This year marks the end of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, it’s longest running and most challenging. To mark this occasion they have created an award winning immersive multimedia experience. We spoke to Chris Riley, Head of the Strategic Communications team and the Principal Editor in the Public Diplomacy Division at NATO.
Inside Agency: Thanks for your time Chris, please tell us about your role at NATO?
Chris: I am responsible for the creation of digital content for NATO that is not explicitly the domain of our press and media service. We publish that content on our website and via other digital channels. We also have NATO Review, which is an online magazine that looks in depth into issues that are relevant to the security community, but not necessarily representative of NATO’s own position. We also get independent experts coming in and giving us their opinions.
IA: Could you tell us about your latest project Return to Hope – NATO’s Journey in Afghanistan, the conception of the project and the editorial process.
Chris: This year marks the end of NATO’s biggest, longest running and most challenging combat mission in Afghanistan. We decided we needed to mark the end of this enormous effort in an appropriate way. We had been discussing how we might be able to do that using a multimedia storytelling format and we engaged an external company to help us, if you like, break out of our own self censorship. We wanted to be as candid as we could about the challenges and the successes and to put things into a broader context. If you look back on NATO’s engagement in Bosnia and bear in mind that conflict finished in 2001, we did not really do anything to mark it digitally. If you look back on our website now, you wouldn’t find very much and now that we have the tools and a bit more know-how, we wanted to try and do something more durable.
The other key element was that since 9/11 quite understandably, a lot of the news that had come out of Afghanistan was negative. We wanted to do something through storytelling to illustrate that actually a tremendous amount of good work has been done, that many people’s lives have changed for the better. At the same time, we didn’t want to gloss over the problems, the risks or the difficulties, but we did want to put out an alternate view of what’s been going on in that country over the last 12-13 years.
We worked out that over 3.5 million men and women had served in the ISAF mission from 50 different nations over the course of that time. Nearly three and a half thousand gave their lives for it and we felt that we owed it to them to provide a deeper context through story telling of what has been achieved in that country.
We spent a long time in the conception stage with our external agency looking at the type of target audiences that we thought would appreciate the content and this type of storytelling. The primary audiences we were aiming for are not Afghanistan followers, they’re not experts, and they’re not people who are necessarily politically active. They are those people who may have seen that Afghanistan has been on the news over the last few years and maybe have a vague view but are interested in personal compelling stories and that through that storytelling we interest them in the subject.
IA: What type of team did you need for this project?
Chris: We worked with a web design company called Boondoggle who are based in Leuven Belgium, with expertise in user experience, web design, content development and social media marketing. From the NATO side we worked with our press and media team who are very experienced on all things related to Afghanistan. We also had the support of web editors, picture editors and our audio visual team that are based in Brussels and in Kabul, (we have a team that’s been working on illustrating Afghan stories for the last 5 years), and we created one large team.
We chose 6 main protagonists to tell their stories, through a mixture of sound, images video and text. Those individuals have come from different walks of life and will appeal to different types of people. Take the story of Nancy Dupree, an American woman who has lived in Afghanistan since the 1960’s. Her story is really a love story both for the country and for the man that she met and married out there.
We felt that this is a way to get beyond the hard news agenda, to show people that things have been hard in Afghanistan but there are other stories out there which are inspiring, uplifting and frankly get people to ask the question of themselves, whether they think it has all been worth the effort. We didn’t presume to answer that question, we wanted people to look at this project and question their own opinions about Afghanistan through storytelling.
For the NATO team it was a new experience of working out at which point do we stop using text and insert a video, or insert a still image which illustrates far better what we want to say rather than 50 or 100 words. From a technical point, that was a real challenge, quite time consuming and exhausting. We spent a lot of time re-refining the individual chapters to try and get the balance right between video, still imagery and text.
IA: Looking back would you say the project has been a success so far?
Chris: I worked in Afghanistan in 2004 before I joined NATO and then lived and breathed it for the best part of 8 years so for me, there is no question.
I did a couple of interviews myself for the project as we needed all hands on deck, and I went and interviewed a young soldier from my own former regiment, and he told me a few stories about some of the earlier engagements when, quite frankly, NATO was under resourced to carry out the operation.
We basically ended up fighting an insurgency that really crept up on us. When we deployed into southern Afghanistan in 2005-2006, we were expecting to do stabilization work, reconstruction and development work, but we ended up in quite a brutal fight and for me it was important to me to be able to tell this guy’s story. We got some very good insights from him on what it was like to be in those remote outposts every day. They got caught in a very bad incident in a mine field, several of his friends were injured and one of his close friends was killed. It was a very personal experience he shared with us which we represented on the site.
