Peri Orbus

Navigating Communications Around Humanitarian Disasters



Keeping a disaster like Typhoon Haiyan at the forefront of public consciousness is critical to successful recovery and rebuilding. Abby Spring, who worked on the ground with the UN World Food Program, shares some best practices for keeping the focus on recovery long after an initial disaster hits. Sadly, with the advent of the tornadoes in the Midwest U.S. this weekend, the lesson to keep in mind the needs of those far away and those closer to home is even more relevant.

– Matthew Harrington (Note: Matthew is on the board of WFP USA)

As a spokesperson for the World Food Program, I witnessed firsthand the devastation of disasters like Super Typhoon Haiyan. I am grateful to have worked with relief workers, journalists and fellow communications experts, packing our bags every time floods or wars wreaked havoc on humanity – together we learned how important it is to keep the public’s eye on a crisis after the initial headlines fade.

Pitching journalists about how many tons of food aid the UN moved does not sustain coverage. As New York Times columnist Nick Kristof said, people understand arguments emotionally, not rationally – which is why telling stories matters.

Smart communications can drive policy. It pressures governments to keep their pledges, encourages industry to step up with meaningful contributions and builds empathy among citizens to be part of the solution. Yet oftentimes, after the crisis passes, media instead become critics of the emergency response itself.

To keep the humanitarian focus in the news, I follow these guidelines:

  1. Make it personal. Tell stories that put a human face on the disaster. Explain the difference that donations make to individual lives and families. Find creative ways of telling the human impact, like following a family through the crisis from beginning to recovery.
  2. Empower. Demonstrate how individuals can be part of the solution. If audiences feel they can make a difference, they will. Showcase success and solutions to prevent donor fatigue.
  3. Stick to the facts. Take care not to exaggerate.
  4. Keep it timely. Leverage key calendar dates – such as one month after the disaster, six-month anniversaries, to keep the story going throughout the year and beyond.
  5. Find credible, authentic voices. Recognize that local media outlets have the potential to play a key role in keeping stories alive, providing credibility and bringing forward the voices and perspective of the people affected by disaster. Promote sources from where the disaster hit – expats and artists, influential and real everyday voices.
  6. Go social. Social media is a powerful tool for bringing the story to life through eye witnesses and citizen journalists. It also increases two-way communication with affected communities, local media and organizations that are trying to help.

As we come to grips with the full impact of Haiyan on the Philippines, keeping the story going will be instrumental to rebuilding and recovery.

Abby Spring has more than 15 years of experience as a communications expert working across humanitarian and development issues. She is a senior vice president for Edelman in the Washington, D.C. office

Image by DVIDSHUB.
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