This article is by LSE MSc student Maureen Heydt, and covers a recent talk by Gemma Gillie, Media Manager at Médecins Sans Frontières (pictured right). 

Gemma discussed the challenges of communicating compassion, as part of Polis’ Media and Communication in Action series.

“My job is to give a voice to the people who I’m working with and let them tell their stories, and that can be for any kind of use, including media.”  

Gemma Gillie is the head of the press and documentaries team at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the major international NGO also known as Doctors Without Borders that works across the world to provide emergency medical aid to people in need on the frontlines of armed conflict and humanitarian crises.

(c) MSF

Gillie is also a part of the MSF emergency communication pool which requires her to travel on short notice to conflict and crisis zones such as South Sudan, to Nepal after the devastating earthquake in 2015, to Liberia during the throes of the Ebola crisis, as well as to Greece at the height of the refugee crisis. She recently returned from spending two months aboard one of MSF’s search and rescue vessels, which was operating in the Mediterranean Sea rescuing refugees attempting to cross into Europe.

Gillie says of working in humanitarian crises, When people ask what I do when I’m in the field in terms of communications, it changes every single time. I have been in various emergency responses and there are no two emergency responses that are the same.”

Speaking of some of the dilemmas she has faced in her role of communicating compassion during humanitarian crises, Gillie mentioned the blurred lines that can occur when getting close with people she meets in the field. Friendships are hard to sustain, given the transitory nature of humanitarian work: This is something no one told me and I wish someone had warned me.”

Describing another difficult situation she has faced, Gillie recounted the time she met a woman with a small baby abroad an MSF search and rescue boat. After inquiring about the age of the baby, the woman told Gillie that the child was six months old, and after a brief pause, admitted that she had been held at an (all-female) detention center back in Libya for the past 18 months. Gillie described being unsure in the moment if she should speak further with the woman, or if she should go and find a trained psychologist to speak with her. Ultimately, she decided to stay and continue talking. Of the moment, Gillie said:

You have a split second to decide how you’re going to react and what you’re going to do. And there’s no right or wrong, you just have to take a leap and go with it.”

(c) MSF

She added,you sometimes get into conversations that you’re not actually qualified to have. You don’t always know what to say to someone when they tell you something really horrible. But you learn in humanitarian communication to stay away from emotions. That’s not our job, we have to stay practical.”  

Examples of some of the other predicaments she has experienced range from witnessing and intervening in a photojournalist’s staged photo of a refugee boy in Belgrade, who purposely tried to make the child hold trash for the photo, to taking on online trolls who spread vitriolic inaccuracies across some of the MSF social media pages, most notably those directed at the Twitter account @MSF_Sea that represents the MSF search and rescue efforts.

Of these situations, Gillie confessed, “When you are working in humanitarian communications, you probably do five percent humanitarian communication when that’s your job title, and the rest is just things you never really knew or expected to get yourself into. You go way past your job description.”

When asked what the biggest challenge to communicating compassion to people back home is, Gillie responded:

“There’s two sides to it. One is getting the world to care about something for longer than a week. People get fatigued quickly; they disengage from the nuances of each scenario, and that’s really difficult. We’re constantly trying to come up with new ways to tackle it by using different types of media. It’s about finding the space, finding the people who are interested in it, and finding people who will follow a story. These situations are complex, and can’t be explained in one five-minute piece, they require follow-ups and in-depth following.”

The other side she noted involves, “balancing what we’re there to do, which is providing these services, along with what I’m trying to do, which is tell their stories.”

The field of humanitarian communication is indeed a balancing act between providing the emergency aid and relief so desperately needed, while also providing an outlet for the world to hear the stories of those who have lived the crises. And hear them it must.


This article by LSE MSc student Maureen Heydt.

For more information about the Polis Media and Communications in Action talks, please visit our website.