I spent the first half of November in New York City helping people affected by Superstorm Sandy. I was proud to be part of the impressive disaster public affairs team of the American Red Cross.
Since I’ve returned home, many people have asked what I actually did. They are curious about the role of public affairs and how it fit into the overall disaster relief efforts.
To answer those questions most completely, I like to talk about what our entire team did. Working together, we created a synergy greater than any of us individually.
Here is what we did, and why public affairs was an essential part of the disaster relief efforts in New York and beyond:
Role of Disaster Public Affairs
- We shared information. We told people where Red Cross services were available and how they could receive help. We knew that some were individuals asking, “Where is the Red Cross?” so our role was to share inform and help them access our services.
- We told stories. We were surrounded by thousands of stories illustrating how the Red Cross fed the hungry, sheltered the newly-homeless and gave hope to those in such dire circumstances. People genuinely care about other people, and the community likes to hear stories about how their friends, family and neighbors are being helping. Volunteers and donors also need to be shown how their contributions of time and money yield an impressive “return on investment.”
- We engaged people in conversations. During disasters, people have lots of questions. They also like to share what’s going on in their neighborhoods. They feel a need to connect with relief organizations. In the field, our public affairs team members conversed with the various people we met. Also, through social media, we engaged them in conversations and talked with them one at a time, person-to-person.
- We were the eyes and ears on the ground. Those on the operations side of the relief effort sometimes relied upon our public affairs team to relay real-time information about what was going on in the affected areas. Occasionally, as with any massive relief effort, we experienced temporary breakdowns in service, and our public affairs team would quickly relay that information to the right people so we could better respond to meet the needs of those looking to us for assistance.
Specific Activities of Public Affairs
Our public affairs team came from all across the country, and we were even joined by a couple of communicators from the Canadian Red Cross. By working together, our team produced some pretty impressive things. For example, we…
- Conducted media interviews. We were operating in the nation’s number one media market, and many of our trained and experienced team members served as spokespeople for the national broadcast and print media.
- Responded to media inquiries. We operated with great transparency by responding to the probing questions of reporters and producers who wanted specific, tangible information, not just glossed-over generalities or clichés.
- Prepped others for media interviews. We made sure our leaders had the most up-to-date information and presented it in a way that accurately reflected the important work being done by the thousands of volunteers on the relief operation.
- Wrote and distributed news releases and media advisories. We shared information about service delivery sites, feeding routes and serving times.
- Grounded information so vital to our communications efforts. In a fast-moving disaster relief operation, information is fluid and quickly outdated. Some of our public affairs team members were assigned the role of “internal reporters” who gathered accurate and timely information so we could then share it via traditional and social media.
- Monitored news media, social media and other information streams. A key element of communications is listening, so we had people and systems in place to track media reports, scan blogs and listen to what people were saying in social media.
- Created content for Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms. We share information, but we also engaged people in conversations. We responded to questions and helped people understand how the Red Cross was there to help them.
- Created talking points and answers to frequently asked questions. With a large team, it is important to make sure everyone is “singing off the same song sheet.” Talking points, updated daily, helped us individually to speak as one voice.
- Handled celebrity appearances. The Red Cross is grateful for performers, musicians, actors and others who want to demonstrate their support.
- Gathered, wrote and distributed success stories. The best stories came as we went into the field and talk with real people who were grateful for what the Red Cross and our partners were doing for them. We wrote their stories and shared them with donors, volunteers and other key stakeholders.
- Took lots of pictures and videos. The stories we wrote were usually supplemented by photos and videos. In fact, sometimes the entire stories were told entirely by our public affairs team using visual media.
- Served as an information link with our partners. Two of our team members spent much of their time coordinating with FEMA and other partners at a Joint Information Center set up in Brooklyn.
- Published a daily internal newsletter for our disaster relief staff. Our disaster relief work was done by thousands of Red Cross staff assigned to the Greater New York City area. Our job director knew the importance of communicating with our internal audience, and he wanted each and every staff person to know what was going on. Our public affairs team produced a daily newsletter that was mostly distributed electronically. Each newsletter also contained a link to a YouTube video in which the job director outlined the daily operational priorities, and even those in remote locations could use their smart phones to be kept in the information loop.
Those of us on the ground in New York were in close communications with other team members in places like New Jersey. Our incredible team at the Disaster Operations Center (DOC) in Washington, D.C. provided much-needed information, encouragement and coordination.
The size and complexity of our public affairs team continues to impress me, yet I am most proud to say that our efforts were always focused on helping those in need. After all, when you boil it all down, the American Red Cross is simply an organized system that makes it possible for ordinary people to help other people in the most effective and efficient way possible.