will know this isn't necessarily reflective of the work.
Humanitarian workers have a prescribed identity and Thurlow does not conform. She's most commonly seen in a bikini, on a show that is perceived as 'lowbrow' and she's publically talking about her work on a platform that is not a conference - the Spanish villa had no trees to hang pledges and no communiqués were handed out. Tradition and a dour, do-gooder identity is holding back the sector.
People represent the work and are the ones who explain it best: Liney is building peace in Columbia, Tom supported the Syria crisis response, Calvin coordinated Ebola operations. It's hard to find these stories buried behind 'donate' buttons and multiple clicks from the homepage, but they do exist. Yet, on homepages we find celebrity ambassadors like Keira Knightly. These profiles have a place, but if they become a public-facing identity, it doesn't matter how important a crisis is, no one will pay attention unless there's a celebrity involved - and there can't be many unattached to causes left.
The medium is the message
Thurlow exemplifies how to use a platform and start a conversation. Her job made her different to her counterparts and this was amplified by producers. When contestants put on a talent show she delivered an after-dinner speech about the refugee crisis and when her partner suggested a holiday to Ibiza, she said they'd visit a refugee camp. It got people talking. Google 'Camilla Love Island humanitarian' and you'll find 1,030,000 results. Celebrity magazine OK! even wrote an article about her job. The publication that hit the nail on the head is The Radio Times, whose bread and butter is telly shows.
I joined the conversation on Twitter and spoke to 23 year old Hannah Butler, who said: "She's brought it to an audience that predominately wouldn't research such subjects on a regular basis." This is impact.
Writing a blog on #LoveIsland and asking: Has Camilla helped raise awareness of #aid and #humanitarian work? @loveisland #LoveIslandfinal
- Mel Paramasivan (@melparamasivan) July 24, 2017
In the 1960s, media and communications theorist Marshall McLuhan famously suggested the platform in which a message is delivered is primary to the message. Decades later, when advertising relies on algorithms and search histories, the same arguably remains true. Here's an example of nearly 21,000 people engaging with Thurlow's message. Paid advertising couldn't get this sort of engagement.
Can we all agree to vote for Camilla and Jamie? Bet they'll use the 50k to set up a school for underprivileged kids in Zimbabwe #LoveIsland
- Ali (@AliHemsley) July 20, 2017
Making the same mistake as politicians did
Love Island got young people talking and sharing opinions in their thousands. When was the last time this happened? The 2017 UK General Election, and it's now widely acknowledged that 18-24 year olds were responsible for the British government entering an election with a majority and leaving it fragmented. This age group may not be donors, but when UK public donations last year fell to the lowest level for seven years and YouGov's 2016 poll shows that only 38% of respondents agreed charities are 'trustworthy.' Dialogue needs to open, conversations need to happen.
Camilla told her 1.2 million followers on Instagram that she's visiting a refugee camp this week and it's been in the headlines every day. Did you see it?