Corporate Case Study: AmeriCares spreads relief by spreading message

In times of natural disasters or political unrest, AmeriCares' comms team strives to support its crisis personnel through media relations and by raising funds for assistance programs.

In times of natural disasters or political unrest, AmeriCares' comms team strives to support its crisis personnel through media relations and by raising funds for assistance programs.

ANALYSIS Corporate Case Study: AmeriCares spreads relief by spreading message By Craig McGuire In times of natural disasters or political unrest, AmeriCares' comms team strives to support its crisis personnel through media relations and by raising funds for assistance programs. In the northeast region of Chad, along the Sudan border, tens of thousands of refugees are suffering in squalid camps. And since the beginning of the year, AmeriCares has been there, airlifting tons of desperately needed water-purification supplies, medicine, and equipment for mobile medical clinics. A nonprofit, international disaster-relief and humanitarian-aid organization, AmeriCares provides immediate response to emergency medical needs - and supports long-term humanitarian assistance programs - for people around the world, regardless of race, creed, or political persuasion. Not surprisingly, communications play a crucial role in AmeriCares' ability to marshal resources and draw international attention to alleviate the pain and suffering caused by natural disasters and atrocities, as is the case in Sudan. Early last year, fighting intensified between Sudan's government and two rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Movement/Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement. The conflict stemmed from rebel demands for political autonomy and a share of national resources. As a result, thousands have been killed, and thousands more have endured rapes, beatings, and abductions. Entire villages have been looted and burned, forcing more than 1 million Sudanese to flee their homes. Instability continues despite a cease-fire agreement signed in early April. Saving lives through comms Whether raising funds, feeding refugees, or coordinating responses for people who have just had their homes blown away by hurricanes, AmeriCares communications programs save lives. In addition to actual emergency-response communications, these professionals have to coordinate with media that want to speak with someone near the epicenter of the story and must be articulate enough to speak about how it affects audiences back home. Meanwhile, they must continually craft compelling campaigns to raise private funds. Unlike many humanitarian-relief organizations, AmeriCares does not actively seek government support. If that weren't challenging enough, some of these complex emergencies might put personnel in situations where it is difficult to assess security. That includes Iraq, Liberia after President Charles Taylor was deposed, and Haiti after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide stepped down, says Cecilia Fabrizio, AmeriCares' VP of communications and marketing. Because of the immediacy of natural disasters and the fickle nature of the media, for AmeriCares' PR pros, there is no tomorrow. In early August, in the midst of advanced planning for an airlift to channel desperately needed supplies to the Chad/Sudan camps, the AmeriCares team emerged from a particularly grueling strategy session, exhausted and emotionally drained. It was at this time that news reports began to filter in of a major storm brewing in the Caribbean. "From that point forward, it was a relentless pace, four hurricanes in six weeks," recalls Curtis Welling, AmeriCares' president and CEO. "The emotional intensity alone can be crippling, and you worry how long you can drive people at close to red-line RPMs before they break down." Apparently, they can take it. The team mounted a massive response effort to counteract some of the devastation, estimated at $25 billion in collective damage done by hurricanes Jeanne, Charley, Frances, and Ivan. The communications team must position spokespeople to be accessible to work with media in the early part of the news cycle and provide on-the-ground information. "When Hurricane Charley was barreling in, I was out in the field and needed to report what local relief efforts were under way," says Laura DeAngelis, a reporter with Connecticut local cable news network News 12. "I contacted AmeriCares, and they responded within the hour, connecting me with coordinators in Connecticut and Florida mounting relief efforts and working with disaster victims. The quick response enabled me to get the video to our production in Stamford [CT] and was added to the daily churn that day." Developing a PR strategy Since its founding, AmeriCares has provided nearly $4 billion of aid in more than 137 countries. However, the communications operation did not actually develop into a discernable entity until a few years after it launched in 1982. "At the time, there was only one person who was responsible for handling the press when AmeriCares was contacted about the disaster airlifts," Fabrizio says. "Over time, the department also became responsible for donor communications, such as the newsletters. Now, of course, it also includes web-based communications." Today, the communications department is a service to the other departments inside AmeriCares. "Its role is to communicate to all internal and external key stakeholders in order to meet the objectives of our programs," Fabrizio explains. Communications is an outward-looking function, so it is often the first to be aware of strategic challenges the divisions might face. "From a communications perspective, our group is unique because we are supporting four programs or departments, all with compelling stories," Fabrizio says. "In addition, when a disaster hits, media work for the disaster takes precedence over all other activity, since it is imperative that we meet the news cycle for that disaster." AmeriCares' large international program involves work with more than 40 countries, including such disease-specific programs as preventable blindness from trachoma and home-based care for HIV/AIDS. AmeriCares' three domestic programs include Home Front (providing intensive repair projects for financially needy homeowners who might otherwise lose their homes), Camp AmeriKids (providing a camping experience for kids affected by or infected with HIV/AIDS), and AmeriCares Free Clinics (a network of free clinics in Connecticut that provide free primary and specialty care to the working poor). "The most compelling professional characteristic of the team is how open they are to team work," says Frederika Brookfield, communications director for This Old House. The popular home-improvement program helps promote the Home Front initiative every year. "They are not proprietary at all and, in that way, create opportunities for the best results, and are always interested in learning new ways of reaching out," Brookfield says. "The challenges in a nonprofit world are to garner attention in a landscape that is often filled with 'celebrity fluff' gossip and bad news. This is a team who taps into national trends that make a difference in people's lives - be it home-improvement news, human-interest stories, etc. - to deliver substance to the media." Seeking outside PR help In order to accomplish its goals in the most cost-efficient manner possible, AmeriCares performs almost all of its PR work in-house. But it is always looking for a helping hand from PR firms. For special projects, AmeriCares engages outside support, such as ICA Strategic Communications, which, like AmeriCares, has its headquarters in Stamford. In late May, ICA managed communications while AmeriCares rushed lifesaving relief supplies to the flood victims of the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Whole villages were destroyed, and access to many of the hardest-hit people was nearly impossible because of the flooding and landslides - devastation that drew media attention worldwide. "As AmeriCares' reps, we knew that we were one of a few people who could offer the press real-time reaction from our relief workers, on the ground, in the disaster area," says Dwain Schenck, ICA's founder and president. To understand the scope of the demand, consider that the story eventually ran on ABC, CBS, NPR, CNN, 380 stations on the WOR Radio Network, and the AP radio network. More than 50 million radio listeners alone in the US and Canada tuned in as spokespeople described braving the mud in Haiti or manning the phones at AmeriCares' headquarters, Schenck says. "Working for a disaster-relief agency can be exhilarating and sad at the same time," Schenck adds. "You are exposed to all forms of human suffering. In the time we have serviced the AmeriCares account, we have garnered press for riots and floods in Haiti, hurricanes in Florida, medical clinics in Liberia, AmeriCares health clinics in Connecticut, and provided media blitzes for AmeriCares' relief program in Chad/ Sudan. It is gratifying to work with such dedicated people, to be surrounded by staff and volunteers who are real heroes and heroines." PR contacts Marketing and communications VP Cecilia Fabrizio Communications manager Elizabeth Walsh Web-based communications manager John Mucci Cause marketing manager Laurie Fogarty Swenson

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