Eric Clayton

NexThought Monday – Stories Without Borders: And one way to start telling them

Kenneth Tong, the Toronto-based webmaster for Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières — MSF), wasn’t expecting the call from the organization’s Geneva headquarters. Tong was responsible for monitoring web content, and the call was flagging a potential problem: bloggers.

Blogging might not seem like much of a problem nowadays. It’s commonplace — nearly old-fashioned amidst the onslaught of social media platforms. It might even seem obvious that medical professionals working in remote locations would want to relay stories back to friends and families at home.

But in 2006, as blogging was coming of age, what today appears obvious was not only groundbreaking, but seen as potentially threatening. As he took the call, Tong did not anticipate that what was being reported as a potential threat would prove to be the start of a global source of on-the-ground storytelling.

“Keep in mind that MSF works in difficult, sometimes politically sensitive areas,” Tong explained. And while the countries in which MSF works might be considered underdeveloped, that doesn’t mean they’re unsophisticated — political leaders could still view what was being published.

Some MSF offices feared that these impromptu blogs might air some dirty laundry — personnel complaints, challenging living conditions and the like. More important, there was a legitimate concern that blogs might inadvertently reveal sensitive information that could endanger patients and negatively impact fragile geopolitical situations.

But Tong saw something else. “I didn’t think we should control them with a heavy hand,” he said, referring to the medical bloggers. “(We could) put some parameters around it and manage it.”

Tong knew that good stories would still be told. Writing could be vetted and sensitive information could be flagged. A system could be put in place to streamline the blogging process. But they were not going to find a more authentic and scalable way to personalize MSF’s work.

“My point of view was that most people in the world only hear of MSF’s work when they’re in the news,” Tong said. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could put a human face on the organization?”

More than just a human face, MSF’s field blogs would prove to be human eyes — eyes that saw a world that is often removed from most people’s everyday lives. People don’t normally face the lack of resources, cross-cultural barriers, adjustment issues and high levels of stress that these medical professionals were experiencing, Tong noted.

This on-the-ground storytelling immersed individuals in a world that was otherwise unknown to them and allowed them to experience it, if indirectly. “I thought this would add a new flavor to the communications materials we were putting out,” he said, explaining how he went about implementing his idea.

“I thought we needed a less formal tone to the organization’s outputs. Blogging was at a mature state — why not use it if we could manage it?”

That’s the right question to pose when an exciting new idea is standing on your doorstep.

The first official MSF field blogger was Dr. James Maskalyk, whose blog “Suddenly … Sudan” told the “homegrown story of a local person doing good in the world.”

“He was already a good writer,” Tong said, “and we wanted him to write about what he was experiencing, from his departure from Canada to his arrival and work in Sudan, and ultimately on his emotional return home.” His was an authentic voice, describing the firsthand experience of a regular person doing extraordinary things that people could identify with — “not scrubbed-up PR.”

And despite ongoing concerns that the blogging effort would lead to geopolitical disaster, Maskalyk’s blog was a great success. He would send his work simultaneously to Geneva and Toronto. Geneva would take a finely-tuned review, scouring the piece for sensitive information, and Tong would wait for their green light before publishing.

“He had a big following and it just took off,” Tong said.

People wrote in asking for Maskalyk’s advice. School kids wanted to know more about his interaction with Sudanese children; some readers wrote in asking for advice on how to become an MSF doctor, for clarification on the context and even cautioning Maskalyk against smoking while in the field. Various organizations in the UK contacted MSF to carry the blog content, including the BBC and Reuters, and Random House Canada even offered a book deal.

“From that success, we stumbled onto something,” Tong said. “We wanted it to grow, to become more diverse, to cover more regions and issues and represent different professional points of view.”

And while Tong and his team developed guidelines for selecting MSF bloggers — a keen knack for writing, an ability to update the blog frequently and a balance between clinical work and blogging — at the end of the day, the measure of a good blogger was the answer to a single question: “Were they lending an authentic eye to what’s going on in the field, going beyond what the press releases would say?”

Authenticity really holds the public’s attention, but in many ways it was the subject matter that drew people in and kept them engaged. Everyone understood good health and what it meant to be sick.

Reflecting on his experience, Tong notes that, regardless of differences in culture, income, emotions or family structure, the field of health evokes a fundamental human experience.

“I think that when we’re sick, we all want to get better,” Tong said. “It’s something everyone can relate to. I think what draws people to Doctors Without Borders is that they can relate on this fundamental level.”

After all, who hasn’t had a loved one impacted by illness? Who hasn’t encountered some cruel injustice that prevents people from accessing needed health care? The health field pulls at the heartstrings, and these bloggers were able to depict the stark reality that so many of the world’s people face — as Tong puts it, “a catastrophic shortage in health resources.”

Much may have changed in the world since the inception of the MSF field blog, and we certainly have a whole new array of ways to tell stories. But the basic reality that there are important stories to be told — glimpses into realities unimagined — remains unchanged.

“The whole constellation of social media that’s out there — ultimately, it’s about sharing authentic and uncommon experiences,” Tong said. There’s still that same desire to see behind the scenes of the human experience. “People want to see the back story of why things are the way they are.”

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