• Although children are unlikely to get seriously ill with Covid, they’re suffering in many other ways by the current crisis, with the mass media focusing on topics like children’s rights, education, child poverty and mental health.
  • The organisation that was palpably more influential than the rest in the media debate was UNICEF, a brand that cleverly used PR and comms to become the leading voice on a specific issue, with the top influencer being its Executive Director Henrietta Fore.
  • Non-profits can stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace by implementing a robust Measurement & Evaluation (M&E) framework for communications with clearly defined KPIs and targets.

Because children are not likely to get seriously ill or die with Covid, one might feel that they’re somehow on the margins of the media conversation around the pandemic. However, many organisations from the non-profit sector push the narrative that children are still victims of the virus and the world’s response to it in many ways.

According to many non-profits, the crisis is threatening to have a devastating impact on children from a socio-economic standpoint: from increasing rates of child poverty to concerns about children’s rights. More and more media outlets have started to pay attention to such topics, showing the enormous power of non-profits to engage with societal problems and to move the needle about important issues.

As trust in governments and state actors has declined in recent years, non-profits have stepped out of their traditional role of public service providers and have risen as a voice for addressing critical needs.

Children’s rights and education in the spotlight

We analysed 568 articles published between November 2020 – May 2021 in top-tier English-language outlets and found that Children’s rights was the largest topic in the discussion:

With child labour, child marriage, trafficking and abuse on the rise during the pandemic, many commentators have stated that the COVID-19 crisis has resulted in a child rights crisis.

A large portion of the debate was focused on warnings that around 2.5 million young girls are at risk of early marriage by 2025 due to the coronavirus pandemic – the greatest surge in child marriage rates in the last 25 years, reversing progress made towards ending the practice. The rise in numbers is attributed to the economic consequences the pandemic has had, pushing more families into poverty, particularly in South Asia and Latin America.

The crisis has also put millions of children at risk of underage labour – due to school closures, job losses and deepening poverty – and jeopardised a U.N. global goal of ending the practice by 2025. Prior to the pandemic, the number of child workers globally dropped to 152 million from 246 million in 2000, but now children are forced to work by struggling families – with girls especially vulnerable.

Many publications also pointed out that there has been a spike in online child sex abuse around the world, as out-of-school kids and adult predators are spending more time on the internet. Offenders take advantage of school closures and lockdowns to reach children — either in person or via social media, gaming sites and the dark web. Similarly, there’s been an increase in child trafficking, especially in South Asia.

The topic of Education was almost as big as the Children’s rights topic in our research sample. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned of a possible “lost generation” of children, as at least 168 million children worldwide have missed almost an entire year of school, raising concerns that restrictions to tame the coronavirus have triggered a “catastrophic education emergency”.

Schools in 14 countries – the majority in Latin America and the Caribbean – have remained largely closed since March 2020, with children in Panama missing the most days in the classroom, followed by El Salvador, Bangladesh and Bolivia. On top of the 168 million children who have barely been in the classroom for the last year, UNICEF estimated roughly 214 million pupils have missed more than three-quarters of in-person teaching, equivalent to one in seven children internationally.

The Child poverty topic also featured many alarming statistics, as experts warned that working families face a threat to their living standards as unemployment peaks. Another UNICEF report found that only 2% of government-provided financial relief across OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) and EU (European Union) countries were allocated specifically to support children and families raising children during the first wave of the pandemic.

Moreover, a historic 10.8 trillion dollars was spent on COVID-19 responses by high-income countries from February to the end of July 2020, around 90% of which was spent on fiscal stimulus packages relating to business. Although an essential part of the crisis response, UNICEF remarked that business relief will inevitably exclude the most marginalised children and their families in society, meaning the worst off will be the hardest hit.

Articles within the Health and nutrition topic noted that in the past decade, before the pandemic, there had been a 50% reduction in child mortality, over 80% cover of immunisation and a 35% decline in maternal deaths, but these gains made are now under threat due to the crisis. Post-pandemic, 50% of countries reported part or major disruption of immunisation projects, with additional child and maternal deaths.

