Back-to-School Edition: Lessons for Global Communication Professionals – in Conversation with Edith Asibey

Edith Asibey guides participants in a workshop.

Edith Asibey is the principal of Asibey Consulting, a group that helps mission-driven organizations get audiences involved in their causes. Edith and her colleagues specialize in behavior design, digital engagement, advocacy, communication strategy, and continuous evaluation. She is a longtime friend of Minerva and one of the smartest in the field.

Edith shared advice for communicators who want to work abroad, her impact at UNICEF Brazil, lessons of global campaigns, and – in line with the back-to-school season – her love for education.


You have truly global roots: Italy, Paraguay, and Ghana. And you majored in biology at the top college in Brazil. How did you end up working as a communicator for social good?  

I chose to use my biology degree to work on environmental conservation and education issues, starting in Paraguay. In the 1990s, there was early awareness of the environmental degradation that was happening all over Latin America.  Unfortunately, there were very few laws being enforced to preserve and protect biodiversity.

In Paraguay, around 85% of all the natural forest had already been cleared. My “aha” moment was recognizing that I could do my best as a biologist to ensure that the remaining natural forest was preserved but it wouldn’t matter at all unless we made people aware and got them involved. That’s why I decided to pursue a media studies degree at Stanford in 1996.


After many years working in the US, you decided to go back to Latin America to lead advocacy and communications for UNICEF in Brazil.  What were the biggest challenges you faced?  

Prior to joining UNICEF, I had been based in the US working in global development for over a decade. I felt I was starting to lose perspective because I was not where the issues impacted people’s lives.

Through UNICEF, I had the opportunity to be based in Brazil for three years. It was very important to understand the political and social contexts and how the organization was positioned in that country. When you start a job abroad, you must understand what you are walking into.

UNICEF is a politically neutral and independent entity and it is critical to keep it that way as it works with the government – no matter what their political leanings are. When I arrived in Brazil, the president was beginning her re-election campaign and the country was hosting the Soccer World Cup.  It was a busy and exciting time.

As a digital-first communicator in a country where over half of the population was already using social media, my biggest opportunity was to innovate and bring the organization fully into the digital age. 


How were you able to overcome these challenges?

The two main factors were having the ability to listen and diversifying my team.

I truly believe that the best way to lead is to be a good listener – to your team, peers, and constituents. You learn about priorities, strengths and needs for improvement, and this allows you to navigate internal and external challenges.  It can help leverage your relationships with partners and accomplish your vision and goals.

The second factor is developing talent. In the first meeting with my team, I told them that I returned to Brazil after 20 years because I knew how much talent, creativity, and capacity Brazilians have to innovate. I believe in them and in the people of Brazil and this was an opportunity and a privilege for me.

It was critical to nurture the people who were there and also very important to diversify the team, bringing people from different sectors with different backgrounds.


Can you give us an example of how a global issue can resonate differently with audiences in different countries? And the importance of targeted messaging? 

When trying to determine if a message has resonated, we need to ask: “Are people doing it differently from 10 years ago?”

Despite the many challenges and political tensions, climate change is an issue where messaging has resonated with diverse audiences. We see evidence that people around the globe are positively changing their behaviors. For example, in some countries in Europe, people are pledging not to fly—at all. These actions are indicators of an understanding that we need to take care of our planet and do it now.

The environmental movement has made inroads and is ripe with the wave of young people that are pushing this agenda and advocating more aggressively. Teen climate activist Greta Thunberg spoke here in New York last week. We are at a tipping point where we must make a difference.

I have also seen situations where leveraging a global event yielded positive results. An example is what we did during the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. At UNICEF, we launched “Team UNICEF – Get Active for Children,” an initiative that asked people to walk or run a 5k, and we gave them over one month to complete it. When they finished their 5k they automatically unlocked a donation to UNICEF. We developed a digital platform that synched with the exercise apps that people most commonly used. We had people from more than 150 countries participating, it was incredibly diverse.

These “short wins” are often the results of a lot of hard work, but they also remind us how difficult it is to sustain engagement over time. This is why I have turned my attention to long-term engagement. 


What do you recommend when designing a campaign that aims to change behavior?

First, we need to listen and understand what people are motivated and able to do. We also need to prompt them at the right time; and consider making the action easy for them.  This means that our audience and their priorities should come first.

