By Lindsay Marcaccio

During a recent trip to Tanzania to assist with a maternal, newborn and child healthcare project, I met fellow communications professional, Rebecca Collett. Rebecca is director of communications with Save the Mothers, and communications & digital engagement manager, Active Aging Research Team at the University of British Columbia. 

Rebecca has years of experience working for a non-profit organization and great insight into maneuvering complexities of the non-profit sector – especially when it comes to obtaining consent from individuals living in vulnerable settings and creating content that is authentic and true to reality. 

Rebecca Collett conducts an interview with an interpreter in Naini, India for Save the Mothers.

Lindsay: What drew you to work in the non-profit sector?

Rebecca: What drew me initially to the sector was the desire to engage in ‘values-driven’ work. While that keeps me very engaged and satisfied, I have built a career in the non-profit sector because the work ends up being so varied. Many non-profits operate on shoestring budgets, and therefore can’t afford to hire a full-service team of communicators. I’m used to being the only comms practitioner ‘in the shop,’ which means I do everything from crisis communications to media relations to social media and even some graphic design and video editing.

Lindsay: Although it may be overwhelming to balance so many different responsibilities it seems the opportunity to develop an array of skills as you have described is valuable and instrumental in shaping your career. 

Rebecca: Yes. I am always learning new skills and strategies. I am proudly a comms generalist.

Lindsay: Working for a non-profit organization involves telling a story that is authentic and true whether it’s in print, video or photographs. Those stories are about real people often in vulnerable settings. What challenges do you face in adhering to the truth and authenticity?

Rebecca: I think it’s a tough media landscape to grab even a sliver of your audience’s attention. We are bombarded with images, video, bits and bytes. The most exciting, salacious or eye-catching stories seem to win in our ever-saturated media landscape. This creates an authenticity challenge for communicators. Sometimes the ‘real story’ is not as exciting. Even tougher is sharing stories from another world; another context to which Canadians may not have an easy time relating. It is very tempting, and many do, jazz up their stories to make them more entertaining.

There is an unfortunate long-standing trend to portray people in the Global South as ‘the other.’ We can all think of images of little kids with flies on their faces, distended bellies, with their eyes in tears. While poverty and hunger are stark realities for many around the world, this kind of messaging does not convey the whole story and, I find, can be othering and dehumanizing. This kind of storytelling is also manipulative of Canadian supporters – it twists and distorts reality to encourage folks to give. This kind of inauthenticity really challenges my values and, I think, our code and standards of ethics as communicators. 

Lindsay: What do you do to work through those challenges?

Rebecca: What I try to celebrate in my photography and storytelling is the vibrance and resilience of people, especially women around the world. I love to share stories of community connectedness, and nurturing mothers. My hope, and strategy, is that Canadians will relate as peers, and want to extend a helping hand to fill a gap in the local social system, instead of being triggered by pity.

Lindsay: Do you feel getting consent from those you interview, or take a photo or video of is something that should be followed by all communicators? Why?

Rebecca: Yes. I think consent for photography, videography and story gathering is very important. As an organization (STM), we have a policy to seek formal consent.

Lindsay: Are there any obstacles to obtaining consent that you have encountered? What have you done to address the obstacle(s)?

Rebecca: When you are in the heat of the moment, gathering stories and photos, it can feel impossible to seek formal consent. Sometimes asking someone who does not read or write in English to sign a consent form written in English feels quite silly. I recommend adapting to context as much as possible. Where possible, I use a consent form of a local partner that is written in the local language. As a matter of principle, whether I am taking personal photography, or for work, I make it very clear HOW and WHERE the photos will appear. Whether using a translator, google translate, or gestures and nouns, I recommend making it clear that these photos will appear “on the internet,” “Facebook,” etc. If written consent is not practical, I always receive verbal consent.

Be aware of privilege. Sometimes consent is NOT real. I recognize that one thing I always pack (whether I want to or not) is my power and my privilege. This does not just apply when I am travelling abroad, but even within many communities in Canada, or with vulnerable populations like children or older adults. Consent given by someone who wants to be accommodating, feels that they have no other choice, or hopes that you will give them money may not be real consent.

Bottom line, I try to keep the “Golden Rule” in mind. If I would not want to be photographed in a similar setting, maybe I should refrain from photographing or reporting personal details at all.

Working for a non-profit like Save the Mothers can provide a person with the opportunity to create a positive change within a community through sharing people’s stories. But with that work comes the responsibility to respect a person’s wish to not share their experience and to tell an authentic story without distorting reality. As Rebecca shared, it is not always easy to do but we need to be accountable as professional communicators.  

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