The closely related topic of Mental health featured reports about the impact that COVID-19 and lockdown measures have had on the mental health of children affected by violent conflict, many of whom have been forced from home – 70% of displaced and refugee children say they need psychosocial support, more than three times the estimated 22% prior to COVID-19.

Perhaps a more controversial topic was Vaccination, as journalists reported mixed approaches towards vaccinating children against Covid. For example, the US has already immunised around 600,000 children, aged between 12 and 15, while the UK is rattling through the adults – who should all have been offered their first dose by the end of July – and has yet to come to a decision on children.

In addition to the scientific question (will vaccinating children save lives?), which is complex as the answer may vary from country to country, there is also a moral and ethical dilemma if doses intended for children would save more lives if they were delivered to health workers and vulnerable adults in other countries. Moreover, non-profits are concerned about the drop in immunisation coverage among children under the age of five over the past year could lead to a resurgence of vaccine-preventable childhood diseases.

Non-profit voices

We used Commetric’s proprietary ‘media conversation impact score‘ metric to identify the organisations with the biggest impact on the media discussion around Covid’s impact on children.

We determine an organisation’s media impact in the context of a topic by looking at its media influence score calculated in terms of coverage by high-profile media outlets, topic relevancy score measuring its contextual relevance, and media visibility as measured by the number of mentions.

The organisation that was palpably more influential than the rest was UNICEF, the iconic 60+year-old indisputable expert on child survival, which has had decades-long relationships with countries, governments and other NGOs.

It was the most often mentioned organisation within all the topics in our research sample: for example, it warned that the pandemic threatens to cause “irreversible” damage to children’s education, that child marriages rose during the crisis, that child poverty is to remain above pre-COVID levels for 5 years in high-income countries, and that the pandemic impacted the psychosocial well-being of children.

Our media analysis showed that UNICEF‘s disproportionately higher media conversation impact score has cemented its leadership in saving children’s lives. Throughout the years, many other organisations have provided similar services, but UNICEF’s approach made it unique: it married its unsurpassed global reach and expertise with access, innovation, influence and efficiency.

Additional credibility and influence in its work were provided thanks to UNICEF’s connection to the United Nations. The organisation tends to overcome obstacles, such as politics, ideology, war and poverty to give children the best hope for survival.

The most influential organisation after UNICEF was Save the Children, which was established in the United Kingdom in 1919 to improve the lives of children through better education, health care, and economic opportunities.

Save the Children was most influential within the Children’s rights topic, raising awareness about the greatest surge in child marriage rates in the last 25 years. Moreover, its report ‘A Generation at Stake: Protecting India’s Children from the Impact of COVID-19 ′ found that three out of every four children in the participants’ group reported an increase in negative feelings since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

More specialised non-profits had a significantly lower media conversation score than UNICEF and Save the Children, and usually featured in one specific topic of the discussion. For example, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, a large nonprofit association in the United States, was naturally mentioned in the Education topic, saying that child care providers are in dire straits, with 56% of them losing money every day they were open.

On the topic of Health and nutrition, the two most influential organisations behind UNICEF were the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, an independent non-profit foundation based in Geneva, and the Standing Together for Nutrition Consortium, a multidisciplinary consortium of nutrition, economics, food and health system experts working to address the scale and reach of COVID-related nutrition challenges.

The Consortium was cited for its study that found the economic fallout from the pandemic has set back decades of progress against the most severe forms of malnutrition and is likely to kill 168,000 children before any global recovery takes hold. It warned that women who are pregnant now will deliver children who are already malnourished at birth, and these children are disadvantaged from the very start.

Within the Children’s rights topic, one of the most impactful organisations was the International Labour Organization, a United Nations agency whose mandate is to advance social and economic justice through setting international labour standards. It said the coronavirus pandemic may lead to an increase in child labour for the first time in 20 years, and that of all the hardships child-care workers face, the biggest may be that they’re not paid a living wage in many states.

