The Summer 2014 issue of Public Diplomacy Magazine will explore the power of non-state actors (NSAs). The age of globalization and information has led to an increase in the power of NSAs on the global stage. Through the Internet and other powerful tools of mass communication, NSAs shape the international system and attract followers like never before. It has become clear that states must share the stage with NSAs.
Public Diplomacy Magazine editors Andres Guarnizo- Ospina and Shannon Haugh sat down with Caroline Bennett, Communications Director of Amazon Watch, after she spoke at the “Public Diplomacy of the Americas” conference at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in November 2013. Through her media-driven presentation at the conference, she demonstrated how nonprofit organizations are setting the global agenda: by using the power of media to communicate stories and reverse the actions of international actors.
Public Diplomacy Magazine: Can you start by telling us what Amazon Watch is and what it stands for?
Caroline Bennett: Amazon Watch is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization working to protect the rainforest and advance the rights of indigenous peoples in the Amazon Basin. We work directly with indigenous communities and at the regional and international levels to protect ecologically and culturally sensitive ecosystems in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, where millions of acres of rainforest and wetlands are under threat from oil and gas development, mega-dams, roads, and other unsustainable infrastructure projects.
A huge part of what we do is through high profile campaigns to persuade decision makers, international financial institutions, national governments, and the public to honor the rights of indigenous peoples to self- determination and free, prior and informed consent over “development” decisions in their territories. We use media exposure, legal action, shareholder and public campaigns to foster widespread understanding of the intrinsic value of indigenous peoples stewardship and the global significance of the Amazon as a storehouse for cultural and biological diversity.
And finally—and where I most fit—we leverage storytelling, cutting-edge online organizing and social media tools to mobilize support for our indigenous partners. Really at the core of everything Amazon Watch does is communications—and public diplomacy really, as I’m starting to better understand it.
PDM: Can you describe a case in which Amazon Watch considers itself successful in its mission?
CB: Sure, I’ll go ahead and illustrate the case of the Achuar, our indigenous partners who live deep in the Peruvian Amazon. A Canadian company, Talisman Energy, had been doing some exploratory drilling in their territory since 2004 and the Achuar came to Amazon Watch and asked for help with facilitation and negotiation. Moreover, they wanted us to help tell their story in Canada: to the Canadian public, to voters who affect policy, shareholders and other influencers, and to the company itself. Achuar leaders representing their communities wanted to go straight to Talisman’s boardroom and sit across from the CEO and make it real for them. And so the Achuar traveled once a year for four years to Talisman’s corporate headquarters and they met with the media and the Canadian public to tell their story. They held demonstrations. They met with the CEO and various other shareholders and board members. Finally, last year, Talisman announced they would withdraw from the Peruvian Amazon and cease all drilling in Achuar territory.
PDM: What do you think was the key driver behind your success in reversing Talisman’s actions in the Achuar territory?
CB: I truly believe that a big part of our success had to do with education and storytelling, with making this a human story that hit home for the Canadian public and decision makers. I think the decision to stop drilling was partly made by a huge shift in Canada’s public awareness. The delegations garnered major attention and support in Canada’s largest metropolitan centers, the Globe and Mail—the nation’s largest national newspaper—did a huge Sunday spread with a lot of “human” photos. This had a real ripple effect. To me, this is the measurable effect of storytelling: making issues real, raw, and alive to stakeholders, influencers, and the public. So while much was also at play on paper and behind close doors, storytelling and media work played a huge role in pressuring Talisman to renege on their decision to drill and got them to realize that it was not good public relations to move forward with the project.
PDM: What are some of the communication tools or public diplomacy tools that you use in storytelling?
CB: The media landscape is changing rapidly. While my friends in the journalism world, people are worried about layoffs and changes in publishing formats, I see this as a great opportunity. All of a sudden the gatekeepers are gone. Traditional media is important, but you don’t have to go and bow to the editor anymore! An organization can build its own audience and “BE” the media, opening platforms for indigenous voices and the voices of underrepresented communities everywhere. As a former journalist, I was really excited when I started working on the communication strategy side of things to create stories with a plan, stories that move beyond awareness to inspire people to action. With much help and some luck, we grew our audience from 12,000 to a quarter million since I started working with Amazon Watch; that is bigger than a mid-size city newspaper. You’ve got a quarter of a million people waiting for your direct content and no editors or corporate control to slaughter and misconstrue it.
