A Soldier from Taiwan places her arm gently around the shoulders of an elderly woman who had been rescued from a village where Typhoon Morakot left hundreds of people dead. An Indonesian Soldier passes out food to grateful refugees who were displaced by eruptions at Mount Merapi. A team of Japanese and U.S. Soldiers clean mud off the floor of a high school gymnasium that was flooded during the devastating tsunami of 2011.
Scenes such as these show the strength, compassion and support that militaries provide during devastating disasters. The world would never see them without the power of the media. Journalists can be important allies for security forces during a disaster, experts say. Their portrayals of the situation on the ground can sway the affected population’s morale and international sentiment. “You need to be prepared for almost a continuous vote of confidence by the press and the international community as your government responds to a disaster,” Jim Welsh of the Center for Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance told FORUM.
Developing a media strategy can prepare militaries and security officials to effectively disseminate public safety information and highlight rescue and recovery efforts in a crisis. The following pages feature tips for leveraging the mass media.
Know the risks. Officials know what types of disasters their country may face. Gathering background information ahead of time and predicting media questions can help officials be prepared, experts say.
Make a communications plan. Decide who will speak for your group and how information will be distributed in an emergency. Contact partner organizations ahead of time to cultivate a pool of experts who can speak on various topics, and coordinate the messages that will be relayed through the media. “If you wait until a disaster occurs and then say, ‘What’s my media plan?’ it’s likely you’re never going to catch up,” Welsh told FORUM.
Develop relationships with journalists. Know which journalists cover your organization, and understand what they look for in a story, experts say. Work with them to promote your organization all the time, not just during crises. “Development of these relationships will pay dividends in the midst of a disaster by providing a credible source of information to reporters based on past interaction and by ensuring that reporters tell their stories from a position of background knowledge and not speculation,” Dennis M. Murphy and retired U.S. Army Col. Carol Kerr wrote in an issue paper for the Center for Strategic Leadership. “It also builds trust between the military that is critical to information sharing.”
Practice. Invite journalists and partner organizations to help plan and participate in training exercises in which you test your disaster preparedness and your communications plan. “By bringing them into the planning phases, it helps them build an awareness of all the different things that the military is focused on when a disaster first strikes,” Mary Markovinovic of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) told FORUM.
Act fast. When a disaster strikes, the information that comes out first sets the tone for what people believe, experts say. Officials should be proactive in contacting the media to disseminate information quickly and allow access to disaster sites. “Many times, leadership will get behind closed doors in that emergency operations center when they’re trying to grasp what the situation is, and they’ll leave a void for a certain amount of time,” explained Markovinovic, who teaches crisis communication and media engagement at APCSS. “They’re trying to do the right thing, but it’s also very dangerous.” Even if there’s little to share, military officials should be quick to inform the media that they are taking action and will give frequent updates as the situation unfolds, experts say.
Coordinate messages. Work with established partner agencies and various spokespeople within your own organization to present clear and nonconflicting messages to the media. Multiple news outlets will be seeking information at the same time, so “empowering multiple officials to provide complementary information can bolster the message,” Murphy and Kerr wrote.
Spread your messages across various media platforms. Depending on the severity of the situation, your target audience may have access to only certain types of media. For example, with widespread power outages, populations might turn to smartphones to get information from social networks and news websites. Others may listen to battery-powered radios. “If you rely on one means of communication, you might not be able to get to people,” Markovinovic told FORUM. So share messages with all media outlets your target audience might use.
Set the record straight. In today’s news environment, information can flood in from a variety of sources, and not all of it will be correct. Military officials must counter rumors and false reports quickly, experts warn. “Studies have shown that you have about 15 minutes in today’s information environment to respond to mis- and dis-information or it becomes truth to the target audience,” Murphy, a professor at the U.S. Army War College, wrote in another report, titled “The Role of Information and Communication in Disaster Response.”
Evaluate your plan. Identify which parts of your communications strategy worked and which didn’t, and adjust accordingly.
Highlight your accomplishments. Work with the media to tell stories of successful operations and your continued recovery efforts.
Be prepared for scrutiny. No matter how well your operations went, there will be public scrutiny. “Disasters provoke immediate attention from the media. … Everyone has to expect an immediate microscope and be prepared to respond,” Welsh told FORUM.
Frequently Asked Questions
Public affairs officers and other officials who speak to the media should be prepared to answer a variety of questions. In addition to basic information about the disaster, journalists will want detailed information on everything from victims’ names to damage estimates. The World Health Organization offers a list of 77 questions to expect, along with other preparation tips, in its Effective Media Communication During Public Health Emergencies field guide (to download the field guide, go to www.who.int/csr/resources/publications/WHO_CDS_2005_31/en). Here are the highlights from that list:
- Why did this happen?
- Did you have any forewarning?
- What can we expect next?
- What is the worst-case scenario?
- Could this have been avoided?
- Who is to blame?
- How much will all this cost?
- What help has been requested or offered from others?
- What lessons were learned?
- How long will it be before the situation returns to normal?