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Copyright Stephen van Fleteren/MSF Essay

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Mdecins Sans Frontires (from here on referred to as MSF) was founded in 1971 in Paris out the efforts of 12 dedicated French doctors. It is a private international organization which believes that “all people should have the right to medical care and that the needs of these people supersede respect for national borders” (MSF, 2001).

MSF offers assistance to population in distress, to victims of natural and man-made disasters and to victims of armed conflict, without discrimination and irrespective of race, religion, or political associations. Figure 1 represents the stakeholders of MSF. The information we collected concerns the General Public, Employees, Volunteers and Donator groups.

Figure 1

General Public

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The public at large represents the population that is as well aware or unaware of the existence of MSF, and who does not actively participate in any direct activity (e.g donating, volunteering) in connection with MSF. This group represents a great potential for MSF, as the general public are potential donators, volunteers and opinion makers.

Direct mail letter

The direct mail letter is distributed randomly via the letterbox to the general public in France.

The letter is on A4 mat paper. On the upper right hand, the red and black MSF logo is present. The text is written in the sans serif Arial letter type, black, with 1,5 spacing between the line. The layout is pragmatic. The paper is printed on both sides, with the body copy dominating. On each side of the letter there is a black and white picture (roughly 4 x 6cm) medical staff attending to infants. The imitation blue ink is used to underline an important point as well as the signature of the President of MSF. The content of the letter compares the situation of infants in France to that one of the ones in Sudan.

MSF is quite elaborate in explaining the situation of the orphanage, the problems they encounter, and what the task and goals of MSF are. They use quite some quotes from medical staff to give a personal element.

Campaign leaflet

This leaflet, a direct mail technique, is distributed via the letterboxes throughout France. It belongs to a larger campaign called Opration “1 euro par semaine” (translation: Operation, 1 euro per week).

Again, the leaflet is printed on thin glossy paper. The format of the folded leaflet is A5 and it consists of three pages. The front page consists of a colour picture of a doctor attending to a patient in a tent. In the left upper corner, overlapping the picture is the black and red logo of MSF. At the bottom of the page, a white caption containing the title text in dark red and a smaller, explaining phrase in black underneath. As you open the leaflet, because of the layout, you are invited to completely unfold the leaflet. The layout is rather distracting, with several components fighting for attention. Beige backgrounds with either black copy or white captions are to be found, 2 relatively large colourful pictures and one black and white picture are dispersed.

Titles are white text on a dark red background. And bold dark red and back sentences float with the leaflet. A unfamiliar non-serif font is used. The body is divided into columns. Looking at the contents, there is a small note from the president of MSF giving general info on MSF. Furthermore the leaflet explains the different possibilities of supporting MSF, the areas in which they invest their efforts and how donating one euro a week can help. In a caption, they explain the practical details how to participate in the 1 euro campaign. At the back of the leaflet, a inscription form is available. Furthermore, on that back page, a sort of facts page of MSF is printed. Again, the layout is unstructured. The title of the page is white type on dark red background. The titles of the paragraph are dark red. The paragraphs are a mixture of text and bulletin points. And at the bottom right corner, a beige caption, with a red border, contains a graph, explaining how their resources are spent.

Campaign brochure

This leaflet is given to people that visit MSF lectures and readings. It is part of a MSF campaign called No Pay, No cure, promoting inexpensive medicines to save lives. The brochure has an unusual format, slightly smaller than A4 and is printed on glossy paper. The front page depicts a photo of a young African child in black and white. The corners of the photo have been rounded off. In the lower right hand corner a small version of the MSF logo appears. Layered on the photo, are 4 small captions containing other photos and the title of the brochure, No pay, No cure, goedkope medecijnen van levensbelang. Small text headings describe the identity of the subjects with the photos. The back page is completely red, with just a small caption again of the title of the campaign. Again the block of colour has rounded frames.

Within the brochure, the layout is very consistent. On the left page, the text body, on the right page, four black and white photos, and a red caption with text, all again with rounded borders. The titles are in very large black ink, with the names of the subjects highlighted in red. The text body is divided into two columns.

Looking at the content, each double page directs its attention to the account of a one patient’s situation, all in different countries and different illnesses. The tone of voice is very soft and narrative. It is like reading into a diary.

Because of the consistency of the simple, but effective layout, the brochure is very inviting and easy to read. The style of the content also flows.

The format of the leaflet is an A4 page, folded into thirds. The paper is of thin glossy quality. The front page consists of a faded colour picture of two African habitants, a man and a boy on a bike, one of them is wearing a t-shirt bearing the MSF logo. In the left lower corner, an invitation to become MSF ambassador is written in big red letter face. In the leaflet you have another invitation, as a title this time, to share your engagement. A clean-cut body copy explains in a nutshell, what the intention of the leaflet is. Two black and white pictures are used to illustrate the leaflet. On the right hand, ready-to-be-cut-out coupons are available, waiting for the reader to fill them in. On the back page of the leaflet, the instructions again are simply explained in bullet points. The logo appears again at the bottom of the page. The use of colour and layout is consistent and not over crowded.