This is grounded in science. BJ Fogg, a behavior scientist at Stanford developed what’s called the Fogg Behavior Model. This model illustrates how motivation, ability and a prompt need to work together for behavior or action to occur. People may be very motivated but if their ability to take action is low, when prompted, they simply won’t do it.

We learned this the hard way. With the UNICEF “Get Active” campaign we realized that tens of thousands of people were signing up, but they weren’t actually walking or running. Turns out that many found it too hard to complete the syncing process that was required to record their physical activity.  These folks were highly motivated to participate, but they either didn’t have the exercise apps already installed on their mobile phones or were struggling to sync them up with our platform.

So we course-corrected. We sent personalized, tailored messages to people who registered with simple, step-by-step instructions. This made the action easier for them to do which in turn significantly increased participation and many successfully completed their 5K.


Any recommendations for communicators who would like to work abroad? 

Cultural relevance is critical. The fact that you are not from a place or don’t have roots in a place shouldn’t prevent you from doing quality work with integrity. More than in any other role, as a communicator, you need to learn and master the language as quickly as possible. I encourage anyone who seeks to be effective in communications abroad to learn the language before they go and continue learning while they are there. It will allow you to be included in more conversations and most importantly, be a better listener.

Authenticity is also important and while it applies to communications work everywhere, it is more relevant when you are working abroad. We are storytellers and find ourselves often telling other people’s stories. There’s a delicate line to walk when being authentic. The disability movement motto in the U.S., “nothing about us without us” should also be heard by communicators working abroad. You serve people who are in other countries and you must remember these are their stories that must be told with their own voices. The single most important value that a communicator can bring is to give them the space to tell their own stories, respecting how they want them to be told.


You’ve done a lot to advocate for access to education in countries where millions of children are either out of school or getting inadequate schooling. Tell us about your passion for this issue.

Education is a personal issue for me. My father was from Ghana. He was the only boy in his family, and because of that, he was the only one who got to go to school. None of his sisters did. Also, because of his own efforts and dedication, he earned a scholarship that allowed him to pursue his college degree and PhD abroad.

On the other hand, my aunts—who surely were as smart and capable as my father—never had the same opportunities. The fact that the girls didn’t get to go to school is a profound injustice. They lived good lives, but we’ll never know what they would have accomplished if they had gone to school.

We have reason for optimism: a lot has changed since my dad was a kid. Ghana has made tremendous progress since the 1940s and 50s. It is now one of the leading countries in investing in education for girls and boys. I’m proud of that. 


How do you message education as a right? What do you say to those that don’t see it that way?  

There is one commonality we all understand, particularly in America, and that is the idea that where we are in life is because of our education. Tapping into this idea—and the empathy it unlocks—helps people connect to the idea of education as a right.

I don’t think that the lack of support for education is because of a lack of understanding. I think it’s on us, advocates and communicators, to get better at tapping into people’s motivations to get their support, and to make it as easy as possible for these audiences to act.


As we prepare for the next school year to start, do you have one call to action around education?

I would encourage people to support quality early childhood education here in the US and internationally.  Imagine if every child, regardless of their place of origin, gender, or socio-economic status, was granted a fair shot at quality education from their early years of life. It would make a huge positive difference. UNICEF and TheirWorld are two organizations that offer concrete ways to take action on this issue.


You are a Tiny Habits coach. What does that mean and how can it help communicators?

It’s one my favorite things to talk about! So much of what we do or don’t do depends on behaviors that are ingrained. Tiny Habits, a method designed by BJ Fogg, is a proven way to create new habits quickly and easily.

People can try it for themselves: sign up for free for the five-day Tiny Habits program. With it, we can re-write many of our own internal codes to successfully embrace new behaviors.  I am currently working on a project to help people, through the Tiny Habits method, develop Generous Habits: habits that are designed to help others.


BONUS READ: If you’d like to read more about the Fogg Model and how it can help communicators inspire their audiences to take action, check out this article in Stanford Social Innovation Review co-authored by Edith and Minerva President Joy Portella.



About The Author

Minerva Strategies

Minerva Strategies

The Minerva team has decades of experience working with nonprofits, foundations, and values-driven companies. Minerva also partners with experts—trusted designers, web developers, global communications professionals, and others—who share our excitement for creating positive social change. Through these partnerships, we can build a team that is tailored to your needs. Learn more about who we are or what we do.