Interview with Josefina Maestu
Josefina Maestu is the Coordinator of the UN-Water Decade Programme of Advocacy and Communication (UNW-DPAC). She offers her insights on how organizations can more effectively work with the media and raise public awareness on water issues.
What do you see as the main challenges you face when trying to engage the media to cover water issues?
Water is a very broad, diverse and complex topic. The provision of water and sanitation services; the development of water resources for agriculture, ecosystems or industry and the impacts of climate change and extreme weather events, for example, all fall under the water banner but involve distinct sets of concerns. Each issue must be broken down in order to begin to talk with a member of the media before they will cover any story.
A second pervasive challenge is that the management and governance of water are long-term and often slow-moving processes. Some of the core water issues that many organizations want to drive into the public consciousness, such as the need for improved governance and infrastructure, or reporting on whether a river basin authority does their job properly, is not a very "hot topic" for anybody.
The depth, volume and style of reporting also vary by region. In drier climates, locations that are flood prone, or places where unsafe drinking water poses a constant health threat, water tends to be more in the spotlight. When water problems escalate, public concern and media attention magnify. Communicators in the water community must highlight how a specific problem impacts people's lives at the local, national, or regional level in order to help journalists write compelling articles and raise public awareness.
How can water organizations work to make these issues more accessible to the media and public?
Many publications in the field are dense, technical, and oriented towards an expert audience. When new reports are released, journalists need help to cipher through the facts, and find ideas and inspiration for stories that they can bring to their editors.
UNW-DPAC creates a number of media resources to this end, including media briefs, electronic media as website and new social media like a blog for African water journalists or the Office's twitter, photos, documentaries and videos. We have learned from our experience that is helpful to produce materials under separate themes. For example, we produce individual kits for scarcity issues, and separate ones for access to water and sanitation, trans-boundary water, wastewater, financing. etc.
We also maintain regular contact with our media network, mostly within transitioning and developing countries, where we try to help them better cover local water issues. This continued and close interaction with journalists is a very important component of our work and for all organizations working with public outreach.
From your experience, what are some of the most common demands expressed by journalists to help them cover water issues?
First, we all need to communicate better. Many members of the media comment that the expert community has not yet fully mastered how to express complex issues with the public. We must reduce the gap between science and public opinion and use terminology in a way that is understandable. At the same time, it is imperative that the UN maintains its reputation as a reliable source of credible information.
Most importantly, news-makers need good information provided in real time. This is especially vital when big stories break or major international meetings are held. A consistently updated webpage, particularly during major conferences, is needed to keep journalists informed and build their trust that they will find updated information from your organization. And finally, it is important to coordinate and communicate closely with the United Nations Information Centers (UNIC) on water news for these purposes.
I also want to stress that the language of the materials is a point brought up by journalists over and over again. While the UN system does in most cases translate major works, the newest information and technical reports are often in English and take time before they become available in more languages. It would help to make more information available in other languages at the time it is produced whenever possible.
How can UN bodies and other organizations in the water community improve their capacity to work with the media?
First and foremost, organizations that can provide immediate, up-to-date and interesting information will be able to develop the most fruitful relationships with media partners. Strategically, the first step for every organization is to establish clear communication goals with a defined target audience for each objective. It is also crucial to respect the differing needs between outlets in different types of media and from different nations and regions. In many developing contexts, for example, access to information, resources, and time – as not everyone is a full-time journalist – can be limited. This should be considered, and supplemented by surveys and analysis, when organizations create and evaluate their media strategy.
There are several important ways, both online, in social media and during international meetings, to make the wealth of knowledge we have in the UN system more accessible. But this requires special effort and ingenuity to transform what is produced by our scientists and water specialists into something the media can more easily use. Good communicators are needed to bridge the gap: People who understand the complexity and depth of the issues and have the skill to distill the most essential messages while avoiding oversimplifications. Organizations have much to gain by considering how to train new, nurture existing, and spot future talents to interface with the media.
Looking forward, I believe we can focus on creating two-way communication channels between experts, journalists, and the public. Today it is easy to conveniently and quickly share information, which has opened new roads for information to flow from experts and advocates to both policy makers and the public. There is tremendous scope to augment our use of social networks and create exciting platforms for public discussion and debate. This also can stimulate synergies with other forms of media: Active discussion forums within online communities can inspire print, radio, and television media outlets to report the story.