By Alex Montalvo
Editor’s note: Alex Montalvo is a Puffin Fellow in human rights and digital media at the University of Washington Center for Human Rights (UWCHR), where he currently produces communications content and strategy for Unfinished Sentences, a UWCHR initiative to encourage public participation in support of human rights in El Salvador. He is also a student in the Communication Leadership graduate program at the University of Washington.
On September 28, 2014, International Right to Know Day, the UWCHR, in coordination with the National Security Archive, and The Human Rights Data Analysis Group, co-published The Yellow Book (El Libro Amarillo), the first document to be publicly released from the archives of El Salvador’s military intelligence. The 1980s-era document identifies almost 2,000 Salvadoran citizens considered “delinquent terrorists.” An estimated 43% of the names in the book were found to be victims of murder or extrajudicial execution, forced disappearance, torture, detention or arrest.
Though compelling for many reasons—the document indicates the systematic planning of the Salvadoran government to terrorize and exterminate its own citizens—multiple attempts to partner with major news outlets in the US to cover the release of the document proved fruitless. As a result, the UWCHR decided to self-publish the document through its Unfinished Sentences’ website and associated social media channels, in addition to publication on the National Security Archive’s website.
However, the Unfinished Sentences project had less than one year of a public presence and as such, relatively scant visibility. The lack of media interest in the US was initially seen as a disappointment: a vital source of information for the numerous people still searching for the fate of their lost loved ones, information that would aid in the fight for truth, justice, and accountability in El Salvador, ran the risk of lingering into obscurity on the Unfinished Sentences website.
A Case Study for Overcoming the Communication Challenges Encountered by Nonprofits
The communication challenge posed by Yellow Book, however, isn’t unique to the UWCHR; rather, the Yellow Book represents the typical communication challenge of nonprofits: Distributing information seen as essential by one subset of the population often becomes judged as esoteric by another.
So how did the Yellow Book’s publication unfold?
In August, pre-release of the Yellow Book, the Unfinished Sentences website had received 166 visitors for a total of 284 views. However by October, the website received 6,643 visitors for a total of 141,976 page views.
Visitors have also downloaded the 266-page document close to 800 times and converted into additional forms of engagement.
Though the data might be seen as modest by many larger organizations, this is “viral” for an organization the size and scope of the CHR. Most important, the quality of the connections trumps hard numbers. The story was covered in at least 27 articles and in 24 newspapers and blogs, including BBC Mundo and La Prensa Grafica.
Distribution Tactics to Help Ensure Success
Key tactics to help ensure the success of the Yellow Book included leveraging essential partnerships and making key materials easy to share and disseminate.
Leverage Essential Partnerships
Phil Neff, Unfinished Sentences Project Coordinator, commented on the approach used by the partnership, a combination of tried-and-true fundamentals and new media tactics: “We owe much of the Yellow Book success to essential partnerships in the US and abroad, with key organizations in El Salvador such as COPPES, the Committee of Former Political Prisoners … These groups organized a press conference the day of the release in San Salvador, which was attended by the major news outlets in El Salvador … El Faro, the premier online newspaper in El Salvador, also ran a piece one week in advance of the release, stimulating a great deal of interest.” A take action component, formed with COPPES, also provides another important way for viewers to become engaged after reading the Yellow Book material.
Make Key Materials Easy to Share and Disseminate
On the digital front, The Unfinished Sentences team made the Yellow Book, and associated material, easy to share and disseminate. The book itself was scanned and placed on the Unfinished Sentences website as a Creative Commons PDF and as a Google Drive link, in addition to JPGs of all 266 pages, and a downloadable copy of the HRDAG analysis. Just days after the Yellow Book’s release, graduate students from a University in Mexico followed up with a network analysis of the relationships in the Yellow Book.
The Unfinished Sentences team also made a short video trailer about the release, in English and in Spanish, providing ways for blogs and news organizations to embed content. The Spanish-language version of the YouTube trailer has more than 14,200 views. Following is the Spanish-language YouTube trailer (an example of the You Tube video from an unaffiliated news organization, Genteve, is here).https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=<a style="font-size: 13px;" href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B-HwvqJQSZQ">B-HwvqJQSZQ</a>
Summing it Up: Four Key Strategic Insights from The Yellow Book Release
So what lessons can we glean from the release of the Yellow Book? Here are just a few:
- Relationships matter. Much of the success of the distribution came from contacts that were forged face-to-face. With this in mind, take the time to reach out to and physically meet strategic partners.
- Sometimes simpler is better. We now have so much access to affordable technology—HTML5, animation, dynamic maps, user behavior activated events, visualization of user generated content—I tend to get down in what a story could be or look like over just providing straightforward ways to access information. However, providing bits and pieces of shareable content remain important in the distribution effort. The YouTube video trailer, downloadable reports, and case examples, all provided ways for other organizations and individuals to engage with the Yellow Book content, facilitating story development.
- Speak to your base. It’s not always necessary to shape communications efforts to appeal to the widest audience possible. For example, the English-language version of the YouTube version only has 412 views compared to 14,200+ views in Spanish, indicating the population most interested in the material, and the outcome of the Salvadoran partnerships.
- Remember for whom your efforts are meant. Media tactics aside, on this day, International Human Rights Day, it’s essential to note not only the compelling nature of this information itself, but how it is intrinsically tied to thousands of people in the world who seek any information for the whereabouts of missing loved ones, and who continue to fight for truth, justice, and accountability.
I find that the best insight is to be gained from the words of Hector Recinos, a political prisoner profiled in the Yellow Book, in response to the research on the book: “The only thing we can do is seek justice. We are going to persist, we are stubbornly seeking answers. There is a lot to be done, this is only the beginning. But it’s good that things are coming to light.”