Media relations: How to get the media onside

Media coverage of disasters and emergencies can make or break aid agencies' fundraising campaigns. Annie Kelly reports on the tactics charities can use to raise the profile of forgotten emergencies.

On 1 October last year Hurricane Stan ripped through Central America, triggering intense flooding and mudslides. An estimated 2,000 people in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico lost their lives, and thousands more saw their homes and livelihoods destroyed.

A month later the United Nations World Food Programme warned that Guatemala, which was worst hit by the hurricane, was facing a "hunger time-bomb": it is already one of the poorest countries in Latin America, with chronic child malnutrition of up to 80 per cent in some rural areas.

Yet the hurricane and the humanitarian response barely made the news pages. In the 10 weeks after it happened, only about 25 articles covering the crisis appeared in leading publications in the US and Europe, according to a report by Carma International, a media-monitoring company. The interest in the humanitarian relief efforts wasn't sufficient to generate news coverage, let alone to sustain longer-term interest.

By comparison, Hurricane Katrina, which had struck New Orleans two months earlier, was still dominating the news agenda, generating more than 1,000 news articles in the two months after the storm hit. According to the Carma report, both hurricanes killed about the same number of people, yet the public response to the two disasters couldn't have been more different.

This was reflected in fundraising for the relief efforts. In the months following the flooding in Central America, the UN's Hurricane Stan appeal reached only a fraction of its £12m target. Meanwhile, charities in the US alone raised a total of more than £1.6bn through Hurricane Katrina appeals.

According to Unicef, 33 countries across the globe are currently in an official state of 'emergency'. Most share the same issues of loss of life and livelihood, poverty and suffering, yet only a few will make an imprint on the public consciousness. For agencies raising money for disasters and emergencies, media coverage of the cause is fundamental.

"We're almost totally reliant on the media in terms of fundraising for international emergencies," says Shima Islam, emergencies press officer at Unicef UK. "The international aid community had been trying to raise awareness about the state of emergency in Niger for months, but we'd failed to make any kind of impact. Then the BBC's Hilary Anderson did her TV report and we raised £30,000 in four days. We needed the media to take notice."

Aid agencies working on 'forgotten emergencies', those man-made or natural disasters away from the media spotlight, face an almost impossible task in plugging funding gaps and galvanising public support if the media remain uninterested.

The Carma report, focusing on western media coverage of humanitarian disasters and published earlier this year, concluded that there is no connection between the scale of a disaster and media interest in the story.

It also directly linked the perceived impact of a disaster on western markets and the quantity of news coverage the disaster receives.

No UK agencies launched public appeals for Hurricane Stan. According to Carol Monoyios, director of marketing at Care International UK, there simply wouldn't have been any point.

"It sounds ridiculous, but you can't always run an appeal on the strength of need," she says. "When you're considering running an appeal for a country such as Guatemala, you have to consider whether this issue is in the public arena in order to generate the desired response. Guatemala hardly hit the news here in the UK. If we'd launched a campaign, I doubt we would have been able to justify the loss."

National interests are a significant contributory factor to the success of a public appeal. UK aid agencies struggle to raise media interest in emergencies that don't have a direct link to British priorities, such as trading, colonial history, tourism or a large expatriate community.

Many agencies acknowledge that a major source of interest in media coverage of the Asian tsunami was the fact that many westerners were directly affected.

"We found that media requests around the one-year anniversary of the tsunami tended to focus on the stories of British holidaymakers," says Amelia Lyons, emergencies press officer at the British Red Cross. "Hundreds of local people are still trying to rebuild their lives after losing everything, but it's difficult to get the press interested."

Aid organisations working on 'slow burn' crises face a similar problem.

People slowly dying of hunger are rarely deemed newsworthy.

"The Unicef programme in the Congo is badly underfunded, yet it is one of the most serious humanitarian crises of our time," says Fiona Hesselden, director of fundraising at Unicef UK. "It's difficult to generate public awareness and financial support for an issue like this. The awful reality, the constant war and poverty that children are living through, simply isn't enough to get people to respond."

Yet the British public is giving more than ever. Fears that the public response to the Asian tsunami would lead to compassion fatigue among donors have so far proved unfounded. The Disasters Emergency Committee appeal, which raised more than £300m, also popularised alternative fundraising streams such as online donations and text message fundraising, theoretically opening new and lucrative revenue streams.

"Contrary to most of our fears, the DEC Pakistan appeal, which was the first DEC appeal to be run after the phenomenal response to the tsunami, was the second most successful in the organisation's history," says Monoyios of Care. "Through 2005 the profile of aid agencies has been raised exponentially. I think the British public is willing to give to international emergencies more than ever."