The most influential organisation on the topic of Vaccination was the World Health Organization (WHO), which warned that while immunisation services have started to recover from disruptions caused by COVID-19, millions of children remain vulnerable to deadly diseases, highlighting the urgent need for a renewed global commitment to improving vaccination access and uptake. A WHO survey has found that despite progress when compared to the situation in 2020, more than one-third of respondent countries (37%) still report experiencing disruptions to their routine immunization services.

Another influential United Nations-affiliated organisation in our research sample was The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which was particularly prominent in the Children’s rights topic, saying that the coronavirus restrictions may delay interventions against child marriage and cause a long-lasting economic downturn that will push more families into poverty, which is a key driver of child marriage.

Some local non-profits were also among the most often mentioned organisations. For example, Bachpan Bachao Andolan, an India-based movement campaigning for the rights of children, started in 1980 by Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi, was featured in many articles focusing on the situation in India. Its executive director Dhananjay Tingal fears that millions of more children will “fall back into trafficking, child labour and child marriage because the economic crisis is looming large” in a country that already has one of the world’s worst records.

Non-profit influencers

We employed Influencer Network Analysis, our patented methodology that uses natural language processing (NLP), text mining, dynamic visualisation and human enrichment, to analyse the recent media discussion around Covid’s impact on children and the influencers under the spotlight.

The media discussion around the relevant non-profit spokespeople is presented as a two-mode network map (see below), displaying the influencers (circles) and the publications (squares) that referenced them in the debate around Covid’s impact on children. The size of the circles indicates the influencer’s prominence in the media discussion.

Not surprisingly, UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore was the top influencer in the debate. She was quoted by many publications such as Reuters, Forbes and The Washington Post for urgently calling for global action from country leaders, donors and partners in the fight against other deadly diseases apart from Covid that also threaten the lives of millions of children in some of the poorest areas of the world.

Fore also said that throughout the COVID-19 pandemic there has been a persistent myth that children are barely affected by the disease, but “nothing could be further from the truth”. While children can get sick and can spread the disease, the biggest threats are disruptions to key services and soaring poverty rates: “The longer the crisis persists, the deeper its impact on children’s education, health, nutrition and well-being. The future of an entire generation is at risk.”

In addition to Henrietta Fore, a large portion of the influencers in our research sample were also from UNICEF. For example, South Asia regional director George LaryeaAdjei was cited for saying that the fall-off of essential public health services across India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka has had a devastating impact on the health and nutrition of the poorest families.

Similarly, Yasmin Ali Haque, UNICEF India Representative, was quoted in local publications such as Business Insider India and India Today, saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded as a child rights crisis and that we need to adopt a child-centric approach as the costs of the pandemic on children are immediate and can persist for years, if not addressed.

A similar sentiment was expressed by Sanjay Wijesekera, UNICEF’s global director of programs, who told AFP that children “have a right to learn and to be prepared for the world that awaits them, but it’s beyond that,” adding that when children are out of school, and their parents don’t have jobs, and don’t have income that creates certain dynamics that result in families looking for other options and girls being forced into early marriages.

The media’s focus on the situation in India put under the spotlight Dhananjay Tingal, executive director of the Bachpan Bachao Andolan, who told the Guardian that between April and September 2020, his organisation had rescued over 1,200 children who were being trafficked illegally to work in factories or farms, a spike unlike anything he had seen before. 

In the meantime, WHO’s director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was quoted by national outlets like the BBC, Sky News and USA Today, and also by specialised publications like the British Medical Journal, for asserting that the pandemic has hurt the world’s immunisation momentum: “This left children, especially in high-risk areas, more vulnerable to killer diseases like polio, measles and pneumonia. And now we’re starting to see outbreaks of these diseases.”

Such a worrying trend was also conveyed in relation to the fight against malnutrition, which had been an unheralded global success until the coronavirus pandemic struck. Lawrence Haddad, executive director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, became influential in the debate as he pointed out that it may seem like malnutrition a problem that is always with us but the numbers were going down prior to COVID: “Ten years of progress eliminated in 9 to 10 months.”

