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  1. SMS is the lowest global common denominator of helpful digital communications.
  2. Messages must touch the heart – not just the mind.
  3. Religious leaders are incredibly important community influencers.
  4. Messages must be translated for context, not just language.
  5. Visual communications are extremely important.

SMS is the lowest common denominator of digital communications.

It was 2014, and my friend and colleague Robin Pippin was working in Liberia. She and Julu Swen were together when he received a call from United Methodist Communications asking Julu to write an article about Ebola. When he ended the call, he turned to her and said, “I must investigate this thing called Ebola.” They were near the epicenter of the outbreak in West Africa, but they did not know of the virus. They didn’t know what the rest of the world was talking about – almost 24/7.

It occurred to me that those in that particular area did not have the access to Internet-based communications that so many others had. They didn’t necessarily have electricity or televisions or radios in their homes. But they did have one essential communications device: a basic mobile phone. We could reach them with simple text messages, day by day and possibly save their lives.

Messages must touch the heart – not just the mind.

The massive materials provided by the CDC and WHO on Ebola prevention provided content that skilled editors at UMNews reduced into bite size pieces of information. Alongside messages of health, this amazing team crafted messages of hope – many of them from The Upper Room Daily Devotional. When people are hurting from loss of life, livelihood and possibly status caused by stigma, hope is as important as medicine.

Religious leaders are incredibly important community influencers.

Working with Bishop John Yambasu (Sierra Leone) and Bishop John Innis (Liberia) we began sending a daily message of health in the morning and hope in the evening. Julu said, “Each message must have the bishop’s name on it.” While that reduced content even further, we understood the importance. Many did not believe the reports they were getting through government or NGOs. Religious leaders carry a level of trust that many others do not enjoy.

Messages must be translated for context, not just language.

In 2017, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo experienced an Ebola outbreak that claimed many lives. We understood early on that not everyone there has adequate access to soap and water. To tell them to wash hands with soap and water, or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer was unreasonable. Working with communicators in Kindu, DRC, we crafted a hand-washing song that also included the use of ash to sanitize. This song was available for singing by choirs and used even in schools.

Visual communications are extremely important.

All of us know rules. All of us break rules. Rules we take to heart lead us differently – integrating healthy practices into a continued approach to life. Visual storytelling is essential for helping messages drop from the head so they can take root in the heart. Working with humanitarian animator Firdaus Kharas, we produced animated videos on Ebola – both which served useful again during the East DRC outbreak. Harper Hill Global provided necessary funding so that the soundtrack could play on local radio stations, and the animation could reach people from Whatsapp, Facebook and broadcast television. Those working with us as humanitarian communicators also provided the animations on flash drives to local clinics so they could be played on waiting room monitors. In addition, the videos were shared from one phone to another – Bluetooth to Bluetooth – not requiring expensive data connection.

All of these lessons have provided the backbone of Harper Hill Global’s methodology in media, messaging and mobile solutions. We focus on equipping and training humanitarian communicators to serve communities in which they live. The Sustainable Development Goals serve as the basis for our focus areas. Behavior Change Communications and Trauma Informed Care inform the way we work. Women – so often the bearers of health education for family and community – are the core communicators.

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Related articles:
The 5 Whys of Ebola
Hand-washing song helping prevent Ebola in DRC
Ebola Rages in East Congo but Harper Hill Global Continues to Help
The Church Raises Ebola Awareness via SMS
Life-saving Ebola messages in 160 characters or less