"I look back at it and I can’t believe that I thought it was normal at the time"

From war correspondent to director of communications at the International Crisis Group

The International Crisis Group employs analysts around the world to gather first-hand information from the field in order to prevent and resolve violent disputes.

Communication Director spoke to Hugh Pope, the Group’s director of communications and outreach, about global threats to peace and stability, the end of the cooperative international order, and how to get vital expertise into the hands of decision makers. 

(Main image: In his role as Turkey/Cyprus Project Director for the International Crisis Group, Hugh Pope (right) interviews Sabri Ok, a leader of the insurgent Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), at war with Turkey since 1984, at their headquarters in northern Iraq. 2014 / Photo: International Crisis Group.)

Interview by Dafydd Phillips

The International Crisis Group was founded in 1995 but would you agree that its communications has only recently come of age

The initial idea behind the Group was to connect information from the field in conflict-prone countries with top policy makers, to short circuit what was seen as an inability to get new information from the ground. The statesmen who set us up were trying to prevent, manage and resolve crises and the idea was that they would use information from field analysts to beat on the doors of western governments, often people they knew personally. You can imagine that in this working model there wasn’t much space for a communications plan.

Our first reports were sometimes the length of a book, and published with the assumption that once the statesmen had made up their minds based on our information and analysis, they would do the right thing and fix the conflict. To give you an idea, until 2008 one of our principle means of communication was sending our reports by post to policy makers. I’m serious. I would also say that until a few years ago, our top leadership was completely agnostic about the value of social media.

What occurred to change their minds?

At last people have realised you have to do a lot of reaching out to public opinion, otherwise no one is going to hear your voice and, even if you do manage to persuade the policy maker, they won’t be willing to do anything because public opinion is not with them. We now have quite a sophisticated set of questions we discuss with each of regional Programmes before we launch a report to try to work out: what are the main messages? What goal are we trying to achieve? Who are we trying to reach in particular? Who is going to write a really good series of tweets on the launch day? What aspects of the report will find their way onto social media? Who’s going to write an op-ed and where will it go? Where is it most likely to be seen?

Also our new website, which was launched last July, has had a huge impact. Before it was almost painful to try to read our reports online. Now these articles, which are long and quite high-minded, have an average reading time of four minutes. That’s double what it used to be with the old website. We’re also very proud that it was one of the five websites that was nominated for a Webby award in our policy category this year. However good the website and communications plan is, the critical thing I have realised now that I am in the centre of things is that you can’t make it up from headquarters. We’re dealing with about 70 conflicts around the world, of which 30 have an analyst who’s mostly concentrating on that. What makes the difference is what the analyst does with the various tools that we give them to influence the course of the conflict they are following. Increasingly we are trying to develop a tool box that we can teach analysts how to adapt for use in their particular country or conflict, rather than dictate to them.

Does the nature of different conflict areas call for different approaches to communications?

Yes. There are still countries where they want paper reports, where they don’t really read online. There are other countries where they only read on their phones. For instance, in Venezuela, where we have a very strong analyst but were little known, promoting on Facebook got a lot of eyeballs onto what we were saying. I don’t like buying ‘love’ that way but when you’re not know to an audience, it seems to me to be a good idea to use it to at least make people aware of you, which is  hard for an international organisation that may not be locally known. It’s extraordinary the extent to which not just the communications tools but our actual policy recommendations will vary from case to case.

In some cases we may even advocate the judicious use of violence – and we’re a conflict-prevention organisation! That’s very rare I have to say. I’m trying to make the point we have a very pragmatic approach. Basically we are trying to answer the question: “What will politically work to end this conflict and save the most lives?” 

What are some of the most urgent crises that threaten us in 2017?

