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What the UN learned from its crowd-sourced Covid comms campaign that united nations

At the height of the Covid crisis, the United Nations sent out an urgent call to arms to the creative community, urging them to use their collective might to help stop the spread of coronavirus. As it opens submissions on a new open brief to encourage more people to get vaccinated, it reflects on the virtues of the crowd-sourced model and how it can be a source for good in the future.

The pandemic has impacted every single individual, in every single country. And while it would require masses of localized communication materials to talk directly to each of those singular experiences, health and safety comms still have an invaluable role in guiding people through the pandemic, encouraging them to stay home or to stay safe while outside.

All of which makes it all the more disappointing when efforts by some governments cost millions yet fail to reach all the communities they represent. As a result, vaccine hesitancy rates are much higher is more marginalized communities.

Right at the height of the Covid crisis last year, the United Nations (UN) put out an open brief, calling on the creative community to produce eye-catching PSAs that could translate public health messages into something easy to understand for everyone.

In doing so, it also designed the perfect model for its fight for social good. The hub is a user-generated comms machine fueled on creative philanthropy that has the ability to talk to people of all languages, cultures, ethnicities and ages. From Keith Haring-style illustrations to classic film posters, in total it received 17,000 entries from 143 countries in 20 different languages.

“We’ve created this model that uses humility to ask people to represent things in their own words,“ explains Dawda Jobarteh, global head of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) strategy hub. “It showed us there is this resource of untapped energy – a desire to come together to figure out hard, sticky problems.“ In a world that sometimes feels plagued by greed, the creative brief was a welcome relief that there are good people in this world, poised to do anything they can to help.

Democratizing creativity, the crowd-sourcing platform was available to use for anyone from whatever background, whether you’re an unknown graphic design student or a big shot creative director. “The hub is user-generated, so it’s the same footing for everyone,“ explains Jobarteh. “We didn’t create an elite structure, where you need education or a big job title to get your work shown. There’s no preferential treatment.“

Considering the breadth of entries, Maya Bogle, the co-founder of Talenthouse, which built the Covid hub, says: “The model moves comms from a monologue to a dialogue. While traditional public advertising is all about talking at people, this allows for individual localized interpretations of the brief that will resonate with the communities the creator distributes it to.“

What Bogle describes as a “perfect ecosystem“, she explains that for a campaign like this to work, it must have media distribution built into it. “So Dawda and his team came up with the strategy and the core messages, we came up with the community and the technology to bring that work in, but you need good media partners to help get the work out.“

While the work itself was user-generated, it was churned out under the United Nations name, which gave it credibility as a trustworthy voice of authority. “The work wasn’t even done by the UN – it was done by real people,“ says Bogle. “I was reading how the UK government had spent £184m on covid comms, while there’s a $52m campaign in the US around vaccines and hesitancy. All the work we did, we did for free because people donated, from the work to media space.“

And so, motivated by the success of the creative brief, this week the UN has opened submission on two more briefs running on the Talenthouse platform. Launched yesterday (11 March), #OnlyTogether calls for creatives around the world to share content ranging from photographs, short videos, gifs or pieces of original art that encourage people across the globe to get vaccinated.

And, ahead of the 2021 Generation Equality Form, earlier this week it launched the ’UN Women Global Call to Creatives’, which asks people to visualize and capture what activism means to them, sharing their vision of a gender-equal future.

The vaccine open brief is part of ’Verified’, an initiative launched by the UN back in May, in a bid to combat Covid misinformation, alongside Purpose PBC, an agency that specializes in purpose-driven campaigns (as the name suggests).

“Verified was set up initially around health issues – it was about getting people accurate, science-based factual information to counter the incredible misinformation that was floating around the internet and, in some cases, on traditional media,​“ explains Robert Skinner, senior special advisor at the UN's department of global communications. “So we tried to counter that by providing accurate advice on a global scale.

“Because Covid was different than any other crisis that we’ve lived through – since the inception of the UN really in that there was something happening everywhere, with no country or region not affected – the UN needed to get its machinery and gear to be responsive to the so-called ’infodemic’.“

And so the Verified initiative brought in collaborators from traditional media, social media and influencers from around the world to take the content the team was creating and push it out – “and to also continue to keep using the content that came from the open brief,“ Skinner adds.

“We’ve continued to use that within the verified campaign, but also on the UN social channels. It performs really well whenever the creative brief materials are used. It’s always in the top five of that week’s content on the UN’s social media channels.“

And so they decided to apply the open brief model to the Verified initiative, to encourage people across the globe to get vaccinated. Nicole Itano, the communications director for Verified, says: “Over the past year, we’ve all missed out on things we love – seeing family and friends, celebrations, school. Vaccines offer hope for ending the pandemic, but they are not being distributed fairly around the world. ’Only Together’ celebrates the things we will do again when the pandemic ends, but reminds us that the crisis will only be over anywhere when it’s over everywhere.“

Skinner points out that the creative community has been very generous and wants to be part of the solution. “The United Nations is about co-creating, working together, being united in the effort and bringing communities together. What we’ve learned is that just talking to people doesn’t solve a crisis. You need to bring them into the conversation, let them take the concepts and create their own and go with it. We see the issues, but these folks understand how to solve them.“

With the third brief now live, the UN plans to continue the crowd-sourcing model past the pandemic to help it solve global issues. “The Secretary-General calls it networked multilateralism, where the only way the SDGs are going to be achieved is if everyone contributes,“ Jobarteh says.

“This is a perfect example of meeting people where they are going. This has the means to reach marginalized communities, addressing the needs and information gaps that exist.

“More broadly – its the only way this stuff is going to get done. Gone are the days where a government can solve problems on its own. It needs business, it needs the power of the media. We see it day in, day out.“

Check out The Drum’s special Health hub, which examines how the key players – from health agencies to pharma firms to brands – are doing their part to return the world to normality.

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