Opinion: Tsunami disaster humbles all of us

Helplessness is not a feeling that comes easily to the controlling characters who generally work in the PR arena. But helpless is precisely how most people felt in the days following the Christmas festivities, as the sheer scale of the tragedy caused by the earthquake in the Indian Ocean became clear. More used to shaping events and their outcome, all most could do was to pick up phones and credit cards in an effort to somehow stem the tide of suffering. That so many of the public did donate such a fantastic amount - around £75m at the time of going to press - is indeed inspiring and humbling, as are some of the tales of self-sacrifice spurred by the tragedy. It is a strangely uplifting counterpoint to the more terrible tales of loss.

For once the media have not questioned the motives of corporates making donations - willingly reporting on those firms that have donated without the customary cynicism about 'CSR or PR tactics'.

PR is, of course, peripheral to this tragedy. Except if you happen to work for Oxfam, Tearfund, British Red Cross, Christian Aid, Save the Children or one of the other voluntary sector agencies that make up the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC). These PROs are some of the few who have been able to do more than just make a donation. But it takes a particular type of person to be able to rise to this magnitude of challenge.

Many years ago, fresh from graduation, I did a work experience stint at Amnesty International and later worked briefly for UNICEF Australia.

In both cases, I found myself overwhelmed by the sheer awfulness of the situations they were dealing with. I soon realised that empathy alone - or worse, burying your head in your hands - does not help anybody. Humbled, I went on to choose a different career path.

It requires a very hard head to articulate information in a factual way that will effect change. The challenge for PROs at charities, in the face of this scale of tragedy, is enormous and complex.

The past few years have seen a tide of private sector workers looking to 'give something back' by going to work in the voluntary sector. While this influx of private sector skills can only be beneficial, I do wonder whether many underestimate quite how pragmatic - and tough-minded - you need to be to be effective in the face of human suffering.

And let's face it, despite the historic level of donations made, the need for aid is going to extend far beyond the immediate swell of media and public attention. The challenge for the DEC is sadly only just beginning.

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