Creative solutions

So how can aid agencies build on this renewed interest and switch the public on to forgotten or neglected emergencies?

Mirella von Lindenfels, founder and director of Communications Inc, a communications consultancy, stresses the need for NGOs and aid agencies to think creatively and strategically about developing a public media campaign around a forgotten emergency.

"It's not the amount of coverage you get; it's the quality that matters," she says. "A scattergun approach with press releases isn't going to work. There needs to be strategic thinking at all levels of a marketing strategy and an understanding that journalists are never going to put a famine in a civil war-torn African state ahead of the Iraq crisis."

Marketing and communications teams need to do thorough research into the publications that will reach the people who matter most, she says.

"It's not always about reaching the man on the street. For example, The Guardian's news pages are well respected by policy-makers, so a targeted story can influence at a deeper level than just raising awareness with the general readership."

Von Lindenfels also believes aid organisations need to understand that there is no longer such a thing as 'national media'. Thanks to online newspaper editions, people across the world can access news from global publications at the touch of a button.

"Working on a strategy to get the issue talked about in a publication in the US or France, or even a renowned publication in a country closer to the emergency itself, can kick-start global interest in a way that wouldn't have been possible even five years ago," she says.

Using digital media such as podcasts or blogs is also a cost-effective and creative way to raise the profile of forgotten emergencies around the world. Instead of relying on traditional mailshots, investing in a comprehensive website with interactive options such as blogs from front-line aid workers and a library full of downloadable images can provide an invaluable resource for a journalist looking for a story or a member of the public wanting to find out more.

"Trying to get people talking for themselves is important," says Martyn Broughton, head of communications at Medecins Sans Frontieres UK. "Accounts from people on the front line or the raw experience of volunteers can bring a unique insight that is far more interesting editorially.

"Getting sound and pictures in from these areas is also crucial," he adds. "The public's appetite for information and images is now almost insatiable."

Agencies should also try to build strong strategies around communicating effectively with major donors.

"Trust and major donors are in a position to have an in-depth understanding of a situation," says Unicef UK's Hesselden. "So our job is to be creative and discover how our major donors might respond to this type of emergency."

She suggests tailoring communications about a forgotten emergency around an individual's specific area of interest, such as sanitation, water, child neglect or women's rights.

"Getting major donors involved at the early stages of campaigning and thinking of new ways to help them feel personally involved in helping us with our work in neglected emergencies is an important and urgent part of what we do in these areas," she says.

Unicef UK has recently started producing Child Alerts - 12-page documents explaining what life is like for a child in Darfur or Congo. The charity aims to use these to give a human voice to the suffering and has so far hit a nerve with major donors.

Aid agencies are the bridge between millions of people in need and a giving public that is often unaware of the scale and severity of disasters that don't make the news pages. The struggle to get these forgotten emergencies noticed is relentless, but it is a fight that must be won if agencies are to continue to get help to those who are most in need.

"This can be incredibly demoralising work that often makes you wonder what you are doing wrong," says Broughton of MSF UK. "But as a sector we need to keep our priorities clear. It's our responsibility to keep on thinking of new ways to force the world to take notice of those causes that rage on away from the media spotlight."


When Amnesty International UK was preparing to launch its annual report in 2005 it was aware that Iraq was likely to dominate the media. The organisation's priority was to keep the report's focus on forgotten emergencies high up the news agenda.

To do this, Amnesty brought these into its press conference. A live 'simulcast' from Afghanistan was broadcast to the captive audience of journalists and editors. An Amnesty spokesperson, speaking live from a desolate roadside, spoke directly to journalists about the organisation's work campaigning against human rights abuses in the country, then answered their questions.

"We asked ourselves how we could break through the impasse about forgotten emergencies and reach out to media to ask them to cover the story," says Mirella von Lindenfels, then director of the media and audio-visual programme at Amnesty's international secretariat.

"We knew journalists would be looking for different angles on our report, so we wanted to kick-start their thinking and get them over their natural inclination to see Iraq as the top story," adds von Lindenfels, who has since founded the Communications Inc consultancy.

Rather than relying on the shock factor of injured people or refugee camps, Amnesty UK picked a strip of deserted road to draw attention to the dissolution of the state of Afghanistan and its people.

"The simulcast worked because we obliquely drew attention to the issue of forgotten emergencies and appealed to the media for their help," says von Lindenfels. "After Iraq, forgotten emergencies ended up being the second most reported story that year."

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