Global Policy Forum

How to "Sell" Forgotten Emergencies


By Timothy Large

October 5, 2005

"The fact is that news is about things that are new," Andrew Gilligan, a prominent British journalist, told a debate on media coverage of emergencies organised by Reuters Foundation. "People dying in Africa is not new, but people being swept out to sea, killed in five minutes from a big wave that came up the beach, that is new."

Crises that aren't new can still make news. Aid agencies can do a lot to boost the media visibility of long-term, complex emergencies through creative communications. It's not rocket science. It essentially means thinking like a journalist. Through daily interaction with NGOs, AlertNet has experience of what does and doesn't work. An AlertNet-commissioned study of NGO media relations carried out by the Columbia School of Journalism and sponsored by the Fritz Foundation, "Toward New Understandings: Journalists & Humanitarian Relief Coverage", also provides useful insights.

Here are some practical tips:

  • Invest in media relations. It's a straightforward business decision. If aid agencies want greater coverage of forgotten emergencies, they need to invest in communications training and expertise, down to the local level. This is a key finding of the Fritz report. Big organisations like UNICEF, Oxfam and Médecins sans Frontií¨res have formidable communications teams, and it shows in their media exposure. But it doesn't always come down to resources. It may be as simple as hiring former journalists to do the job. "You've got to have journalistic impulses, which is not something you get overnight, that nose for a story," says Helen Palmer, Oxfam's global media officer.

  • Keep up a dialogue with the media. Most journalists are not specialists in humanitarian issues. They are overworked, overstressed and often overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information competing for limited news space. Aid agencies can help by taking on a quasi-education role, entering into constructive dialogue about emergencies. The time to do this is not 15 minutes before deadline. It's an ongoing process.

    Some NGOs have made a point of sitting down regularly with commissioning editors and other ‘gatekeepers' at news organisations. "It is trying to work closely, it is talking, it is discussing the issues," says Graham Wood, head of policy at Ockenden International.

    The Fritz report shows that journalists are hungry for background material such as crisis profiles and fact sheets to help them get a grip on complex emergencies. NGOs can provide this on their web sites, along with up-to-date contact details of experts for interviews.

  • Put a number on it. Darfur hit the headlines when the U.N. put the number of people affected at a million. The DRC made the news when the IRC released a mortality study with the jaw-dropping figure of 3.8 million dead since 1998. Ditto Colombia after estimates that violence had displaced almost 3 million. It may seem a cynical way to drum up attention, but such numbers give journalists pegs to hang their stories on. And they answer the question that so often haunts long-term emergencies: "Why write about this today?" They also capture the public imagination, going some way towards quantifying the unimaginable.

    A well-crafted superlative can do the same. U.N. relief coordinator Jan Egeland gave reporters something to write about in March 2005 by saying the toll in the DRC over the past six years amounted to "one tsunami every six months". He added: "In terms of human lives lost… this is the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world today."

  • Bring in the big names. It's controversial, but enlisting the help of celebrities can work. Call it the ‘Diana effect'. The press follows the famous face and ends up reporting on the cause. Oxfam thrust northern Uganda into the spotlight by taking British actress Helen Mirren there late last year. The agency followed up with an event in which TV news personality Jon Snow interviewed her about her experiences. Mirren's fame also got her an audience with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who agreed to make a public statement on the crisis.

  • Make it visual. Nothing sells a story like a good picture. In disaster zones where access is difficult, aid agencies may have the only photos available. Strong images from the DRC and northern Uganda are always worth their weight in gold. The International Federation (of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies) has attracted global coverage in Sudan and elsewhere by distributing photos over the Reuters picture wire.

  • Be creative and proactive. Tell the bigger story through the eyes of individuals. Follow the news agenda closely and find ways to fit what you're doing into it. If you're dealing with local press, look for local angles. A key barrier to crisis coverage identified by the Fritz report was the cost and logistical difficulty of sending journalists to crisis zones. So if your budget allows, consider organising trips for reporters.

  • Finally, never give up. In this game, persistence really does pay off.

    More Information on NGOs
    More Information on NGOs and Networking


    FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.