Working as a communications officer is an incredibly rewarding job, but for those looking to get in to the humanitarian sector, it can be quite a daunting task. The good news is that although it is a very competitive area, the routes in are numerous.
Erin Gray is Senior Media Communications Officer with Mercy Corps. She originally studied law, but discovered her true passion after a few months volunteering with a human rights campaigner in Ghana. She returned to complete her degree, and then volunteered with Amnesty International. From there, she worked her way up into paid work.
Juan Michel is the Communications Officer with the Sphere Project, the group behind the Sphere Handbook, which identifies the key principles and quality standards for the humanitarian sector. Despite the same titles, Juan and Erin have quite different responsibilities.
There is no such thing as a ‘typical’ day in the life of a communications officer. Juan’s day to day activities vary from drafting content for the website and newsletter, sharing information through social media channels, and working with graphic designers, cartoonists, web developers and film makers.
Erin spends much of her time corresponding with field workers, and pitching stories to journalists. She frequently travels to field offices, where she spends her time capturing the work of the international teams, interviewing and photographing staff, writing blogs, and advising on communications activities.
Despite the varied responsibilities, the overarching skill required for this job is the ability to tell a story. Whether it’s shaping a news item to sell to a journalist, inspiring support on social media channels, or writing creative copy, the ability to craft a story is key.
So how would Juan and Erin advise aspiring communications officers? Erin emphasises the importance of volunteering, both at home and abroad. “Working overseas, even for a month or two, adds an international flavour to your CV and shows you’re interested in the sector”, while volunteering with charities at home lets you make valuable contacts and acquire necessary skills. If you already work in communications, and are looking to make the move to the humanitarian sector, Erin acknowledges that the difference is “what drives our organisation is not the desire for profit or increased sales, but for positive change.”
Juan recommends learning everything you can about the sector, adding that there is no shortage of courses out there to enhance your knowledge. He took part in RedR’s Essentials of Humanitarian Practice course, and is confident that the course has helped him to identify what the really relevant stories are, and to deal with the different aspects of humanitarian work in a more competent manner. “In our work, it is crucial to understand the audiences who are the target of our communications strategy: What their concerns are and the issues they have to deal with”.
Erin echoes his sentiment. As she does not have a development background, she has to work hard to understand the theory and approaches her teams use. She adds that you need to be able to work under pressure, to a budget, and to really care about what you’re doing.
Erin also took part in a RedR course, Personal Security for Humanitarians, which helped to keep her safe in the field, and gave her the confidence to ask for information. “Tailored training, specific to the aid and development sector, is absolutely invaluable. The value of learning exactly what you need to know alongside peers working under very similar, specific conditions can’t be overestimated.”
Both Juan and Erin speak passionately about their roles, a common denominator in most communications officers. Erin sums up the role: “It’s about giving an insight into a situation, shedding light on an issue, showing the difference that can be made and treating the people we work with dignity and respect.”