Employees and Volunteers

This internal stakeholder group is of great importance. Looking at MSF, they consist of several internal groups. Firstly, you have employees, receiving remuneration for their time and effort. These employees can be either active in the main country offices, performing managing or administrative tasks, or they can be employees that are out on location in the humanitarian camps or other projects, such as medical staff. Volunteers at MSF accomplish similar tasks which can be either administrative or field orientated.

Corporate communications aimed at this stakeholder group was hard to come by. However, we managed to lay our hands on the French internal newspaper. Furthermore, we interviewed per email Manja Kamman, the communication and fundraising officer of MSF Holland on their communication activities. Below is her written statement:

“We use the intranet for both our office staff and field volunteers. We also publish an internal magazine, the “Ins and Outs”, which goes to all office and field staff and to members of the MSF-Association as well. Once a year we publish a Social Report, which describes the most important socio-organisational and HRM-developments over the past year. There are a few electronic newsletters as well, distributed by different departments. E.g., the Press and Information Unit publishes the Over and Out mailing; the IDC (Information and Documentation Centre) and the ITC/Facilities department have electronic newsletters as well.”


Message was originally an internal newspaper for French employees and volunteers. However, as MSF expanded, and the newspaper with it, the interest towards the newspaper grew. It is now also sent to interested journalists and other stakeholders, who have expressed a particular interest. Unfortunately, there are no official circulation figures.

The newspaper is on A3 recycled thin mat paper. The front page is divided into several sections, the title of the newspaper at the top, accompanied by the red MSF logo. On the right, there is a column, with an editorial note, concerning one of the missing employees. A large black and white picture of an under nourished child in below the title and takes virtually half the page. The accompanying article is below. MSF chose again the sans serif font. The body text is divided in 5 columns. The layout is clear and structured and pleasant to look at. The use of red ink in the titles and other areas freshens the pages.

The newspaper consists of 15 pages. The layout through the newspaper is consistent. All photographs are black and white, depict MSF in action and are evenly distributed. They are framed by a bold red or black border. The lengths of the articles are quite long. A maximum of two subjects is treated per page. The articles are written from different points of views, but all concern the several projects MSF is involved in. For example, the first article is the diary of an American doctor active in Liberia. Another article is a deep backgrounder of the situation in Liberia. It questions the involved parties responsible for the conflict and the attitude of intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations intervening, and the hope for political change. Other projects covered are RD Congo, Brazzaville, Uganda, and the disappearance of Arjan, a Dutch MSF employee.

One can state that MSF goes into very in-depth detail about the socio-political background of their projects. There is an overload of information. However, since the newspaper is published for involved stakeholders, this is not damaging. The tone of voice is very critical. They seem to present hard facts. Furthermore they defend any criticism coming from the French government or journalist very firmly.

Joining MSF brochure

The format of this brochure is very similar to the concerning donations made via a legation or a tax free giveaway. The cover and back page are again made out of thick environmental friendly paper. The front page is completely covered by a black and white photograph, on the bottom left corner the red and black logo of MSF is visible. With large red and black letters the subject of the brochure ‘Joining MSF, Challenge without frontiers’ is placed. The photograph on the front page continues on the back page, which only features the address of MSF Holland. The inside of the front page is bright red.

The text is only written on the right part of the right page, the left page and a part of the right page is covered with a black and white photograph. The text is written in small paragraphs in a serif font. Bright red letters state the headline and the subheadings are written in bold black letters, both of them in a sans serif font.

Again the content is similar to the above-mentioned brochures. MSF starts by explaining how MSF developed to what it is now, their mission and vision and how they function as organisation. It then leads to the more obvious information on the positions needed by MSF and the necessary requirements, as well as the conditions of employment/volunteering. The tone of voice is very straightforward and blending with the layout.

The equivalent French brochure is somewhat different. The format is A4, leaflet-like and printed on lean shiny paper. A colour picture covers the front paper. The MSF logo is found at the bottom of the page to the right. The title of the brochure is in white and see- through letters, just below the centre the page. In the leaflet, the layout is less structured than the Dutch/English version. At the back of the leaflet, the page is covered with miniature photos of MSF volunteers, with a caption containing the MSF address. The text is divided into columns, some two, others five. The title of paragraphs in bold dark red or grey letters, the letter type is sans serif. Going through the leaflet is a bar of colour, with a big heading, and colour pictures.

