"I went to the Philippines, five days after Typhoon Haiyan..."

World Vision UK's senior communications advisor Chris Weeks flew into the Philippines in the aftermath of the devastating Typhoon Haiyan. Here, he tells PRWeek what it was like handling the media demand on the ground.

Chris Weeks (right) in the Philippines
Chris Weeks (right) in the Philippines

"I went out to Cebu City, in the Philippines, five days after Typhoon Haiyan struck to help co-ordinate the work we needed to do with the international media.

The people of the Philippines are sadly used to natural disasters, but Haiyan's scale was unique and the media demand on our communications people from international outlets was unprecedented.

Likewise, my colleagues back in London were swamped with demands for interviews with our people on the ground, who were in the middle of travelling to the worst-hit areas to make assessments of the damage and the need.

The phones in London, Manila, in Cebu City and the affected areas where our comms people were working didn't stop ringing, with urgent calls from newsdesks around the world.

We were called on to source and organise extra minibuses to ferry TV crews, journalists and photographers arriving in their droves on field trips to report on World Vision's food distributions around Cebu Island in the days and weeks after Haiyan.

Boats destroyed

Our aid workers and comms people alike (because the comms people are out in the field too, deployed as first responders) faced huge logistical challenges reaching affected places. The Philippines being an archipelago, you need boats to get round the islands.

Many were washed away, destroyed, and those in service were unpredictable, or otherwise booked out. Airports slowly came back on stream with the help of foreign military planes, delivering aid staff and media crews, and taking away hordes of local families.

Local buses and motorcycles were scarce – when you found them, fuel was a problem – and, when all else failed, some of my colleagues walked kilometres along destroyed roads.

Many of my Filipino colleagues were personally affected by the storm. I was so humbled to work with them. Together we focused on the job, even when it was clear that that their hearts were breaking.

Aid agencies often have to put in hard graft to get media coverage; we’re dealing with unpalatable issues in far-flung, unpronounceable places that will never affect most of us in our lifetime.

Being in the middle of it all is overwhelming, but co-ordinating media requests from all over the world, and keeping in touch with my London colleagues by Skype, necessitated almost round-the-clock work.

Media welcomed

I imagine that few of PRWeek's readers have the experience of doing their job among people who have just lost everything.

My Filipino colleagues were driven to get the story out and to free up our aid staff to get on with the essential work of delivering life-saving aid. What struck me most was that none of them saw the media attention as a distraction or irritation.

To them, documenting the disaster as it unfolded, and conveying this to the world in real time, was an integral part of World Vision's response. 

Electricity in affected places was held up by generators; demand on our local comms staff to write blogs for British newspapers, to file photos and organise live interviews, a welcome take on our work, were sometimes fulfilled in the dark and on empty stomachs.

"We need food"

It wasn't easy for us to think through how to produce clear coverage of the devastation and the need. In northern Cebu, I saw communities where every single home had been flattened and schools destroyed.

I saw children standing on the side of the road where everything had been ruined, clutching pieces of cardboard with the message, "We need food." In Tacloban, on Leyte Island, I walked through a city all but destroyed.

Every street lay in ruins with endless piles of debris emanating an unforgettable stench. Even two weeks on, just minutes from the airport I saw new bodybags at the side of the road, with a child’s doll placed on top.

In this job I've had to travel to places where locals resist images like that being broadcast across the world. They lament the fact they only get media exposure on ‘negative’ issues like disasters or conflict.

A country defined

They fear this is how their country and culture will be defined. In the Philippines, that could not be further from the truth. Filipinos are proud and have proven resilient; local communities have become involved in our aid distributions because they want to help.

They want the world to know their situation. Locals told me themselves that foreign journalists making the trip there were doing their duty, doing whatever it takes to hammer home the vast decimation of their lives."

Chris Weeks is a senior communications advisor for World Vision UK, a humanitarian aid charity focused on the needs of children around the world.

You can donate to World Vision UK's aid response in the Philippines by visiting www.worldvision.org.uk/haiyan.

Picture credit: World Vision

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