Case Study: Googling for a Cause: A PR Partnership Goes Digital on Behalf of the Darfur Crisis

Companies: Google, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and BrightEarth Project Timeframe: 2006-ongoing The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., wanted visitors to learn about the ravaging effects of the modern-day genocide in Darfur. Teaming up with Google, the museum created a campaign entitled "Crisis in Darfur" that incorporated the use of satellite imagery with layers of data and multimedia in Google Earth, the virtual program that offers 3D maps of the globe. This innovative, technically savvy program makes the genocide in Darfur tangible to viewers on the other side of the world, and also serves as a new model in the dissemination of information about human rights violations. The idea of the program crystallized with the birth of another program: the first version of Google Earth, which was released in June 2005. Prior to this, the museum's Academy for Genocide Prevention was seeking new ways that foreign policy experts from diverse organizations, such as the U.S. government, NGOs and the UN, could better communicate to the public about emerging threats of genocide and mass atrocities. In Google Earth, the museum recognized tremendous potential to share information about genocide and human rights abuses in a compelling and timely manner. Thus, a partnership was born. A Bird's-Eye View To further flesh out and implement the project, the BrightEarth Project, an outside volunteer organization, was recruited to seek out the necessary data and imagery. Because the crisis in Darfur was entering its third year, the team at BrightEarth hoped that usual data already existed. What they found--satellite imagery and online maps created by the United Nations, NGOs and the U.S. State Department--affirmed this. Working with museum staff over the course of a year, the BrightEarth volunteers pooled data on village destruction, locations of refugee camps and humanitarian access. From this, they created the first layers in early 2006. However, without high-resolution imagery underneath, presenting the data in Google Earth wasn't that different from showing a traditional map. Enter Google, which soon agreed to provide high-resolution imagery of large swaths of land represented in the Crisis in Darfur project. It would take a bit of persuasion on the museum's behalf to entice the online behemoth to join the fold and seal the collaboration, but it was agreed early on that Google's participation was essential. "The volunteers of the BrightEarth Project was working with the museum to do some drafts [on what would become the Crisis in Darfur project] and explore the possibilities of what we could do with Google Earth, using their imagery and data to illustrate [the massive scope of the genocide in Darfur]," says Michael Graham, program coordinator of the Genocide Prevention Mapping Mission Initiative for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. "When we came together with these volunteers and created some initial layers, we thought the most effective thing to do was to get that content to be featured in Google Earth. There was some back and forth [with Google], convincing them to work with us so we could get new high-resolution satellite imagery of the Darfur area." In the fall of 2006, Google agreed to allow the museum to feature its layers on top of the Google Earth imagery in the Crisis in Darfur project. "The combination of their mapping layer with our Google Earth software and imagery allowed the general public for the first time to zoom into Darfur and see the thousands of burnt-out villages, destroyed homes and bleak refugee camps with their own eyes," says Kate Hurowitz, manager, global communications and public affairs, Google. A Team Effort Google Earth's delayed involvement notwithstanding, their work with the museum to meet the goals of the initiative was an example of a true collaboration. "[From the inception of their participation], we worked with some of their staff at Google Earth every week from the fall of 2006 to the launch, prepping everything, making sure everything was good to go," says Graham. The combined synergy of the museum and Google Earth heightened the program's ultimate effectiveness. "It was completely a joint launch," says Andrew Hollinger, the museum's director of media relations. "Google Earth had provided us obviously with the high-resolution maps necessary to do the mapping in the first place, and they were also very much behind the project. We did a joint announcement here at the museum. Perhaps most important, Google made the Crisis in Darfur default content for all Google Earth users so anyone who goes onto Google Earth and [virtually] 'flies over Africa is going to encounter this material." Unsurprisingly, with such a densely detailed program, challenges abounded, but for Graham it all boiled down to making sure the project made sense to the viewer and that the narratives were clear. "Initially [it was hard logistically] organizing volunteers to get everything finished. But the biggest challenge was dealing with that much information and pulling it into a coherent story." For Google's Hurowitz, the challenge was making the graphic and disturbing material viewer-friendly without sanitizing the content and diluting the project's objective. "We have millions of kids flying around in Google Earth, so we wanted to find a responsible approach, which also allowed uncensored access to all of the material," she explains. "Finally, we arrived at an excellent win-win solution. We worked together to split their layer into two parts, a preview layer that was included in Google Earth, and a second layer downloadable from the first, which