Crisis comms: 2004 tsunami - Disaster recovery

Five years ago the world reeled at the impact of the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami. Cathy Wallace looks at the comms challenges NGOs faced and what they have learned.

Devastation: millions of people lost their homes
Devastation: millions of people lost their homes

On Boxing Day 2004 the UK woke to news of a natural disaster of epic proportions. The Indian Ocean tsunami claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people and wreaked mass devastation in 13 countries. Five years on, its impact is still felt.

The disaster was a world first in a number of areas, and communications was no exception. A report by Oxfam into the charity's comms handling of the event says: 'The tsunami was the first "blogged disaster", much of whose media impact arose from Western tourists filming the massive waves on mobile phone cameras and passing the footage on to commercial news organisations.'

For both Oxfam and the British Red Cross, an instant reaction to the breaking news of the disaster on Boxing Day was key. 'Our then senior press officer set up a press office on her living room floor and I don't think she was able to get out of her pyjamas for the next 12 hours,' says Leigh Daynes, head of corporate external affairs at the British Red Cross.

Sam Barrett, head of media at Oxfam, adds: 'I was on the phone to our director at 6am that morning. We had our first press release out within one to two hours and we put out three or four statements on the first day, saying what had happened and what Oxfam was doing, and what were our concerns. Because we started so early we were in a position whereby we could shape our role in the debate from the beginning.'

Another unprecedented result of the disaster was the amount of money raised.

Both NGOs had a responsibility to show the public where its money was being spent.

'We encountered a surprising level of hostility from some parts of the media,' says Daynes. 'There was some uninformed reporting on the way that we were allocating and spending the money, with little appreciation of the nature of the work and the challenges in each affected country.'

For example, in Northern Indonesia many people did not have land titles, so reconstruction work took longer as the legalities had to be established.

'There was no point building houses on land on which people didn't have a legal title,' says Daynes. 'But there was a sense that the recovery effort was not big or quick enough given the scale of resources available.'

Barrett adds: 'When the media attitude shifted from promotion to scrutiny we had to find new ways of shaping the coverage.'

For both NGOs the tsunami changed their approach to comms.

'We went on to restructure our press office and establish news, features and forward-planning desks,' says Daynes. 'We realised along the journey that the nature of comms was changing dramatically and significantly, and that we needed to embrace digital media.'

While the primary focus of any international aid organisation is to save lives, Daynes points out: 'Information in itself can help save someone's life. If you need to know where to go for shelter, food or to be reunited with your family, information is a form of relief.'

9 - The Richter scale rating of the earthquake that triggered the tsunami

13 - The number of countries affected by the tsunami

20m - The height of the wave that hit Indonesia

500kph - The speed of the wave

230,000 - The number of people who lost their lives in the tsunami

£84.9m - The money spent by the British Red Cross on recovery

3km - How far the wave travelled inland

5 million - The number of people who lost their homes or access to food and water

Source: British Red Cross.

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