Avoiding the perils of firsthand victim stories

September 12, 2011

This fall, I’ll be part of a workshop for advocacy and service groups at ECPAT International’s general assembly in Paris. ECPAT is a global network of more than 81 groups in 75 countries that work on the issue of child sexual exploitation. I’ve been asked to offer suggestions about how to engage adults to tell their stories about sexual exploitation in their childhood or youth. Getting former victims to share their stories publicly can be hugely effective in terms of generating media attention, public awareness and action. It’s not risk-free though, for the organization or the former victims.

As a child welfare social worker turned PR professional, I have approached the prospect of using firsthand stories from two perspectives. My public relations work involves helping organizations get their stories told in a way that is compelling. I know the best way to do this is through firsthand stories.

As a social worker who has worked with children and families who have lived through sexual abuse, I realize that going public with this kind of victimization is a huge step and one that needs to be considered very carefully.

There are a number of potential pitfalls for both sides—the former victim and the advocacy or direct service organization. There are some measures organizations should take to increase the likelihood of a successful collaboration with former victims.

  1. Find stable participants – Those willing to come forward don’t always have the necessary emotional stability and grounded perspective on their past experience. That can cause problems for both the participant and the organization. Connect with a support group facilitator or therapeutic helper to find participants who have achieved the stability necessary to go public.
  2. Screen for ability – Not everyone is suited to tell his/her story in public, whether that be through a media interview, speaking at a conference or in a video. The participant needs to have the confidence to take center stage, to speak clearly and tell his/her story in a way that is compelling. Once you have a roster of potential participants, interview them yourself and determine if they have what it takes. Some coaching may be required.
  3. Do perspectives align? – Organizations working with abuse victims or advocating on their behalf usually have a specific position on the causes of the problem and how, as a society, we should deal with it. Be prepared that the participant you are considering may not share those views. Even if you’re not asking them to comment in public on their views, the topic could come up, especially during media interviews.  Ask the potential participant about your organization’s perspective, ask them for their thoughts. Determine if there is a match or in the case of differences, whether you can live with them.
  4. Be transparent – The potential participant must be fully aware of the expectations and purpose of his/her participation. This is important not only from an ethical point of view but also to avoid having the participants back out when they discover they are not comfortable with what’s being asked of them. A contract is a good idea because it forces you to spell out exactly what’s involved and protects both your organization and the participant.
  5. Be realistic – If you’re asking the former victim to tell his/her story to the media, know that ultimately you have no control over how that story is going to be told. The participant needs to be aware of this. You can try to guide the journalist involved in terms of preferred language to use (e.g. “child sexual exploitation” rather than “child prostitute”) but there are no guarantees.
  6. Be prepared if things go wrong – Think of the risks involved ahead of time. What will you do if the media coverage is not what you or the participant expected? What if upon telling or viewing the story, the participant experiences post-trauma? Think it through and have a plan.
  7. Don’t forget legal considerations – In addition to having a contract, consider having a legal representative review the firsthand stories before you use them. If the participant is identifying his/her abuser, even in an indirect way, make sure there won’t be any legal repercussions. Fact check convictions, sentencing or court procedures the participant refers to for accuracy.

Has your organization used the stories of former victims in its advocacy work? Please share what steps you’ve taken to ensure success by leaving a comment.

Related post: Media promotion for non-profits doing sensitive work

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