FROM FICTION TO FACT
Save the Children’s Kirsten Walkom dreams of changing the humanitarian communications model. How has her lifelong interest in conflict studies enabled her to lead a global organisation through change? Brittany Golob reports
Photographs by Jeff Leyshon
Growing up in a small town outside Toronto, Kirsten Walkom discovered her lifelong interest in conflict studies by reading young adult historical fiction based during the second world war. The books she read transported her from Tweed, Ontario, to the lives and experiences of children swept up in the war. It allowed her to better understand the perspectives of children at war and become more knowledgeable about history and conflict in general.
That interest soon translated to a course of study at Queen’s University, in Kingston, located just across the St Lawrence River and only three kilometres away from the Royal Military College of Canada. Now, the global communications director for Save the Children International, Walkom’s childhood interest allows her to better understand the complex situations in which the agency is now involved, including the conflict and refugee crisis in Syria.
Her trajectory from Tweed to Kingston to London may now be a logical transition, but, back in Ontario, it was anything but preordained that Walkom would be able to chart a career trajectory out of a passion for understanding the ways in which people’s lives are affected by conflict.
“Growing up in a small town, you learned that you could be a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher or a mum,” Walkom says. This dearth of options led her to initially pursue a potential career in the law. After graduating high school in Tweed, she moved from the town of 1,700 or so to Kingston to attend university. Pursuing a degree in history and politics at the 24,000-strong Queen’s University, the move allowed Walkom to broaden her academic horizons. “My professors saw an aptitude and interest in wartime and conflict studies,” she says. And they fostered that by allowing Walkom the opportunity to take classes at the Royal Military College, the Canadian analogue to Britain’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. That course of study allowed her to specialise in behavioural science, psychological warfare and counterterrorism.
After graduation, though, Walkom then faced the problem of deciding what to do next. She debated entering the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and applied to law school for the following year. But ultimately, it was her undergraduate extracurricular experience managing PR and business for the musical theatre group and arts and sciences undergraduate society at Queen’s that paved the way. Walkom decided to take a year working in marketing and communications for a law firm, then head to law school the following year. But, seeing the profession first hand meant Walkom realised she was less interested in working in law and more interested in influencing behaviour and opinion through communications.
She says of her time at Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP, “I love talking to people. I love the influence element that comes with changing behaviour, and really strong communications does that. I am a strong believer in strategy before tactics. In that role, I was given a lot of opportunity to promote, but to also enhance and protect the brand. Since then, I have evolved my role into more crisis communications and communication management, but it all started there.”
The next step was her first into agency life. Walkom would spend the next six years working in agencies in Toronto before stepping into a life-altering role at Save the Children. But her first role was at Henderson Bas, a small firm in Toronto. At the time, the agency had a strong digital focus and gave Walkom her first taste of PR and marketing communications by working for brands like Coca-Cola, Mercedes Benz and Canadian retailer Joe Fresh.
After a year at Henderson Bas, she took on a role at Maverick that focused more on communications and PR. She would spend the next three years cultivating the agency’s corporate business. “It was a really great team that I worked on with some of the most professional, talented individuals that I’ve ever worked with. We increased our portfolio by about 200% on the corporate team,” Walkom says. By helping national law firm FMC through its merger with Dentons, Walkom got some of her first experience on global stakeholder management and internal communications.
That experience would become useful in her next role at Edelman and later at Save the Children. Almost three years with the corporate comms firm gave Walkom a solid foundation in corporate risk and reputation management. But the moment that changed her career for good came when she began working with the MasterCard Foundation.
The foundation was working on a partnership with Save the Children centred on the World Economic Forum. Walkom found reputation management in the nonprofit sector to be fulfilling, professionally, and allowed her to bring together all of her skills and interests. When the offer came to take on an in-house role at Save the Children Canada, Walkom made the choice to leave agency life and become head of media and communications at Save the Children Canada.
“It was a shock,” she says of the transition. “I am definitely a very business-focused person. I don’t approach humanitarian communications in the traditional model. I actually, frankly, think I’m a bit of a model disruptor.” Working at the heart of the humanitarian sector could have been frustrating, but instead, Walkom has been able to change Save the Children’s communications outlook to become more strategy focused.
“NGOs and nonprofits for years have been able to have a transactional relationship with the public. What that means is that they’ve always had such high levels of trust with the public, with the government, etc that they’ve been able to tell a one-dimensional story,” Walkom says. “The way I look at it is, we’ve told you the story of need for so long that we haven’t actually stopped and started telling you the story of how we’re responding to that need.” She adds that the crisis in trust in business, governments and NGOs, that research like the Edelman Trust Barometer, has been indicating for years, means that one-dimensional storytelling isn’t working anymore.
