Integrated Communications strategy: a collaborative experience in Costa Rica

During the Innovation Fellowship we iFellows were trained on the Human-Centered Design (HCD) methodology to try to solve the challenges refugees face through innovative and creative solutions. What is human-centered design about? HCD is an approach that begins by listening and understanding the needs and desires of the people we serve, and proposes three main phases: Hear, Create, and Deliver. In summary, it is a collaborative approach in which refugees are involved at all stages of project design and implementation, from the identification of the challenge to be tackled, to iteration and creation of a solution.

In this blog, I would like to share with you how I applied this methodology in Costa Rica to design a project from scratch, and what resulted from this collaborative journey…

Phase 1. Listening and identifying a common challenge

I began working on this initiative in February 2014 without any idea of the scope of the project. The only thing I had clear in my mind was

that I wanted to do things in a collaborative manner from the very beginning. To do so I first carried out three separate meetings with UNHCR colleagues, team members of our main partner NGO, and with the refugee community. In each gathering I did the same thing: I explained innovation through certain group activities and then held a brainstorming session to identify the challenge to solve, based on a very broad question: “What do you think is the main barrier that hinders refugees’ self-reliance in Costa Rica?” I tried to make these meetings as fun as possible, considering that participation and a trustful environment are key elements to encourage innovation in a team!

The outcomes of the discussions were very diverse, from issues related to documentation, access to health and education services, housing and employment, among others. Even though it was impossible to identify a clear trend, there was a common aspect connecting all the identified needs, which was how the lack of access to information was jeopardizing refugees’ integration in the country.

The refugee population in Costa Rica are entitled to the same social, economic, and cultural rights as citizens. However, the enjoyment of these rights is usually hindered for different reasons, including the lack of information that refugees face. The refugee community is usually unaware of the rights and services they are entitled to. Furthermore, outreach and ensuring access to information in a dispersed urban context represents a big challenge for UNHCR.


Phase 2. Understanding the challenge

After analyzing the outcomes of the group discussions, we rephrased our challenge to the following question:

“How can we better inform refugees about their rights and duties and the services provided by UNHCR, the government and other stakeholders?”

To continue working on a possible solution for this challenge we needed to dig deeper and understand what had been done before, any lessons learned, which information refugees needed, and how they wish to be informed. Therefore, I held several interviews with colleagues and conducted a survey with 45 refugees and asylum seekers.

What did I find out through this process? In a few words, refugees mentioned that:

1. They have the perception that they are being informed about UNHCR’s services and programs, but not about the services provided by the government.
2. They would like to receive more information to support their efforts to increase their self-reliance and livelihoods. In particular, they’d like to receive more information about their labor rights, employment and educational opportunities, and procedures for business creation.
3. As traveling across the city is not easy (and UNHCR only has one branch office in San José), refugees pointed out the need for using new communication mechanisms, such as SMS, a website, a hotline, and others. Refugees suggested thinking about options to strengthen the outreach of the population.

Phase 3. Identifying possible solutions

As a follow-up step, we moved forward to the identification of possible solutions. For this I facilitated another brainstorming session in three separate meetings with refugees, colleagues and our partner NGO. There were dozens of amazing ideas, from the creation of a website, a mobile app, a magazine and radio broadcasts, to a handbook, informative games, a soap opera, and more.

After these gatherings, we analyzed internally all the different solutions and preselected those that were strategic and feasible (considering the human and economic resources available in the Operation), and before jumping into the creation of the project we made simple prototypes of the ideas in order to get further feedback from the end-user, in this case, the refugee community.

In a workshop, we shared with refugees an example of a website wireframe, a video, printed materials, and audio messages. After interacting with these prototypes, refugees shared very important observations that were considered in the project design:

1. They wanted refugees to transmit the messages to other refugees.
2. Instead of thinking only about one unique solution to inform refugees, they proposed the idea of creating a strategy that could include different information tools. This would also ensure a more inclusive approach that could suit the different profiles among the refugee population (for example, different educational levels or access to technology).
3. They recommended providing very practical information in a very friendly way.

Phase 4. Creating the solution

The first thing we did to move forward with the project was to identify a “champion” in the communication field that could be our partner. In this case, the advertising agency McCann-Erickson donated their creative work as part of their CSR scheme. Along with McCann we thought about a strategy with a range of tools and selected the main messages to be transmitted for a pilot program. Considering that working with the national authorities is fundamental for UNHCR, the Immigration Board also became a formal partner of the project.

What did we create after this process?

All the inputs from refugees and colleagues lead us to the creation of an integrated communications strategy. The main objective of this project is to foster the legal and economic integration of the refugee community in Costa Rica through a comprehensive communication strategy that increases their access to accurate and practical information, mainly focusing on messages about the procedures required to change refugees’ migratory status as well as employment opportunities. The initiative is a joint effort between UNHCR Costa Rica, the Immigration Board, UNHCR Innovation, and the refugee community.

Throughout this process we held eight workshops with over 75 participants. As a result of this collaborative design process, we created a strategy that includes:

– A social media campaign called “Ser refugiado es como ser tico” (Being a refugee is like being a Costa Rican). The campaign is based on seven videos (which were shot with the participation of 23 volunteers:8 refugees and 15 Costa Rican nationals-). Its main message centers around how refugees and citizens enjoy the same rights and duties.
Booklets, posters and other traditional printed materials linked to the social media campaign.
– A website dedicated to refugees ( where they can find all the detailed information about asylum, rights & duties, information about the country, governmental services and programs, UNHCR services, among others). The website is an online solution supported by UNHCR Innovation that is being piloted in several countries.
SMS messages through Ascend. This is a two-way communication system via SMS that was piloted in Costa Rica in April 2014 supported by UNHCR Innovation.

All the messages and materials of the strategy were created and validated with the refugee community, which is what makes this initiative unique. The social media campaign “Ser refugiado es como ser tico”, is also intended to be diffused in movie theaters and television.


Phase 5. Implementing the solution

We almost have everything ready to release the strategy: we have the videos, the printed materials (posters and booklets), the content for the website and the SMS system in place! At this moment UNHCR Innovation is finishing the website prototype, and UNHCR Costa Rica is carrying out lobbying efforts with TV channels, movie theaters and outdoor advertising companies in order to broadcast the campaign. The campaign is expected to launch in January 2015.

One important element of this entire process was learning what it meant to refugees. Here are some comments of the refugees who performed in the videos:

“This was a great experience and I felt very supported because it is the first time I performed in a video. Now I am more aware about my rights and I feel very happy because I am supporting other refugees.” (Annye, Colombian asylum seeker)

“The lack of information always represents a challenge to us (refugees), and when I was invited to join this project I immediately thought this was a great initiative. I am glad I am helping other refugees.” (Andrius, Venezuelan refugee)

I believe this project is a great example of the power of collaboration and partnerships. As we have worked with the refugee community from the very beginning, we are absolutely sure the project responds to a real need and therefore the most likely expected outcome is that it will achieve very positive results. I would like to take the opportunity to thank all the people and organizations that have participated in this project…to Brian and Juan José from McCann, to the Immigration Board, to my colleagues and especially a big thank you to all the refugees.

Want a sneak peak of the campaign video? Check it out!

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