It is of utmost importance that all communications – both internal and external – are considered with client confidentiality in mind. If your primary function as an organization is to protect refugees, this obligation must be balanced with your obligation to communicate to donors and supporters the details of your work. The Nairobi Code provides in-depth guidance on client confidentiality, but there are cases where it may not be enough, for example, if a client agrees to video interview for a campaign but is actively pursued by their persecutors. This is not a Nairobi Code issue but presents a clear security risk.

In order to mitigate risks, you may wish to institute a policy specifying that communications staff should not receive anything that cannot be shared externally. This would apply to:

  • Monthly communications reports
  • Client stories
  • Articles for newsletters
  • Information for funders/fund reports
  • Photos and videos produced by colleagues

Guidelines on getting information out safely

Why are these guidelines important?

Information is often shared among colleagues in your office, with global staff and also with partners and supporters. As something you say spreads among colleagues, including staff who may bring your stories to an external audience, it is important to avoid any miscommunication and misinterpretation on what should and should not be shared. This can be done through clear communication using the recommended guidelines below.

How to request information for external communications clearly?

When asking for information to be used publicly be clear about what is needed and why.  That way the person you are asking can get you the info more easily and will know how to deal with any confidentiality issues!

The following guidelines will help you think about whether you are being clear enough.

Include in your request to staff or clients the following specifics:

  • This information will be used for…: policy advocacy / grant application / communications / other. Give details.
  • The audience will be…: explain what type and number of people.
  • The information is required by…: issue an internal deadline and explain your external deadline if necessary.
  • This is important because…: explain how it affects the person involved, and how it would affect the organization as a whole.
  • The topic required is…: explain the specific question that needs to be answered, or theme that needs to be highlighted. Give an example of a few questions you might ask the person.
  • Anticipated problems…: highlight confidentiality or political considerations as appropriate.

What should staff do when contacting a client specifically to obtain information for external communications?

Be clear and transparent in how you will use their information, and give them a chance to tell you their concerns and what they want excluded from external publicity. If you identify security risks that they may not have considered, do take the initiative to withhold information from publication. If communications staff identify gaps in the story and seek more information, simply explain why information must be withheld due to risks to your client.

Sample dialogue

May, a VLA and Communications Liaison: Hi John, my colleagues have asked for some stories about our clients to share with our partners and supporters. Basically, this will enable us to put a human face on our work and tell them why what we do is important and how it impacts refugee clients individually. We won’t publish your real name to protect your identity. Would you be willing to answer a few questions please?

John, a client: Sure. I would be happy to. Just please do not mention what happened to me in prison and my hometown.

May: Great, please do let me know if you’re uncomfortable answering any of these questions, and if there is anything else I should withhold, perhaps your job, as you were a very high profile politician?

John: Yes, perhaps that would be best. Thank you.

What should staff consider when sharing client information, a story, photo, video or any other content used publicly?

Review the following checklist taking care to consider all aspects of the client’s protection needs.

If you were not approached for external communications materials, but want to share an inspiring story or interesting conversation had with a partner with your colleagues: how to communicate that this is internal or strictly confidential?

Use “stamps” as clear indicators at the start of the email, meeting or phone conversation, to clearly indicate how information can be used. Use them at the top of an email, at the beginning of a conversation, or clearly label a document. Note that Communications Reports should always need to always be cleared for publication.

  • Cleared for publication: You have done the checklist, all obligations have been met, and this information can be used in the agreed upon public ways.
  • Needs adjustment in __ ways: This content can go public if management staff make certain adjustments that are very clearly stated in this correspondence (e.g. blur face, change name, withhold home town).
  • Internal: this information needs to stay internal to the organization, but can be shared internally.
  • Confidential: this information needs to stay between the people on the email chain, and can’t be shared with others in the organization without further approval.

Flowchart to determine label:

How to tell inspiring stories without jeopardizing safety

  • Use a pseudonym for client
  • Obscure face in video
  • Remove identifying characteristics
    • Country of Origin, if few refugees from his country in your location
    • Job and hometown, if this is very small and easily identifies client
  • Share only when/if client has been resettled
  • Keep story very general in conversations, e.g. “We helped this single mom get refugee status, and with that she got a job and put her children through school.”