A sculpture inspired by a Bansky painting and a pendant in the shape of historic Palestine hang in a small shop in the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. A recent study found the nearly 6,000 refugees living there for nearly three generations are among those most exposed to tear gas in the entire world.

Yet in this war-torn region, a young boy finds inspiration. And Hashtag Our Stories is helping not just him tell his story, but thousands of others who have been largely ignored by mainstream media.

The young boy in the southern-occupied West Bank city cries when an Israeli soldier shoots tear gas. Then he collects the container, and turns it into art.

Husband-and-wife Yusuf and Sumalya Omar co-founded the company that works with citizens and journalists alike to give them a voice through their smartphones and social media.

They go into underserved communities and teach them skills like how to create Instagram Stories, post on Twitter and manage a Facebook group, hoping they will speak out when they have something to say.

The concept is hyperlocal content stripped down to its core, and the company is based on three pillars, three E’s, if you will: experience, empowerment and engagement. The Omars help them develop the experience to successfully operate their mobile device, empower them to share on social media, and teach them the importance of engagement to spread their message.

“It gives communities a chance to tell their story through their own voices and perspective,” Sumalya said.

Yet the company is also consciously constructive in its approach. Where many may see a disaster zone, Hashtag Our Stories zeros in on the positive, intimate, amazing tales of people overcoming challenges. It takes the opposite stance of the old-school newspaper’s “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality, Yusuf said.

“We’re interested in solution-based storytelling for brands and organizations,” he said. “Here’s a problem in society, and here’s someone trying to do something about it.”

Losing Control

Palestine was the 26th country in the last three months that the couple have visited.

On March 12 and 13, they’ll be in Rome speaking not to the impoverished, but to hundreds of entertainment marketing executives at PromaxBDA Europe 2018.

Yusuf, a former senior social reporter at CNN and mobile editor at the Hindustan Times, often goes into newsrooms and teaches journalists the ins and outs of mobile reporting.

But rather than breaking down the best practices of Snapchat, he and Sumalya will discuss how companies can better leverage the social media power of individual influencers by authentically aligning their brand with a social cause.

Yusuf pointed to Facebook’s new algorithm change that gives publishers a lower priority in newsfeeds as an indication of why companies need to embrace a cause, and put their content in the hands of those who are already actively engaged in that cause, so those ambassadors can organically promote the good the company is doing in the community.

A company’s consumers are turned into its content creators.

“The biggest stumbling block for most brands is trust,” Yusuf said.

There’s often a general concern with relinquishing control of the corporate account so someone who’s never produced anything in his or her life can do a Facebook Live takeover. But fear not.

“Professionalism has never been less relevant,” Yusuf said. “We are the YouTube generation. We’ve never been more forgiving of poor video and audio … Reality is the new quality.”

“Which is why it does so well on social media,” added Sumalya.

The Facebook strategy for Hashtag Our Stories is to have a separate Facebook page for all the 24 and counting communities they’re in. It’s far more valuable to have 1,000 pages with 100 highly engaged followers on each, than one page with 10 million followers who are all just kind of interested, Yusuf said.

He puts basic moderation controls and filters in place, then sits back and allows—or rather empowers— the groups to manage themselves.

“You will never have a social media team big enough to harness the true potential of the Internet to reach people,” Yusuf said. “Decentralize your storytelling process, and you will have more world of mouth than you know what to do with.”

A Lasting Impact

Yusuf and Sumalya work with NGOs and universities to identify where to go, and usually train five or six communities in one country.

About 10 percent of the people they train become active on social media.

“It’s difficult to incentivise,” Yusuf said. “We can’t give them a salary, and they’ve got things to do.”

“But when something does happen, it’s the trigger that gets them to use their phone,” Sumalya added.

Nearly 10 months ago, they trained a group of waste pickers in India on how to use Instagram Stories, and didn’t hear anything for quite a while.

“I thought this training had failed miserably,” Yusuf said.

Then the Indian government raised taxes on recyclable plastics, directing impacting these people’s livelihoods, and all of a sudden they began posting on social media. Their stories were picked up by local Indian media and amplified enough by activists and lobbyists that the government reduced the taxes.

“In the most dire moment when nobody was listening to them, they used their cameras as a form of communication,” Yusuf said.

Another project, The Beautiful Girls Of Bhatkal, feature women in South Asia speaking up about their identity and why they choose to remain covered.

“The piece is about checking your prejudice,”Yusuf said. “Why did it do so well? It started a conversation. Is it oppression or is it tradition?”

The biggest challenge now for Hashtag Our Stories is being able to scale that social impact.

“That’s really where businesses can step in,” Yusuf said.

Whether it’s financial resources, training, or boosting content through paid media on social platforms, companies can do their part to connect mainstream media and policy makers with those living on the fringes of society.

From Sri Lanka to Sweden, through financial resources, training, and boosting content on their social platforms, “they can help provide the incentive,” Yusuf said, “for communities to tell their stories.”


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