We have a dozen priority countries or conflicts we worry about the most. Right now these include DR Congo, the Boko Haram insurgency, Islamic State/ISIS, Libya, Venezuela, Central American crime, Afghanistan. Two issues I follow closely are Turkey and Iran, and how should the so-called West deal with them? In the case of Turkey, I have been in quite senior meetings with European leaders and it’s clear they don’t see things the way people in Turkey see it, just like the people in Turkey don’t see things the way Europeans see it.

Europe seems to expect Turkey to be begging for its friendship, that somehow Europe is a blameless suitor whereas Turkey is a recalcitrant ingrate. If you’re from Turkey what you are thinking when you look at Europe is that Britain and France carved up the Ottoman Empire secretly behind your back, Britain attacked on three fronts during the First World War, causing enormous suffering. And in the Cold War Turkey was stuck with one third of the front line of the old Iron Curtain going across Europe, completely cutting off its natural trading partners in the Black Sea hinterland and got some pretty oppressive governments doing the West’s bidding. There was a cost to being the West’s friend, but the West never really appreciated that cost. As a result, Turkey views the West with caution. Europeans don’t get that. 

What are the possible ramifications of this impasse?

There is a real down side to this because Turkey is a very important block in whatever Europe’s defences are against the forces of disorder in the Middle East. If the West wants to do something about it, they’ve got to realise that they share the blame for the disturbances in the relationship. 

And the second issue, Iran?

Iran is another obvious case of mistaken images. Yes, the Iranians kicked out the Shah who was a great friend of the United States but the United States is absolutely unable to see that, for decades now, they have pursued a very vindictive policy against Iran. Iran is irritating to them but the US has done some extraordinary things which I think that most Americans aren’t aware of. For instance, in 1988, a US warship shot down an Iranian airliner with about 290 people on board. All of them died. The United States gave a medal to the captain of that ship when he got back to port. Again it’s contextual. Do Americans understand that they are part of the problem with Iran? No, they don’t.

With an increasingly insular United States and the potential unravelling of the European Union, is the cooperative international order we grew up with following the second world ear coming to an end? Are we seeing the emergence of a multipolar world?

The International Crisis Group is worried about this rapid unravelling of the EU and what have been the normal procedures, structures and frameworks of the international order since the Second World War. In our meetings with government leaders they tell us they have never seen such turbulence. There is a multiplicity of crises and there is a real lack of ideas about what to do about them. Our job is to look out for impending conflicts where we should make a call to action.

The UN for instance is by no means dead. It’s got a vigorous and promising new secretary general who is saying all the right things about conflict prevention. But the UN ideal in which a well-armed peacekeeping force could come in and control a situation in which the people involved were much less well armed is no longer the case. Another problem for us at Crisis Group is that the old idea of great statesmen from great powers doing the right thing just does not seem plausible anymore because very few governments currently have credible foreign policies.

At the same time, countries which are beginning to stretch their muscles more – think of Russia, Turkey or Iran – are not acting as stabilisers beyond their borders and that’s a challenge.

“The old idea of great statesmen from great powers doing the right thing just does not seem plausible anymore.”

That’s where we need to somehow get back behind a revitalised UN to give people a structure they can believe in that will come up with solutions to conflicts before they get out of hand.

I suppose that’s where the work of the International Crisis Group comes in. 

That’s what we are trying to do but it’s easier said than done. It’s very hard to prove the impact as well. On the communications side that’s one of most difficult things – trying to show how something didn’t happen that might have happened. 

You began your career as a journalist. What led you to change careers? 

What happened was that in 2002 I was the only reporter from the Wall Street Journal reporting from inside Iraq. I was trying to explain to Americans what an incredibly bad idea going to war in Iraq would be through the pages of a newspaper that was explicitly supporting the war. I was given great freedom by the editors to explain what I found and saw, but I don’t think I convinced even some of my own newspaper colleagues of the facts. When the war happened, very soon it became obvious what was going to happen next, which was exactly what the articles I worked on had been predicting.