I see in the future, a deeper layer to this through incorporating more interactivity. I envision an innovative platform for collaborative storytelling, communities voicing their stories directly through multimedia platforms. And a third layer for integrating social media and methods for the public to interact with the storytellers themselves and essentially get rid of the need for a middleman, which historically has been an editor or a journalist. I think that all of these things working collaboratively make for more transparency, a more honest approach to storytelling, and direct access to your audience.
It seems to me that public diplomacy, PR, and really any organization’s strategic communications share the same foundation and really aren’t that different. It’s all about knowing our audiences, connecting with them where they are, and choosing the appropriate platforms to do this. And I think at the heart of all this is storytelling delivered in one form or another – it’s about making it human and real for whoever your human and real audience is. Advertisers are so good at this, and we’re starting to catch up.
Tool-wise, we have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and access to an unprecedented slew of social media channels, and transmedia platforms as well. We also use mapping and data visualization for different ways of showing stories. People are very visual! Going back to advertising or traditional media, what you are really trying to do is have your message resonate and pull at the heartstrings of people; to take them there and make the issues—the stories—human and real. At the end of the day, we’re all just living, breathing human beings regardless of what audience we belong to or what decision we are making.
PDM: It sounds like Amazon Watch acts as a broker of relationships internationally. How do you go about deciding what goals to represent, who to bring to the boardroom, who to speak to, and how to address a foreign audience? Do you train people from the tribes you represent in speaking to the media?
CB: First, we don’t actually seek out campaigns. We do not go and look for something that is going wrong and latch onto and then come parachuting in. In every case, Amazon Watch has taken on, it has been about partnerships with indigenous communities on the ground who found the need to come to us, calling for facilitation or access to the corporate, government, and other “worlds that we have access to. Our indigenous partners are deciding that they want access that oftentimes their culture, homeland and very survival depend on. We also do some capacity building and we go in and try to get a better sense of the situation and gain perspective in order to help our partners to tell their stories.
Where Amazon Watch perhaps functions best is as a door opener and “translator” from deep Amazon worlds to “our” world and channels. Through capacity building, storytelling, direct actions online coming straight from the ground, petitions and letters….to facilitating live delegations for understanding and even negotiating in spaces that wouldn’t ordinarily be accessible. Our role is really to serve as translators between the groups on the ground and the corporate boardrooms, the media, or anywhere that policy and decisions that affect them are made. These are very foreign channels to a lot of people who might not know that a TV exists, or that men dressed in suits are meeting in California or Calgary to make decisions that affect their daily lives and future. Their worlds are very removed from these boardrooms, foreign governments, and cultures. It is critical to note that everything is community-led with AmazonWatch. And that is what I admire about this organization, and sometimes this is also what makes this work really complicated.
PDM: What challenges do nonprofit advocacy organizations like Amazon Watch face?
CB: There are a number of challenges, particularly when talking about cross-border, cross-cultural work that involves a diversity of sectors with countervailing interests. There are stark power asymmetries and deeply rooted histories of racism and discrimination in the region that we work in. Add to that, a legacy of governments and corporations acting in bad faith and utilizing divide and conquer strategies that plague communities for decades.
At a basic level, we’re talking about extremely different world views about very different ways of living on this planet that we share, not least of all how we deal with natural resources within indigenous territories. Then there are some interesting concepts to consider that many of us take for granted or never consider at all, such as: the individual vs. collective/community, short-term vs. long- term visions, varied understandings and interpretation of rights…even very different timelines and senses of what time even means in the grand scheme of things.
PDM: Looking forward, what role do you see for non- profits like Amazon Watch in the advocacy and empowerment of indigenous communities?
CB: I showed you some instances where Amazon Watch, partnering groups, the public, and influencers were able to unite and leverage communications strategies that inspired change and strides forward that wouldn’t otherwise have been possible due to access.
Again, I think perhaps our most important role is to serve as translators between “their” worlds and “our” worlds and to facilitate access to spaces and platforms for our partners’ voices to be heard and considered seriously.
Look, there’s no guarantee that people will act if they are aware and educated about these issues, but they sure as heck won’t if they don’t know. “Translating” these worlds, storytelling and leveraging strategic communications have an immense power to connect with people as people and to meet them where they are, to make human and relatable these otherwise “foreign” issues.
As the world becomes interconnected – we get lost in translation and must develop solid platforms for understanding. This is so important for many whose very survival and culture is at stake! It is also essential to our coexistence and success on the planet, and for cherishing, making valuable and protecting the cultural differences that make us unique and diverse. Communications, storytelling, public diplomacy collectively has the power to relay this in a language we all understand; I think our role has perhaps never been more critical.