How can non-profits stand out?

There are more than 10 million non-profits and non-governmental organisations worldwide – a figure fuelled by an increase in North America, where there are approximately 1.3 million 501(c)3 organizations. This growth has also meant that the non-profit marketplace has become more competitive, with a plethora of overlapping messages, many of which are often difficult to distinguish.

Donors and volunteers, as well as corporations, foundations and governments, have also become more selective when it comes to values alignment, shared passion and commitment, and the level of trust they have in a non-profit’s ability to deliver tangible results. This has put increasing pressure on non-profits to demonstrate the ways support is making a difference and increase their relevance through meaningful opportunities for engagement.

As a result, communications and branding in the non-profit sector seem to be at an inflexion point – even though many organisations continue to take a narrow approach to comms, using it primarily as a tool for fundraising, a growing number are moving beyond that approach to explore the wider, strategic roles that brands can play: driving broad, long-term social goals, while strengthening internal identity, cohesion, and capacity.

Just like in the for-profit sector, a strong reputation is often an organisation’s most valuable asset: built on a personal and emotional connection with stakeholders, it encourages potential supporters to believe in a certain mission and in the organisation’s ability to deliver on that mission.

But how does a non-profit stand out in the crowded marketplace? Our research sample is a good example of how one organisation – UNICEF – managed to become the leading voice on a specific issue. And this is not accidental: the organisation recently took its brand to the next level, moving from basic awareness to deeper brand engagement with a simplified messaging and increased relevance. It moved from being an underperforming and unfocused organization to becoming a powerhouse of single-mindedness.

UNICEF started articulating its leadership in child survival through its brand purpose and supporting tagline: Believe in ZERO, rallying supporters to help reduce child mortality from 18,000 (2013 figures) preventable deaths each day to zero. UNICEF had built a rational story, but to effectively compete, it addеd emotionalр personal elements.

Based on our analysis, here are a few things we could learn about effective PR and comms in the non-profit sector:

  • Realise the importance of powerful brands. In fact, some researchers argue that branding is more critical in the non-profit sector than in the for-profit one: in business, customers invest financial resources in return for a tangible product or service, while in the non-profit sector, donors invest financial resources assuming that their money will be used to achieve meaningful but often intangible social goals, and they do not necessarily receive something particular in return. Therefore, reputation and a sense of purpose and connection become critical differentiators in the non-profit world.
  • Reach new audiences with environmental, social, and governance (ESG) messaging. Our recent research shows that comms professionals should move beyond purpose and focus their efforts on ESG – a much more specific and tangible concept with better defined KPIs which is yet to gain full momentum, especially on social media. Be among the first to utilise the power of social media and engage a wider circle of stakeholders in a more informal fashion, particularly on Instagram, a platform that has much higher engagement rates with many key stakeholders and where ESG topics such as climate change are very popular among millennials.
  • Focus on building trust and conveying competence. While business, government, and the media increased in trust overall, non-profits have had a decrease in trust, according to Edelman’s 2021 Trust Barometer, but are still trusted more than governments and the media. However, businesses are now seen as the most trusted institution around the world. Edelman’s research shows businesses are more trusted because they are seen as both ethical and competent, while non-profits are seen as ethical, but less competent.
  • Implement a robust Measurement & Evaluation framework. A key part of UNICEF’s global communication and advocacy strategy was a global Measurement & Evaluation (M&E) framework for communications with clearly defined KPIs and targets – a thorough analysis of comms results was essential both for measuring performance and for drawing insights that would inform future strategies. The programme allowed UNICEF to analyse how the media has covered key topics, messages, organisations and spokespeople, which in turn helped it shape its public relations activity. Ultimately, the investment in a solid M&E framework has helped the organisation strengthen its position as a communications powerhouse.

Learn more about how Commetric’s Media Analytics can supercharge your communications strategy with the essential insights necessary to boost your reputation.