Giant rats and cats: The Department for International Development tackles BuzzFeed

The Department for International Development is aiming its PR efforts at digital media sites such as BuzzFeed, explains head of digital Marisol Grandon.

BuzzFeed community: used by the DfID to reach a younger audience
BuzzFeed community: used by the DfID to reach a younger audience

"We have a BuzzFeed cat power rating of one," I told the DfID comms morning huddle.

Instantly, I became aware how superficial this would sound following the morning’s Syria and South Sudan updates.

Yet dismiss it at your peril. The news and entertainment site is now a major force in online publishing. It has 130 million readers a month worldwide, with the UK site already seeing 10 million users a month since its launch in March 2013. It’s one of several zeitgeist sites whose editors curate content from around the web according to its merit.

DfID’s first community post on BuzzFeed about the landmine-hunting giant rats of Mozambique quickly gained attention. With 29,000 views and counting, we’ve been awarded a coveted "cat" badge, with four more to collect.

It’s a fascinating story about UK funding to a project in Mozambique which is, this year, set to be declared landmine-free for the first time in nearly 50 years. APOPO is the charity we fund – it trains giant rats to sniff out the mines buried deep underground.

A few days after publishing, Luke Lewis, BuzzFeed’s UK editor, added it to the UK homepage and tweeted it out, giving it a huge boost.

It’s great news for us. We’re always looking for ways to reach new people – especially those who don’t read development journals – and to showcase the amazing work the UK does around the world to reduce poverty.

We had been studying BuzzFeed’s output for some time, waiting for the right DfID story.

It’s clear from the homepage that stories needs to be creative, fun and interesting – a challenge for anyone working with serious subject matter. Powerful photos and bite-size, engaging visual content such as animated gifs and moving data also seem to be popular.

Already, we are thinking about our stories differently. We have created posts to mark the International Day of Zero Tolerance Towards Female Genital Mutilation and many more posts are planned.

BuzzFeed is just one of the new breed. We’ll also be exploring Upworthy, Trinity Mirror’s UsVsTh3m, and Quartz.

It’s a completely different approach to the usual PR-media routine and, if you’re trying to reach 20-somethings, well worth exploring.

Marisol Grandon is head of digital comms at the Department for International Development

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