Relief efforts provide lessons for PR

As the tsunami in Southeast Asia showed, reporting on a natural disaster can be noble work - but there are some PR pitfalls that must be avoided.

As the tsunami in Southeast Asia showed, reporting on a natural disaster can be noble work - but there are some PR pitfalls that must be avoided.

Most relief organizations have media plans ready should a natural disaster strike, but the press has less of a structure in place to cover these catastrophic events.

Although the news media has been criticized for being slow to recognize the magnitude of disasters abroad, the recent tsunami in Southeast Asia yielded a mammoth media effort there.

"I would say, in general, that the media has had a mixed record covering disasters, but this time they got it right with the disaster in Asia," says Dianne Sherman, associate VP of public affairs and communications for Save the Children. "What I'm most excited about is that there was less reporting about the problems and more reporting about the great needs and heroic efforts of everyone to try to meet the needs of children and families."

The need for education

Education will be a significant component of such a PR effort, since many reporters will have had limited experience covering large-scale disasters.

"There are some reporters mainly out in the field in regions where this is a daily job and there are also a few others in the US who have always been interested in this type of story," Sherman says. "But there are very few reporters who have this as a beat."

In addition, reporters from all beats often are scrambling to find unique angles to a disaster, especially after the first week. "Sometimes it's financial writers, or columnists, and sometimes it's the health reporters," says Lurma Rackley, PR director with CARE, an international humanitarian aid organization. "We have had calls from everybody under the sun."

Rackley says most reporters have at least some degree of familiarity with CARE, but they must be brought up to speed on how and where it operates. "Some thought we respond domestically, and many thought we sent people over in times of crisis and took volunteers with us," she says. "But we tend to have staff on the ground already in many of the countries that are experiencing crises."

While the recent tsunami commanded the front page of US newspapers for weeks, other disasters - such as the earthquake in Iran or droughts in Africa - might only make headlines for a few days.

 "It's hard to compare one to the next," explains Carol Miller, senior program associate, international services for the Red Cross. "When it's a domestic natural disaster, the story will last a lot longer."

But major relief organizations are also keeping the tsunami story alive through events, such as the recent celebrity-filled benefit concert for victims. Miller says the Red Cross also has been actively disseminating information to chapters around the country so they can provide comments and statistics that help localize the story.

With natural disasters, Sherman says most reporters want to supplement facts with interviews from people on the ground. "We don't like to go over the top about suffering children," she says. "But everyone wants personal stories that allow people to connect emotionally."

Beware of exploitation

A story like the tsunami relief efforts does put major humanitarian relief organizations under an intense media spotlight for a brief time, but Sherman says they have to be careful not to be seen as exploiting a tragedy to highlight work they do in other parts of the world. "Nobody likes bait and switch, so the message has to be delivered in the right way and the right time."

Corporations also have to walk a fine line in publicizing their contributions to disaster relief efforts.

Sonia Taylor, senior media specialist at Allison & Partners, notes that even finding the right reporter to pitch has to be handled delicately.

"You can almost bet media outlets will do follow-up stories six months to a year from now to see how much the rebuilding efforts have progressed - but finding out who will be doing those stories and when is very difficult," says Taylor, who has worked with a law firm offering insurance advice following the 2003 wild fires that devastated parts of California. "You don't want to be seen as self-serving. Sometimes even when you find people that are doing it, it may not be appropriate for your client to be in that story."

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