Media Relations in Emergencies
PAHO's role in gathering and disseminating health information has been preeminent in the Americas. While public health officials and journalists have traditionally had a symbiotic relationship, information dissemination could be optimized by taking a proactive approach to public information and by understanding the informational needs of the media.
Following is a guide to public information and media relations during health crises...
Media and Emergencies
In cases of emergency or disaster, PAHO plays an important role in disseminating information. Communication between health professionals and journalists is critical before, during and after a disaster. The public often relies on the media for information, and in situations like hurricanes and other disasters, people will remain glued to their radios and televisions to get the latest news. The way health and emergency personnel conduct themselves and deal with the media in these situations has a large impact on public perception of the disaster.
What are proactive vs. reactive media relations?
Simply, reactive is when you answer questions the media ask you. Proactive is when you make an effort to organize and disseminate information. In almost every case it is better to be proactive. Officials involved in disaster planning and management have the opportunity and the responsibility to help people cope with a disaster through the media. Information is a valuable commodity for the public, for donors, other agencies, and community groups. The more proactive you are the more information you can disseminate and the more control you have over that information.
Why are good media relations important?
Maintaining good media relations is crucial in the management of an emergency. This basically signifies giving reporters accurate, timely information and allowing them access to emergency zones, within reasonable limits. While reporters can be adversarial, they are much less likely to be so if they are given accurate information, and if they can see you are making an honest effort to deal with the emergency.
Who can help me deal with the media?
The Information or Media Relations department of each PWR can guide you and should become involved at the beginning of the emergency. PAHO Headquarters can advise and help you. If no one is available in your representation, contract a media professional to help you deal with the media.
How do I get information to the media?
There are several ways of getting information to the news media: Press Releases and Press Conferences are two of the most common. Information should also be posted on relevant Internet sites (i.e. DPI, PED websites). Situation Reports are useful to reporters and should be updated and distributed frequently.
When should I write a press release or hold a press conference?
A press release is useful when you want to impart certain information on the record, clearly, and without immediate urgency. In a fast-moving situation like an emergency where many reporters are on site seeking information, a press conference may be more appropriate.
What should I consider in preparing a press release?
Gist of message
The ingredients for a press release are straightforward and are outlined below. But most important is the message, the gist of what you want to convey. Remember the journalist will summarize your news in a story that could be as short as one paragraph, and a headline writer will give it a title that could be as short as two words. It is better for you to suggest what that title might be, instead of trusting that a reporter will dig it out from a mass of information.
If you want to ask the public to stock up on water because a coming hurricane might disrupt water supplies, make that very clear.
Think of the effect your news will have on the public.
Predict what public reaction might be.
Guide it appropriately.
Consult with media experts before taking irrevocable steps.
Remember that the public good is the highest priority.
What should a press release include?
Make sure your release is clear, well written, gives the most important news first, and includes the following:
WHO: Who is giving the news: If it is the PAHO/WHO Office, it should clearly say so. If you are announcing something jointly with the Ministry of Health or the national Emergency Preparedness Office, the release must clearly say so. It can be a joint effort of two or more agencies or units.
WHAT: What exactly is being announced: this must be very clear. If there is a hurricane path prediction, for example, it must be as detailed as possible, with full attribution.
WHERE: Where exactly is the event, or where is the predicted danger, or where is the problem exactly?
WHEN: When did it occur or predicted to happen?
WHY: The reason for issuing the press release, and the reason for the agency's involvement in the situation.
CONTACT: Name and phone of a responsible person the media can contact for clarification and expansion. In emergency situations this person should have a mobile phone or be reachable at home. This person can be the PAHO/WHO Representative, the media relations person in the office, the Health Minister, the Civil Defense Chief, the Emergency Operations Director, or whoever has the most knowledge about a particular situation and has agreed to serve as a press contact. The more trusted the official, the better.
How should it be distributed?
The release should be distributed by hand, by fax, and electronically to all major local, regional and national media in the area, and if appropriate, to international agencies. It should also be posted on your office's Internet site immediately, sent to DPI in Washington for posting and retransmission, and sent to agencies such as ReliefWeb. DO not show favoritism to "friendly" media or shut out "critical" reporters. You will earn the respect of all if you are fair, honest and equitable. News is not a reward, or a commodity. It is the people's right.
Why have a press conference?
Press conferences are useful if they serve to disseminate news, but not if they are staged "public relations" events with no substance. If there is important news to report and lots of reporters clamoring for the news, a press conference is often the best way to disseminate news.
What kind of event is a press conference?
A press conference is a straightforward event. Basically, you are calling a meeting of reporters to announce something and to offer experts to answer questions. You may be announcing a grant for recovery operations, the country's list of emergency needs, a toll of dead and injured after a disaster, or similar important news.
Who should conduct the press conference?
It should be a high ranking official such as the PWR, the Health Minister or his or her aide, the Civil Defense Chief, the Emergency Operations Director, or whoever has the most knowledge about a particular situation.
When should it be held?
Press conferences are best early in the day, depending on local customs. They can be held in an office, a special room, or if out in the field, a tent or in the open air. They should be held immediately after you learn important news, especially if it is bad. Remember the maxim: Bad news does not improve with age. If you are in a constantly evolving emergency situation you may want to hold press conferences or briefings daily or even hourly if warranted.
What key issues should be kept in mind?
Key issues for press conferences are similar to those for press releases, though television must be kept more in mind, and officials must be careful to appear calm, authoritative, and in control. The conference should be announced as far in advance as possible, with as much specific information as possible.
What materials do I need for a press conference?
Background material should be prepared and duplicated for handouts to reporters, and the names and titles of persons speaking at the press conference should be clearly identified. The material can include situation reports, other reports, video material of the situation (which should be shown and duplicated for distribution), and oral or written statements.
What should be included?
The "5 Ws" of WHO, WHAT WHERE, WHEN, WHY should be clearly spelled out, as in press releases:
WHO: Who is giving the news: If it is the PWR, clearly say so at the beginning of the statement; If it is the PWR and the Health Minister, or the Civil Defense Chief, it should be spelled out also,
WHAT: What exactly is being announced: This must be very clear. If there is a hurricane path prediction, for example, it must be as detailed as possible, with full attribution;
WHERE: Self-explanatory; where is the event, or where is the predicted danger, or where is the problem exactly?
WHEN: When is it taking place, or when is something predicted to happen? and;
WHY: What is the reason for having the press conference, and the reason for the agency's involvement in a situation;
One-on-one interviews can be arranged immediately after the press conference and can be useful in further dissemination and "customizing" news for particular regions or media.
What about videos and photos?
Videotape and photography of emergency preparedness and disaster relief operations can be extremely important and useful in documenting activities, and in informing the media and outside world of what is happening. If possible you should contact PED and DPI to see about sending PAHO's video and photo crew to cover the disaster and related operations, or contract a professional crew if you do not have one in-house. The material will be valuable for documentation and training later. Alternatively, you may be able to buy, borrow or copy footage from news organizations that have gone in to cover the disaster, but it is better to have your own crew and guide them as to what kind of material you want. Again, you can consult with DPI which has a professional video crew, for advice and information.
Office of Public Information
Fax: (202) 974-3143
Regional Office of the World Health Organization