Looking at the content, again it is quite different than the Dutch/English version. The French version presents information in different styles. First of all they tackle fewer subjects. However the subjects they do write about are more in-depth and integrated into a whole. There are also quotes from employees about their motivation of volunteering. The tone of voice is more appealing than and not as flat as the Dutch/English version. This brochure does not offer a clear overview, and the reader is pushed to scan the pages for the information he is looking for.


MSF is eminently dependent on donations, this makes the donator group one of their most important stakeholders. We divided the donators group into four subdivisions, namely:

1. Business donators: one should think about companies and organisations giving large sums each month or year. They can been seen as a sort of sponsor;

2. Donators: individual donators that give monetary donations to MSF. This also includes donations that come from a legation or a so called ‘giveaway’ from individuals / organisations. This is attractive as it is deductible on their tax free income;

3. Student/Schools: primary schools that hold a MSF project and raise money in this way;

Annual year report

A company is legally obliged to publish a year report. At MSF this is mainly intended for the Business donators, although anyone interested can request a copy.

The cover is made on relatively thick mat paper and a black and white photograph completely covers the front page, A4 size. Besides the small red/ black MSF logo bottom left and the small red letters just above the centre of the page there is no text. Thus one is truly focused on the photo, which shows a mother and a child in winter clothes in a disconsolate surrounding. The inside of the front page is bright red and in the centre written in white letters the internet address of MSF Holland.

Every page in the report contains a black and white photograph; some of them take up a whole page whereas other photos take up 1/4 or ? of the pages. The pages are mat paper and somewhat thinner as the front and back page. This makes it easier to flip through the pages.

Regarding the layout of the text, the headlines and introductory texts distinguish them from the rest since this is written in a sans serif font where the rest of the text is in a serif font. All texts are presented in columns with subheadings for comfortable reading.

The report opens with two MSF employees, a member of the board and external director, a picture of them is added to make the text more personal. By means of briefly explaining some of their projects they both stress the fact why MSF is so important. Moreover, the external director explains the main purpose of the year report and makes clear the support and commitment of the donators is well appreciated. The preceding 26 pages go into detail about their recent projects, all accompanied with pictures. The remaining 12 pages discuss the importance of MSF, their employees and the financial charts. One paragraph is dedicated to the Nationale Postcode Loterij, by far the largest donator of MSF in the Netherlands. No photographs can be found in the financial section, this is due to the fact that there are several balance sheets taking up the space.

An A4 size blurry black and white photograph covers the back page, again the paper is a mat thick one.

Taken as a whole the text and pictures of the annual report reveal the pain and hopelessness of the victims, it is depicted in a way that it evokes compassion in the reader.


The magazine ‘Hulppost’ is sent out four times a year to everyone that has given a donation once or periodically to MSF Holland. A black and white photograph covers the front page of the magazine, A4 size. Next to the red/ black MSF logo, upper left corner, is the name and issue of the magazine, in the lower left corner a red caption mentions two of its subjects. The magazine is printed on environmental friendly mat paper, the front page is of the same material as the rest of the magazine.

Although the text dominates, on every page black and white pictures of their projects can been seen. The text is presented in columns and the font used is sans-serif for their headings and a serif font for the body copy. The overall colour in the magazine is black and white, red text highlighting the topic.

Even though the magazine does not consist of many pages (12 in total) there is an extensive amount of information. It starts of with a message from the external director, content page and general information. Furthermore it describes several projects, has a financial part and it features an article of a doctor in Afghanistan for a personal element. The back page is dedicated to thanking donators that collected money in a particular way and letters from Dutch children.

Again the writing style and photographs creates a certain mood and bring compassion to the reader. By sending this magazine to every donator, regardless of the amount, MSF stimulates involvement and could incline him or her into giving another donation.

Information booklet

Primary schools in Holland can request an MSF package so students learn about the work of MSF via playful and educational means. The package consists, among others, of an information booklet for the students.

The front page shows a colour picture of a little child getting an injection by an MSF employee, and covers about 3/4 of the page. In the lower left corner a white caption with the red/ black MSF logo, in the top right corner a white caption with black letters saying ‘informatie boekje’ and in red ‘Artsen zonder grenzen.’ The front page and back page are printed on a thick mat environmental friendly paper. The back page contains three photographs, both colour as black and white casually placed on the page. The MSF logo can be found on the bottom right corner in a white caption.

Flipping through the booklet one notices the use of colour. Black and white photographs interchange with coloured photographs, drawings and captions. Small pictures are located on the top of the pages and even two pages are solely with pictures. The text is presented in small columns, completely written in sans serif font and subheadings for easy reading.

When analysing the text one becomes aware of the simple word choice and style of writing, though still informative. By using of drawings and examples, especially examples containing children, the students can identify and understand the purpose of MSF. Furthermore, the students have the opportunity to request more material for a lecture (spreekbeurt) and are informed how they can support MSF.

