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Pandemic Warriors: How Australia broadcasts local voices, far and near

Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade partnered with national broadcaster ABC to tell powerful local stories about development and co-operation.

This is a guest post authored by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

As communication professionals, we all know it is difficult to reach audiences on a budget, and in a crowded digital space. When you have a complex and broad topic to explain —i.e. a country’s development assistance program— and when rolling pandemic lockdowns limit filming in your region, you have an even larger challenge.

Then add to that the need to produce content that has impact —vying for more than a small number of ‘likes’— and receiving a big invoice from your production company. You’d be forgiven for thinking “it’s all too hard right now”.

Here in Australia, at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), we looked outside the digital box for a different way to distribute our stories—with the help of a third-party broadcaster.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Australia’s national broadcaster, has an international arm, ABC Australia, with a similar charter to our own—to display the nation’s values and way of life to our region. Similarly, DFAT aims to communicate a modern image of Australia to the world to promote our interests.

Recognising the alignment between public broadcaster and public diplomacy, DFAT has a number of other programs with the ABC:

  • Chopsticks or Fork?, for example, captures the unique role Chinese restaurants play in rural Australia —using the soft diplomacy power of food to help transcend cultural barriers and bring people together, while also building understanding of Australia’s rich Chinese-Australian community and diaspora.
  • That Pacific Sports Show celebrates the achievements of Pacific athletes and sports teams in competition across the Pacific, in Australia and around the globe. This program is particularly effective given Australia and the Pacific share a rich history and deep love of sport through collaborative and ambitious partnerships.
  • Following the devastating 2019-2020 Australian bushfires, we also partnered with ABC to produce special episodes of Back Roads, Landline and Gardening Australia to show partners overseas that Australia was recovering and open for business.

Australia’s Government has also announced an Indo-Pacific Broadcasting Strategy that aims to significantly boost Australian content and project our identity, values, and interests across the region with the ABC’s help.


Content on development assistance is an important component of this—to show how it helps Australia tackle mutual global and regional challenges with our partners to shape the region we want.

This is particularly important following the COVID-19 pandemic, which has inflicted devastating health and economic impacts on Australians and countries around the world. The impacts have been far worse for neighbouring developing countries, who were already facing multiple challenges—from geostrategic shifts to humanitarian crises when the pandemic struck.


It is in this context that DFAT and ABC launched the series Pandemic Warriors, offering a voice for local development champions and building awareness of Australia’s support. Our goal was to show how and why Australia is standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our neighbours to save lives and livelihoods in response to COVID-19.

DFAT supplied the funding, scope, and multiple story-leads from the Australian development program. ABC added their production ability and broadcast reach, as well as their own story research. Together, we are sharing real human stories exploring Australia’s enduring partnerships with our neighbours.

The series has delivered results.

Shot in nine countries across Southeast Asia and the Pacific, the series reached a broadcast audience of more than 2.5 million in 40 Asia-Pacific countries via ABC Australia and its affiliates. It was viewed by hundreds of thousands more on ABC’s social media platforms and its domestic streaming service ABC iView.

Large broadcast hours resulted from packaging the short documentaries as interstitials—best described as 5–7-minute programs used to plug schedule gaps in lieu of advertisements played on high repetition.

The series also benefitted from ABC’s credible voice—they are, after all, Australia’s most trusted broadcaster, free of commercial and political interests. ABC also brought their experience on how to build compelling television for the region, shining a light on how to tell the critical development stories where Australia is a valuable partner on vaccine access and end-to-end health support; climate action; access to education; gender equality; economic recovery; and tackling rising misinformation.

The series’ pilot, Australians About, which aired in 2020, focused more on the Australians who were delivering help in the region when COVID-19 first began. The most popular story in that series was of a young Australian pilot named Olivia Magoffin. Olivia helped in the humanitarian response to Cyclone Harold at the same time as flying DNA samples out of Vanuatu for COVID testing in New Caledonia, and then returning with medical supplies—a story that resonated well with both Australians and local Melanesians.

In retrospect, given the series’ focus on Australians delivering aid and providing their expertise, these stories would have worked best if they had been broadcast domestically rather than internationally.  This is why, for the second series, which was targeting our Indo-Pacific neighbours, we recast the program to use the voices and stories of local ‘warriors’ making a difference with Australia’s assistance.


The formula behind the success of the series was two like-minded partners (DFAT and ABC) working together to feed compelling development stories into a regional broadcast network hungry for new content during COVID-19 lockdowns.

Pandemic Warriors lifted Australia’s campaign messages off our social media sites and instead broadcast them to much larger audiences across the Asia-Pacific—a boon for our international engagement. And it was a genuine strategic endeavour thanks to the international reach of ABC Australia.

Our take-away: there is a light at the end of the tunnel for development communicators on a low budget. With a bank of great stories and the right broadcast partner, it is possible to film in-country, even during a global pandemic, and share impactful content with a wide reach internationally.

As for the future of DFAT’s Pandemic Warriors series, it’s looking bright. ABC scheduled a second release of the original series across their broadcast and social media platforms. Together we are producing another ten episodes (and a feature length documentary) which commenced broadcasting in early August 2022. The second season of the series continues to tell the development stories that resonate with our region, promoting Australia’s international interests, and explaining why, in today’s geostrategic context, development assistance matters more than ever before.

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