contained the more disturbing material. The download link includes a warning about the nature of the material. That has worked well." Using the satellite imagery, users were able to see the impact that the genocide in Darfur has had on regional, village and even individual home levels. Images of the charred remains of villages on Google Earth, coupled with a multitude of refugee camps housing tens of thousands of displaced, showed incontrovertible proof of the tragic devastation. Viewers can click on icons and read about the villages and the people who lived there. They can also click on "How can I help" links that send users to a Web site ( Stories Behind The Story As effective as the data and imagery were in making the devastating repercussions of the genocide palpable to viewers, they were still unable to convey the stories behind the statistics. To fill in the gaps and finish the product, photos and videos from museum staff and renowned international photographers were added to the project. Also included were testimonies from Amnesty International. All of these elements combined to put the pieces into context. Launched on April 10, 2007, and still ongoing today, the Crisis in Darfur project has garnered international attention. The ROI has been tracked in a number of ways that include media coverage, Web site traffic, clicks on "How can I help" links in Google Earth layers and subscriptions to the e-newsletter. The project has been covered worldwide by media outlets and in many different languages, from Arabic to Dutch. Teachers, aid workers and activists are now using it to show what the effects of genocide look like. Other results from the campaign have been the following: The Museum's Web site is receiving 50% more traffic than it did prior to the Crisis in Darfur effort; International visitation has increased from 29% to 52%; The number of hits from the Sudan has multiplied more than tenfold; The project has expanded the global reach of the museum's Web site. The percentage of the museum's Web traffic from outside the U.S. leaped from 25% in May 2006 to 46% in May 2007, and then to 52% in September 2007, with a greater percentage of visitors reportedly coming from countries such as China, Turkey, Brazil and the Netherlands; Nearly 200,000 visits have been made to the "What Can I Do" (to Prevent Genocide) page since the launch (this is 40,000 visits/month average, which is up from around 2,000 visits/month before the launch); and, Subscriptions to the e-newsletter (related to genocide prevention) saw a boost of 1,000 to 1,200 new subscribers in the month after the launch--seven times the monthly average. In addition to these results, the campaign won the 2007 PR News Nonprofit PR Award in the "advocacy campaign and lobbying effort" category; it also received an honorable mention in the "corporate partnership/s" category. The results have been so positive and beneficial for both the museum and for Google Earth that, as of press time, there are plans for other joint projects, according to Hollinger, though not on the scale of the partnership that characterized the Crisis in Darfur program. "We certainly plan on using Google Earth technology to draw attention to potentially genocidal situations around the world," he says. For Google, one important lesson learned was that their product could be easily utilized as an effective platform for outreach and information on an ongoing humanitarian crisis. "The Crisis in Darfur project paved the way for the creation of the Google Earth Outreach program (, which aims to make Google Earth more accessible to non-profits and public benefit organizations," says Hurowitz. "By talking to the folks at USHMM and other public benefit organizations, we were able to get a good sense of what the challenges are for organizations with limited access to resources (technological and otherwise). The tutorials, case studies and other materials available on the Google Earth Outreach site were designed with those concerns in mind." For the museum, working with Google Earth was certainly a best practice in terms of mutual cooperation. "Working with them was absolutely fantastic in that they were so supportive of us," adds Hollinger. "They made a tremendous impact on the amount of attention [the Crisis in Darfur program] got. Otherwise, we did do a lot of preparation coming up to it. But I think when they and our organization came together, the outcome was something that stirred up lot of people. It was Google Earth and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum saying that this is something that's going on now and it's important for people to know about it and learn how to stop it." CONTACTS: Andrew Hollinger,; Michael Graham,; Kate Hurowitz, Getting Visual The overall aesthetic of the Crisis in Darfur project was integral to its success, says Andrew Hollinger, media relations director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. "From a pragmatic PR perspective, just in terms of the outreach that we do--and Google Earth is a very visual medium--we took a lot of time to prepare photographs that are featured on it. Michael [Graham, program coordinator of the Genocide Prevention Mapping Mission Initiative for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum], did a phenomenal demonstration DVD where he leveraged the visual impact of the whole program so that we had these things available for broadcast outlets, Web sites--any organization that could utilize still imagery or moving footage. We had all of this material ready to go, which really helped deepen the coverage of [Crisis in Darfur] and help us get not just more stories, but better, bigger and more well-rounded stories."

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