When I saw that all my best efforts had made no difference, I couldn’t work anymore. Plus I carry a British passport and Britain was completely implicated in the war, which meant that, as a Middle East correspondent, I couldn’t go anywhere and feel that I had the right to ask questions. After the Iraq War, not only did I lose faith in all that, but my close colleague and friend Daniel Pearl was killed in Pakistan, doing roughly what I was doing elsewhere. I stopped working all together.

And how did the International Crisis Group come to your attention? 

I saw an ad for a job at International Crisis Group. I didn’t know quite what they did, but I applied and for eight years I was their Turkey analyst. My work was to try to persuade the Turks and the Kurds to stop fighting, to work for a solution to the divided island of Cyprus, to bridge the gap between Turkey and Europe. I loved the kind of writing I was doing in these reports because I could say what I really thought was necessary to communicate about the situation.

In journalism, you have a message you want to get across because you’ve done your research, but you also have to entertain the readers. Your editors at the newspaper will absolutely ensure that it remains “all singing, all dancing” through to the end, which is very difficult to do in real life, especially with Middle Eastern issues. 

Do you miss anything about being a journalist? 

The access that I had as a Wall Street Journal correspondent was fabulous. One thing I did miss when I was writing reports for the Crisis Group was I was no longer able to demand to meet the captain of the ship, the president or the king, that I couldn’t just go along with a military operation, or go to meet people all over the place and ask them anything I wanted in their palaces or bunkers. That wasn’t my job anymore. I do miss that sense of being on the front lines of humanity. I still really enjoy meeting journalists and talking about what they have experienced. I have now realised how valuable and unique what journalists do is. Because I had done that all my life, I hadn’t realised how the way journalists live is unusual. 

In what way unusual? 

In the sense that you’re asleep one night in Tehran, someone gives you a call and the next morning suddenly you are on a helicopter going to the front lines of a war and watching what looks like chemical weapons exploding. Literally 12 hours before you were sleeping in your comfortable bed at home with your family and then suddenly you are in the middle of a war. This happened to me. I look back at it and I can’t believe that I thought it was normal at the time. There are also disadvantages to being a journalist, which I realised when I joined Crisis Group. 

What disadvantages do you mean? 

I think people are frightened of journalists. When I would approach diplomats to discuss things as a journalist they could be quite standoffish. But after I changed hats and became an NGO report writer, one ambassador-level person said: “Hugh, at last I can talk to you! Come to lunch”. The substance of the conversation was the same, but it was much friendlier. I am sure there are journalists you have to be careful of, but on the whole I think most are trying to do right thing. They can be taken much more into confidence than people are prepared to. The results would be much more satisfying for everyone.

Now I am in a position where I do try to communicate material to journalists, we’re always as open as we possibly can be because we believe that those people who come to us for ideas are sincerely open to being persuaded by good arguments. 

Hugh Pope

Hugh Pope is director of communications and outreach for the International Crisis Group. Since February 2015, he has been responsible for the overall planning, organisation and direction of the communications and outreach department, for building up Crisis Group's public face, impact and support for conflict prevention by developing its presence and on international news and social media. Hugh’s areas of expertise include Turkey, the Middle East and the Cyprus dispute. Before joining the Group, Hugh worked as a journalist, including positions as Turkey and Middle East correspondent for The Wall Street Journal (1997-2005), Turkey and Central Asia correspondent at The Independent (1990-1997), Iran and Middle East correspondent at Reuters (1984- 1989) and Syria and Lebanon correspondent, United Press International (1982-1984). He is the author of Dining with al-Qaeda: Three Decades Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East (Thomas Dunne/St Martins Press, March 2010), Sons of the Conquerors: the Rise of the Turkic World (an Economist book of the year for 2005), and Turkey Unveiled: a History of Modern Turkey (a New York Times notable book, 1999). The International Crisis Group is a transnational non-profit, non-governmental organisation founded in 1995 that carries out field research on violent conflict and advances policies to prevent, mitigate or resolve conflict. It advocates policies directly with governments, multilateral organisations and other political actors as well as the media.