The evolving role of the media in covering disasters

Thanks to today's 24-hour media cycle, we can witness even the most shocking disasters as they unfold all over the nation and the globe.

Thanks to today's 24-hour media cycle, we can witness even the most shocking disasters as they unfold all over the nation and the globe. Recently, the world watched as the media reported Hurricanes Gustav and Ike ravage through the gulf coast. This past spring, news reports broadcasted around the clock giving updates about the devastating hurricane in China and the cyclone in Myanmar.

Technology, such as mobile devices and online maps, coupled with citizen journalism has transformed the way the media gathers and communicates information to the public about disasters. Technology has enabled journalists to broadcast from the frontlines of disasters, strengthening reporting, as well as changing the dynamic of the media's responsibility – which now often includes disseminating information about survivors' needs and directing audiences to charities to donate cash, products and volunteer services.

In the wake of the 2008 rash of disasters, Business Roundtable convened diverse journalists from the nation's leading news organizations to discuss the radical shift in how the media report on disasters today and how reporting has evolved since Hurricane Katrina. The event was hosted by the Roundtable's Partnership for Disaster Response, a cross-industry task force that is working to leverage the resources and expertise of the private sector to enhance the relief and recovery efforts following major disasters.

Participants in the media panel included Jeanne Meserve, CNN; Kelley Holland, contributor to The New York Times; Brad Heath, USA Today; Amanda Ripley, Time Magazine; and Kelly Flynn, CNN-Impact Your World. The lively discussion elicited particularly helpful tips for communicators who work with the media during a disaster:

• Develop relationships with the media before a disaster: Businesses, first responders, and the government need to have strong relationships in place with the media before a disaster occurs to allow for more effective and efficient communication.

• Be proactive in reaching out to the media: The media value the business perspective during the chaos of a disaster. Strong relations with the media can help companies get the word out on how their operations are affected by a disaster and can also provide an opportunity to highlight companies' philanthropic response. 

• Empower employees to share their stories about their company's response efforts: The media have changed their “old school” approach from simply giving the public facts and figures about disasters to showcasing individuals who are taking action and contributing to the relief effort – perhaps as part of a company-sponsored volunteer effort. For example, CNN has established Impact Your World to provide its viewers with a place to share stories and information about relief agencies and how to donate to them. 

• Take an active role in communicating about disaster preparedness: The media recognizes that preparedness is a critical component of disaster response, but acknowledged that it is challenging to cover in a compelling way. Therefore, panelists recommended that the media, business, and government should re-frame the issue of preparedness and communicate about it more consistently to persuade employees and citizens to be better prepared before the next disaster strikes.

As PR professionals, we need to be aware and take advantage of the changing media environment to make sure that the media have the full story on how business is responding to disasters. With the growing frequency of catastrophic disasters in the US and abroad, it's more important than ever that business views the media as a key communications partner.

Johanna Schneider is executive director of external relations at the Business Roundtable, an organization comprised of CEOs of leading US companies with $4.5 trillion in annual revenues.

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