To a lot of the NATO team on this project it was personal I think. Those of us who had invested time and effort but from a distance in many cases, we wanted to make sure it was something that was of intrinsic value that reflected back on what was a monumental human endeavor, which involved a lot of sacrifice. So from an institutional point of view we feel good about the project we feel that it is a fair representation of what happened and something we will be able to look back on over the years and be proud of.
We are analyzing the statistics as we go along and we are able to conduct ongoing promotion and marketing of the site to different audiences. We feel that the project has legs, it has won a couple of web design awards which has given added traction to the project.
We want to see it reaching broader audiences over a period of time and hope it can generate a discussion. The one thing we definitely know is it is a very, very brave man or woman who claims to have the absolute truth on Afghanistan. It’s very complicated. There have been mistakes, there have been tragedies, there have been lost opportunities but there also have been successes and we don’t want that to get lost in the murk of all the politics that are inevitably discussed about Afghanistan.
The things that we are taking as good lessons learnt, things that have even surprised our external company, are that the qualitative metrics are very good. We are finding that people are staying on the site for quite a long time. We are getting people spending between 8- 10-12 minutes on individual stories. The bounce rate is very low, particularly for people who are looking from tablets, or laptops, or desktops, rather than mobile phones. The way the site is constructed meant that it is best viewed on tablets, desk or laptops. But we realized that we are losing quite a lot of traffic by only providing the video teaser on smart phones, so we are in the process of optimizing the site for phones now. One thing we did want people to do was go from those individual stories into what we call the second layer which offers the individual NATO related chapters towards the bottom of the screen. That seems to be working well also, with healthy average times of between 2.5 to 5 minutes on page.
IA: Is there anything in particular about the project that you’re most proud of?
Chris: I think that we are proud that it works, it seems to work in a way that is structured and it was not easy to arrive at if you like. We were very nervous at the beginning, realizing how complicated Afghanistan actually is, to be able to find not only an appealing way to tell all these individual stories, but to find ways to link them to a storyline that actually tells people what NATO, the international community and the Afghans have been through over the last 12-13 years.
So I think overall we are very pleased that through that collaborative process with an external company we held the mirror up to ourselves in regards to what we wanted to say. For NATO this is unusual, we have got segments in the website which are not the traditional NATO messaging style, if you like.It’s not a messaging tool in the traditional sense. This is not an easy story for us to go outside of the normal messaging scenario, where we basically communicate our policies, our principles, our news and we knew right from the offset that this project would not work if we adopted that approach. Senior management said go out there and try and tell the story in the best way possible. Yes, cover the pitfalls; cover the mistakes, cover the difficulties. We all knew that that was a risk and I think we now feel more confident that that risk was one worth taking.
We have some quite edgy combat footage in there, we’ve have soldiers under stress, we have people talking about losses to them and their families, we have people talking about some of the mistakes or problems that could have actually undermined the whole operation. So we are proud of the fact that we were able to do that and that our own organization has accepted that and welcomed it. I think it bodes well for the future.
IA: Could you tell us a little bit about how Reuters content factored into this project.
Chris: Our relationship with Reuters pre-dates this particular project, providing pictures and video for the NATO review online magazine. Which again has got the same spirit of looking at things more broadly, and again it was a very practical reason why we wanted to work with Reuters. If you look at the Afghan story NATO was not directly involved until 2003. We wanted to take the story back into the 1970’s in some cases, in the 1980’s with the occupation, the Mujahedeen period, the Civil war, 9/11, and quite frankly we just didn’t have the content that we needed. What we also found is that there is a temptation on our part, because of the projects sophisticated audio/video capability, to go to heavy on video and in many cases what we were looking for was a striking image that captured not just a moment in history but a feeling or a sentiment. We went through the Reuters archive to illustrate the devastation in Kabul at the end of the civil war and just after 9/11. Is there an image that captures the euphoria that followed the fall of Taliban in late 2001? And we found it straightforward and easy. It was one of the easier content challenges that we had because we knew you guys had a very, very big archive and the quality was good. Reuters images fed into the storytelling philosophy. We wanted something that helped us illustrate the story whilst complementing the quality text and videos we were using. Some of the stories where difficult to illustrate, there’s not a huge amount of imagery floating about, about the Taliban especially when they were in power and we were very keen to be able to access some of those things and again Reuters was the perfect agency to help us do that. We really enjoyed the process.