Student’s booklet

The student’s booklet is part of the information booklet which primary schools can request for their students. The booklet is somewhat smaller than A4, the cover and back page are made of the same thick mat environmental friendly paper as the information booklet. The colour photograph takes up 3/4 of the page and the word ‘leerlingboekje’ is printed in black on the photo. The bottom left corner carries the red/ black MSF logo, top centre of the cover white letters mention the subject ‘Op pad voor Artsen zonder Grenzen.’

The back page is green of colour and contains the colophon and four colour photographs, mainly of children. The MSF logo is located on the bottom left of the paper.

The layout of the booklet is rather childlike, colour pictures are scattered over the pages and there is an abundant use of colour, though not distracting. The pictures portray the life of the victims however, the pictures used in this booklet come across less disheartening than the ones used in the year report.

Every page contains a small text, the heading is written in a serif font whereas the text is written in a sans serif font. Every text is accompanied by a question, which can be found back in the text and in the information booklet. The text is written in a simple style and most often written in first person.

The booklets perfectly suits its purpose namely, informing young students, make them aware of the issues in the world and the fact that not all children lead an uncomplicated life as they possibly do.


MSF has two separate brochures concerning donations made via a legation or a tax free giveaway (actually says ‘schenking per notarile akte) . We will discuss them simultaneously since the lay out and style are similar to one another. The brochures are of a strange format, somewhat larger than A5 size. The cover and back page are again made out of thick environmental friendly paper. The front page is completely covered by a black and white photograph, on the bottom left corner the red and black logo of MSF is visible. With large red and white letters the topic of the brochure ‘Schenken per notarile akte’ or ‘Erfenissen en legaten.’ The photograph on the front page continues on the back page, which only features the address of MSF Holland. The inside of the front page is bright red with the internet address of MSF Holland written in white sans serif letters.

The text is only written on the right part of the right page, the left page and a part of the right page is covered with a black and white photograph. The text is written in small paragraphs in a serif font. Bright red letters state the headline and the subheadings are written in bold black letters, both of them in a sans serif font.

The content of the brochure has a logical construction, it commences with some general information about MSF and their projects. Subsequently, the financial basis is discussed, before getting to the explanation of how one can donate money via their legation or tax free giveaway. The legation brochure ends there; one can request more information about this topic or request a brochure about the tax free giveaway. On the other hand the tax free giveaway brochure explains by means of tables and charts how a donation can help both parties. On the last page one can fill in a form to donate money in this way.


Corporate Identity

When analysing the corporate identity of an organisation, a useful tool is the Birkigt and Sadler model (1986). It looks at how an organisation manifests itself and classifies any action or expression of an organisation into one of the following three factors: behaviour, communication and symbolism. These factors mirror the “personality” of the organisation, so it is the manifestation of the company’s self-perception.

If we transfer this theory on MSF, we can conclude the following:

First we look at the behaviour of MSF, so at the actual conduct and attitude of MSF employees. Although we have only recently established contact with MSF Holland and MSF France, both head offices were very forthcoming and helpful. They are investing quite some time and energy in creating a pleasant and personal relation with us. Furthermore, during our research, we have learnt about their different communication activities. In our opinion, these are quite wide spread, and go from giving brochures and video material to primary schools, to giving presentations to community group. So at this stage, we can conclude that part of their personality is to be open, transparent and proactive.

Secondly, after analysing the visuals of the corporate communication activities, as seen above, we look at their communication. Through our research, we found that the communication style differed between France and Holland. Cultural differences were taken into account. In France a more opulent style is used and the texts are more manipulative, whereas in Holland, where the population is more down to earth, the messages are more straightforward. However, they also have common elements. They both stress their experience in the field, they use a personalised approach, and the visuals are dominant.

Last of all, we look at symbolism. The most apparent symbol is the MSF logo. This is used consistently in every document, leaflet or brochure and placed at a prevailing spot on the medium. Looking specifically at the Dutch visuals, their choice of colours, format and layout is also extremely consistent. This gives a very professional impression. The French are more playful with their visuals, use more colours, also colour pictures in their materials. However, one can still detect that a certain concept is being followed. We conclude from this that MSF gives great care in presenting itself in a harmonised fashion.

This leads us to determining the common starting points (CSPs) of MSF. These derive from the chose communication strategy and are established by all relevant internal parties concerned in the company’s communication. CSPs are values which are used as a foundation for any communication initiation and can be seen as an organisation’s choice in priority of what messages will be communicated, on a behavioural, communication and symbolic level.

In our opinion, these are the common starting points of Mdecins sans Frontiers are:

* Openness /Honest /Transparent

* Ethical

* Autonomous

* Proactive

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