Haiti news coverage holds lessons for crisis planners

Filed under: Letters to the Editor |

Press reports coming out of Haiti tell of hope and hopelessness, heroic rescues and somber burials. The disaster hit us hard here in Colorado Springs. Some of our neighbors were victims.

Predictably, though, news coverage and commentary are now turning away from the victims and toward arguments about who is to blame and what should be done next.

The reporting reflects a cycle I have seen in most disaster coverage over the past 20 years. It is important for organizations to understand this cycle, especially if they are on the front lines of the next crisis.

The first reports from a fresh disaster are usually sketchy as news organizations scramble to determine whether the story will be big news or worthy of only a bulletin at the bottom of our TV screens. Proximity, familiarity and scale are normally the determining factors. Fires in California affecting 1,000 people or floods in Italy affecting a million will normally merit more coverage than landslides in Bangladesh affecting 10,000 people.

The next stage is the emergence of the first photos and video from the disaster along with on- scene reports from victims. I was surprised by how quickly cell phone interviews with survivors made it out of Haiti, accompanied by cell phone video and Skype reports. I expect the speed and quality of “survivor video” will continue to increase with every new disaster.

If the disaster merits on-scene reporting, news organizations begin the mad dash to be the first on the ground, live. The most prominent reporters will cover the disaster themselves for a few days before passing their microphones to the second-string.

As this transition happens, coverage also transitions from the scope of the disaster to reports of rescue and relief efforts moving to the scene. There is great hope on display in the photos and video of skilled responders boarding planes loaded with relief supplies. It appears everything will be fine.

Then, the mood changes. The second-string reporters on the ground are under tremendous pressure to produce compelling stories by deadline. Overwhelmed first-responders are too busy to cooperate, so reporters go looking for victims. Hopeless-looking and pleading for help, the victims, not the rescuers, become the story.

At this point, the anchors back at their news desks start asking the “hard questions” about why aid isn’t getting through. After all, we saw video just yesterday of aid being loaded. Why hasn’t that aid reached the victims our news teams found this morning?” The complexity of a rescue and relief effort is too much for news organizations to understand.

Many news organizations truly think their pressure will improve the rescue and relief efforts under way. News coverage begins to feature remote interviews with family members, begging for help to find their missing loved ones. Aid agencies complain they are being impeded by red tape. It all looks like chaos.

Then, as relief agencies get a foothold, victims get help. The initial rush of relief supplies gets distributed and the situation stabilizes. The second-string reporters begin to pull out, aid slows and the press turns to parceling out blame.

“Who is to blame?” becomes the story. Politicians, disaster planning experts, environmentalists, and more victims and their families dominate the coverage. This is what we see on the news today. After this phase, coverage normally dies out, relegated to the back pages and think-tank analysis while relief efforts and rebuilding go on, almost unnoticed.

It is important for organizations dealing with disaster or planning for the next crisis to understand these phases. They can be found in most crises, from international disasters like Haiti, national-level events like Hurricane Katrina or in local crises like the New Life church shooting. Proper crisis communication planning before a disaster should incorporate these phases, predicting what resources will be needed and what messages will be required.

Check your crisis plan. You never know when you might need it.

Mike Pierson is president of Front Range Public Relations, LLC, a Colorado Springs consulting firm specializing in defense and technology. He is a retired military spokesperson with crises experience ranging from aircraft crashes in New Mexico to Hurricane Katrina recovery operations in New Orleans. He is also a board member of the Pikes Peak Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America and a volunteer for the Pikes Peak Chapter of the American Red Cross.