News Analysis: NGOs rethink PR in wake of tsunami

When a disaster such as the Asian tsunami receives blanket coverage, how do charities not directly involved maintain their media profile? Ian Hall investigates. The devastation caused by the South-East Asia tsunami disaster has - quite understandably - dominated the news agenda for the past three weeks.

With the relief effort now well under way, the work of the Disasters Emergency Committee - an umbrella body for UK charities such as ActionAid, British Red Cross, Christian Aid, Oxfam and Save the Children that is on the front line - continues to generate heavy coverage.

But how has the proliferation of coverage of the charities that are working round the clock in South-East Asia, and the various fundraising campaigns that have been launched in the UK, meant a reassessment of publicity and fundraising strategies for those charities that are not directly involved?

Reassessing strategy

Louise Speake, senior researcher at monitoring and comms consultancy Infonic, says: 'The tsunami has had a negative impact on the relative visibility of charities such as Amnesty International, which has become used to eclipsing most other NGOs in media coverage because of the recent focus on human rights in Iraq and Africa' (see NGO Watch, p8).

She adds: 'While the last few days of December saw NGOs involved in the relief effort receiving many times more coverage than other organisations did for the entire month, this was not at the expense of uninvolved charities or NGOs - the same, however, is unlikely to be true in January.'

Amnesty International is one organisation that concedes that it has been forced to rethink its immediate communications priorities as a result of the tsunami disaster.

Press officer Steve Ballinger says: 'Of course it's a very busy news agenda at present - people quite rightly want to know what has happened and about the tsunami relief effort.

As a result, we've reduced our PR output over the last week or two, in terms of pitching stories and sending out releases.

'Organisations not directly involved in the relief effort don't want to appear crass or irrelevant, nor to be competing with aid organisations working on the ground,' he adds.

In respect of avoiding being seen as 'crass' in the current environment, Andrew Papworth, a communications consultant with experience of the charity world, agrees that PROs at charities that, for example, work for animals, should be cautious about campaigns they undertake.

Papworth advises: 'Publicising pictures of a sad-looking animal, say, could be seen as crass in the context of such major human suffering.'

Cathy Pharoah, director of research at the Charities Aid Foundation, a body that provides financial services to charities, similarly cautions: 'If many charities have any sense they will postpone their PR campaigns and fundraising for a while.'

The 2001 terrorist attacks in the US serve as a possible guide as to how an unforeseen tragedy can affect people's charity giving.

Evidence from the US - provided to PRWeek by GuideStar, a Virginia-based philanthropy information service - indicates that some charities not directly affected by 9/11, such as those concerned with arts and culture, did face a donation shortfall - although many primarily blamed economic recession and not the transfer of donor funds to humanitarian relief organisations.

However, National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) director of public policy Campbell Robb says there is no evidence to suggest that the tsunami appeal will adversely affect other fundraising activity within the sector in the longer term.

Indeed Institute of Fundraising chair Lindsay Boswell says: 'Disaster appeals often engage those that are not active charitable supporters to dig into their pockets, engaging new donors with charity.'

There is a consensus that the PR and fundraising activities of the UK's smaller, local charities are not likely to be affected by the tsunami aftermath.

Indeed most charities have long-term fundraising strategies in place and are not significantly affected by short-term blips that may be caused as people give money to the tsunami appeal, points out Charity Times editor Peter Davy.

Queen Elizabeth's Foundation is a Surrey-based charity for disabled people with annual revenue of around £12m. Head of PR and communications Fintan Nicholls says: 'The initial impression might be that people will transfer their loyalties to other charities but this disaster has, as yet, had no impact at all on our supporter base.'

Guide Dogs press officer Chris Dyson says it is 'too early' to assess how the tsunami may affect the charity's work.

However, he points out that any event that increases overall awareness of charity work and giving - past examples he cites are Live Aid 20 years ago and the launch of the National Lottery a decade ago - will, at least, increase the potential for giving.

Boswell agrees, saying: 'During Live Aid, it was shown that giving to all causes in the months following the appeal actually increased and this gives us hope that the same will be repeated here.'

The communications operations of the larger charities, such as Amnesty, are already preparing for the moment the media and the public's attention begins to move on from events in Asia and the relief work in the region.

Aid to Africa

As part of Britain's chairmanship of the G8 summit, Tony Blair wants to make alleviation of poverty in Africa a priority.

There is understandable concern among charities and campaigners with interests in Africa that it may now get neglected as the spotlight remains on the relief effort in South-East Asia.

Rock star and campaigner Sir Bob Geldof, for example, last week urged that Africa's debt problems remain a priority despite the tsunami disaster while Chancellor Gordon Brown last Thursday spoke of harnessing public sympathy for tsunami victims' fate to drive forward the agenda for African aid.

Ballinger says: 'The tsunami doesn't mean that other issues have gone away and there will come a point when we have to start reminding people of that - that people are dying every day in the Congo and Sudan, for example.'

He adds: 'The challenge is to ensure that these issues are reintroduced sensitively and at the right time.'

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