Last week, we launched an urgent appeal for Darfur, following the growing number of displaced people in remote camps in Western Sudan. Our media relations campaign focuses on personal stories from the Gereida camp, aiming to raise awareness and inviting people to donate.
But launching such a campaign is extremely challenging. We are trying to communicate effectively this complex and politicised conflict in a way that is meaningful and does not jeopardise our access on the ground.
The most effective way of communicating the horror of an emergency situation is to keep it human, with personal stories being the most powerful advocate. But inviting and enabling people to tell their own story is a tremendous challenge because, in an insecure environment, people are often reluctant to speak out due to fear of identification and recrimination.
With the fighting in Darfur constricting media access, and some people being too scared to be identified, we decided to visit the area ourselves in order to bring back the story. Radio is also a very useful medium as it provides anonymity as well as being an evocative storytelling tool. And providing this privacy can sometimes make the difference between life and death.
The issue of safety is also paramount to British Red Cross staff, especially since we are the only British-based agency with expatriate staff on the ground in remote parts of South Darfur. We would never want to jeopardise this work on the ground, so we have to be extremely careful.
In an era of mass electronic communication, we know that what we say in Britain will be read internationally. The best way to ensure a campaign does not badly impact on the organisation is to set up internal dialogues between the communicators and those delivering services. This ensures the up-to-date knowledge of those on the ground is being passed on to other parts of the organisation. We are very strict with risk-mapping for the organisation: we have open and frank discussions with people on the ground to discuss whether the stories we want to tell are appropriate stories at that time.
It is also important that the media coverage of an emergency does not portray those affected by the crisis as being helpless victims, but as people with a future and choices. We need to be successful in communicating the horror of the situation without leaving the reader with the view that it is an intractable problem. We need to empower people to think that they can really help.
As the stewards of other people's resources, we also need to maintain public trust and confidence. People want solutions to the problems they are being shown. They also want to see how their money is being used. And while our campaigns aim to raise funds, an important objective is to increase understanding and awareness. Camp workers said the one thing they would say to people at home was: ‘Tune in to the news and be aware of what is going on.'
Ultimately, the British Red Cross wants to prompt a response, whether it be a donation or greater understanding.
Leigh Daynes (above) is head of media and pubic affairs for the British Red Cross