dna Blog Interview with Alex Reid, Global Program Strategy Lead for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

As the global program strategy lead for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Alex Reid leads communications for agriculture and nutrition, two of the largest program areas at the organization. Alex has a communications background but now also supports advocacy initiatives for the foundation. She sat down with us to answer some questions about communicating about public policy issues with a global audience.

dna: We know that you are passionate about creating campaigns that transform the way people think about issues. What are the most important aspects of a campaign when it comes to effecting change like this?

Alex: Campaigns are exciting when you can get people thinking that they’re a part of something big. In my mind some of the most successful campaigns, such as the Make Poverty History campaign in 2005, made me feel like I was connected to other people around the world. When you’re talking about something like development and it’s happening to someone far away, you have to make people feel close and connected to that.

Similarly the work that Global Citizen is doing now to get people excited about their 2015 sustainable development goals is big and ambitious in its nature. They’re trying to get people interested in something that can seem technical and far removed from their everyday life. Making the campaign fun and engaging is important.

What do you find most effective when trying to generate awareness for an issue that is not well known or understood in a particular area?

You have to tell stories that bring people in and help them empathize because it doesn’t matter who you are, you still have a heart. It’s not effective to talk at an abstract level or just talk about statistics – whilst those are important I think you need to make everyone feel engaged.

In nutrition, one of the most powerful stories I remember was by Roger Thurow, who started writing about hunger and malnutrition while working for the Wall Street Journal. He wrote about going back to Ethiopia after visiting 10 years prior during the Ethiopian famine, when he had met a boy who had been severely malnourished. This boy actually survived those 10 years, which was incredible in and of itself, but as a 15-year-old, he was only just starting grade school, looked like he was five years old and was barely learning to read.

This story helps you to understand the potential impact – to see that it’s not just about survival but also about whether these children will have the ability to learn at school. It makes you ask, how are we ever going to change this cycle of poverty unless we’re able to help people go beyond survival so that they can learn and get educated and be productive members of society? This story was powerful and I think we owe it to ourselves to share more of these stories.

The Gates Foundation communicates with several different key partners including government officials and policy makers, philanthropists, the general public, advocates, among others. How do you successfully engage so many different audiences?

The most effective way of engaging different groups is to acknowledge them as different. Our audiences approach the issues we’re addressing in different ways, and trying to come up with one message that fits all is never going to be effective. As an organization, we made a conscious decision to focus on our audiences and over the last few years, we’ve done a lot of research to try to understand what it means to be part of an engaged public. We tried to answer questions such as, what is an engaged public interested in reading about, what makes these people tick, and what makes individuals want to be a part of something. This research helped inform our strategy and thinking around different campaigns and communication styles.

We also know that our partners can make the difference in engaging a huge public audience. So we always want to connect with other groups because we can only do one piece of this. Without other partners, we won’t achieve big things.

The relationship between advocacy and industry is dynamic and can be difficult to navigate. Can you share some insight as to how you approach this relationship?

As an organization we’ve always valued the role of the private sector and that puts us in a unique position in development. We hope we are seen as a somewhat neutral partner in this space. We do believe the private sector has a role to play, but sometimes we’re looking at issues and situations where the private sector has not succeeded. For example, diseases like malaria and HIV in parts of the developing world where there just hasn’t been that same level of investment and support as for others.

We’re trying to bring in the private sector so they see the value and interest in engaging in those issues, while also bringing in the campaigners and public sector partners whose primary goal is to effect change. And we have to make sure they feel comfortable where the private sector plays. We’re always trying to figure out what is the best partnership model. Sometimes it will be with the private sector, sometimes it won’t – we’d rather not see it as a philosophical decision. We’re realists – we want to achieve something and want to bring together all partners who can contribute to making that change possible.

What are some of the challenges you face in ensuring your messages reach policy makers? And what are some ways in which you have found success?

I think the biggest challenge with talking to policy makers is that they are not just focused on development and have so many other issues to consider. They might be dealing with an economic crisis or major political change, for example. Whilst we can be mindful of that, we also have our own objectives. This means we have to get the balance right and approach partners and governments at the right time.

One of the successes we had recently was the Nutrition for Growth event. At the time, UK Prime Minister David Cameron was really interested in this topic, and the event came after London had hosted the Olympics. The government felt that nutrition was an area where the UK had been a real leader and we took this as an opportunity to partner with them and bring others to the table. We acknowledged that there was a moment in time where a country and individual policy maker wanted to see a change and were receptive to partnering. As an advocate, it’s challenging to refrain from pushing your issues, but where we’ve seen success is when we’ve partnered with people by listening to what they want, not strictly based on what we say is a priority.

Since you are working globally, how do you manage the different policies and public perceptions you encounter? Do you have global strategies as well as localized ones?

We have a global agenda, but make sure that it’s also localized. Our global policy and advocacy team focuses on a set number of issues, but we quickly realized that none of these issues make sense outside of a country context. As we’re about to launch our nutrition strategy, we’re seeing that our focus has to be done through the lens of what a country needs. Rather than just offering new solutions or technologies and seeing if they work, we’re listening to what a country wants.

From an advocacy and communications perspective, we are very much engaged in partnerships through our government relations teams in different offices. We listen to the conversations they’re having with their local country representatives and that is a key part of how we’ve worked effectively.

Communicating in our digital world can allow us to reach global audiences more easily, but you still have to ensure your message is reaching the right people. How do you determine the most appropriate tactic for communicating with your audiences via social media?

We’ve definitely jumped into the digital age with enthusiasm and embrace channels like Facebook and Twitter. And it can be easy to just post a picture on Facebook and think you’ve reached people, but we see beyond that. There’s a need to inform people and raise awareness but if you want to engage them, you might need more than 140 characters. Some of the issues we’re dealing with are much more nuanced, so I think it’s about trying to use the best possible method to hook people in, and that might be a photo of Melinda Gates with someone she has met in the field, or a short story or fact, but beyond that, it’s also about giving something to people that helps them act.

That’s where our partners come in. Whilst we’re doing some of the work ourselves, we’re often helping connect people to other groups like Save the Children, One or Global Citizen, so they can think, “Oh, I can be part of this,” “I can fundraise” or “I can write to my senator.” On social media we can be a hook that helps people get excited about an issue, but it’s important that we pass them to people who can really get them engaged with an issue.

At dna Communications, we pride ourselves on being “as different as you.” Can you share something personal that makes you different and contributes to your success?

In life, I think one of the most important things is to empathize with others, even when you’re having one of your best days. I like to meditate because it makes me remember there’s a world out there and I’m connected to other people. It’s so easy to see the day-to-day aspects of your work without thinking about the end goal. I always try to stay grounded in what we’re ultimately trying to do, which is helping save lives and eradicate poverty.