NEWS ANALYSIS: Communicating at a time of crisis

Aid agencies in disaster zones need to rethink how they work with the media if they want to get the word out and the donations rolling in, writes Kate Magee.

Appeal: Don McCullin
Appeal: Don McCullin

The complex and often fractious relationship between aid workers and journalists was put under the microscope last week. Speakers at a conference organised by humanitarian news network Reuters AlertNet reported that some journalists’ eagerness to help the cause can actually compromise aid agencies’ ability to raise funds if the public feels that the journalist is no longer upholding media objectivity.

But for most aid agency PROs, the pressing challenge is ensuring enough media interest in their specific disaster area to attract donations. Only then do they have to start overcoming the weighty log­istical problems of managing the journalists’ presence.

The first step, argues Glenda Coo­per, Guardian research fellow at Oxford University’s Nuffield College and former BBC reporter, is to reject negative perceptions of journalists. ‘The pessimistic self-perpetuating view that journalists are not interested in disasters is just not the case. Since the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, everyone is scared of missing the next one,’ she says.

The right resources
When an emergency strikes, aid agencies need to have a media unit with the right resources to deal with it. ‘Investing in media relations is a straight­forward business decision,’ says Tim Large, deputy editor at Reuters AlertNet. ‘If aid agencies want greater coverage of “forgotten” emergencies, they need to invest in communications training and expertise down to the local level,’ he argues.

A 2004 report by the Fritz Institute interviewed 290 international journalists and found they wanted to know which aid groups were working in an emergency zone, how to get good images and videos and be provided with essential background information on emergencies.

Sunday Telegraph senior correspondent David Harrison agrees that communication in the field is essential. ‘The key thing is to get the contact established as soon as possible, providing names and numbers,’ he says. ‘When I was doing a report on rape victims in the Afghan war, the first thing I needed to know was which refugee camps agencies were operating in. Then I needed to find out which women were willing, and able, to talk to me.’

The importance of case studies should not be underestimated. As Harrison argues, the best way to tell a story is through people. Fundamental to a PRO’s job is to find, brief and protect these people.

Media officer Kathryn Rawe from Save the Children, an organisation praised by Harrison, explains: ‘A media officer needs to understand the story from a journalist’s perspective and to understand what they need. Give them a breadth of different and dissenting voices, and put the journalist in touch with the people they need to speak to.’

The importance of striking imagery should not be underestimated either. ‘Dramatic pictures always make an impact and newspapers often follow the TV agenda,’ says Cooper. ‘You could have the best story in the world, but if you cannot provide the pictures or the right quotes, then it is not going anywhere.’

She cites the 2005 food crisis in Niger as a case where good material sparked widespread coverage. ‘Aid agencies had been warning about the potential crisis for months,’ she says. ‘It was only when Hilary Anderson went out to the region and did a series of reports for the BBC, that the rest of the media followed.’

PROs should be aware that the ‘rest of the media’ are often journalists who do not have experience or a specialism in reporting from disaster zones. Offering the right inform­ation and being able to properly brief a reporter is crucial.

Reuter’s Large argues that continuous contact is paramount. ‘Journalists are overworked, overstressed and often overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information competing for limited news space,’ he says. ‘Aid agencies can help by taking on a quasi-educational role, entering into constructive dialogue about emergencies. The time to do it is not 15 minutes before deadline. It is an ongoing process.’

In her research, Cooper found aid agencies expressing concern the tsu­nami has ‘raised the bar of what makes a disaster’. Indeed, getting dramatic and sudden events into the press is now often easier than securing coverage for slower-building, but often more chro­nic disasters.

Relevance to the reader
But it is not impossible. Cooper spent four weeks with Oxfam when they launched their recent Chad appeal and she praises its creativity. War photographer Don McCullin was enlisted to take exclusive pictures in the region and these were displayed at an event alongside a reconstruction of a typical refugee tent in the region.

‘It was far more interesting to see than people sitting behind a table,’ she says. ‘Journalists do not want to see a gimmick every time,’ she adds, ‘but that was a good example of PROs thinking clearly about an issue and how best it can be communicated.’

And while hard statistics are important, crea­tivity and access play a huge role in a story being told. Relevance to the reader is also paramount typified by the phenomenal coverage of the Boxing Day tsunami. Running over several weeks and dominating headlines, it gained widespread media attention partly because readers connected with the story. It involved British people, in a place where British people visited.

‘A newspaper is ultimately a commercial organisation and that has to be a consideration,’ says Harrison. ‘If there is a British connection, then that makes stories more relevant and interesting to readers.’

For the same reason, Cooper warns PROs against overlooking regional UK media. She argues that finding a local angle to a news story – such as a local person working in the disaster-hit region – will connect readers and is one of the most effective ways of fundraising. ‘In the race to embrace electronic media and TV, it would be unwise to forget the power of regional media,’ she warns.

Put simply, getting coverage is ultimately telling a good story and answering two questions: ‘Why should we care?’ and ‘Why should we care now?’ ‘Aid agencies can do a lot to boost the media visibility of long-term complex emergencies through creative comms,’ Large adds. ‘It’s not rocket science. It just means thinking like a journalist.’

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Source: Reuters AlertNet
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