Working with the Canadian team, Walkom’s goal was to “revolutionise humanitarian communications.” Shortly after she started with Save the Children, Typhoon Haiyan ravaged the Philippines. Walkom traveled to a temporary school set up by another charity to oversee communications on the ground. At the time working as the Canadian PR manager, she observed Save the Children staff giving interviews about the relief efforts. “In the interviews, the interviewees, who were Save the Children staff, actually mentioned other organisations more than they did Save the Children,” she says.
Curriculum vitae: Kirsten Walkom
For post-agency Walkom, this practice was unheard of. She put her staff through message and brand training to encourage them to share more about Save the Children’s work and achieve that vital cut through so necessary to charities working in the field. It was the first step in changing the mindset from being partners with other agencies, to being partners, but also recognising that “sometimes you’re also competitors, and that’s okay.”
For the business-minded communicator, this comes naturally. But for the humanitarian sector, particularly in Britain it means embracing a shift in strategy. Yet, with the loss in trust in the sector, it is a crucial shift. “There are over 200,000 registered charities and NGOs in the UK alone. If we can’t promote ourselves as the leaders every once in a while, then how do we expect people to actually choose us to be that?” Walkom asks.
Save the Children Canada was a good home for Walkom professionally, but personally, she and her partner were considering making a home in a new country. The couple was considering getting global experience and the right moment arose when Walkom met the NGO’s deputy CEO when travelling through London en route to Jakarta. A role arose as the maternity cover for the director of internal communications, based in London. “She said, do you want to go for it. I went for it. They went for me,” Walkom says. Ten months later, the still fresh resident of London was made global communications director.
Over the past few years, she has put not just her background in communications to use at Save the Children, but her degree and education in psychological warfare and counterterrorism. The ongoing conflict in Syria has sparked the biggest refugee crisis since the second world war. Save the Children has been working with refugees across the Mediterranean since the outbreak of violence. It remains one of a handful of agencies still working on the ground in Syria, a list which includes various religious organisations, as well as the UNHCR, Oxfam America, WorldVision and Unicef.
However, with the initial disinterest in the crisis and now, the overwhelming stream of news about the conflict, it has been a challenge for Save the Children to get its message through. When it was first trying to engage the public around the topic, the organisation produced a video that now has over 57m views. The ‘Most shocking second a day’ video dramatises the impact war has on children. It’s shocking and emotional content brought the crisis into view for many. Now, though, the challenge is keeping people’s attention while still helping the 6.5m people who are displaced from Syria.
Walkom says the old model of relying on trust in NGOs to do the right thing and ensure money is spent in the right way has decreased. Communicating with donors and potential donors fighting the trust deficit requires astute stakeholder mapping both internally and externally. Walkom says it’s important to know who within the organisation is best placed to deliver the message. If, for example, a doctor in Zambia is working on a project and knows his subject first hand, he will be more compelling as a communicator than the PR manager for the region.
But traditional methods are not to be forgotten. Particularly as the head of the organisation is former prime minister of Denmark Helle Thorning-Schmidt. “We’re really fortunate. Our CEO is incredible and she is a very compelling speaker. But there are some things that a doctor working in the field in Zambia is more compelling on. That really helps us because organisations and brands have often relied on the CEO or the executive suite almost exclusively. For us, that just isn’t an effective way to communicate anymore. We have to think in a much more multifaceted way than that,” Walkom says.
“I am definitely a very business-focused person. I don’t approach humanitarian communications in the traditional model. I actually, frankly, think I’m a bit of a model disruptor”
Walkom’s experience studying warfare has been useful when working through this crisis and the countless other projects Save the Children has in its global portfolio. “How psychological warfare actually works has been incredibly relevant in my current role,” she says, adding that understanding the context in which Save the Children is operating helps her better understand the difficulties of working on operating in places affected by conflict as well as the ways in which the organisation can change the behaviours of people in those areas for the better. “I like how strategic communications really does create positive impact and change and the opportunity it provides to change the world and change behaviours. That’s why I love doing it,” she says.
Walkom is still seeking to change the humanitarian communications model from the inside out. She is currently working on creating a global network of communication professionals throughout the sector to tackle the trust deficit.
Though her career and her travels have taken her a long way from her childhood in Ontario, Walkom is still interested in the experiences of people involved in conflict, particularly those of children. Only now, instead of paperbacks or university courses, Walkom is able to use a global communications platform to have a real impact on the lives of children.