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Dipping our toes into a disaster

Blog post   •   Feb 22, 2012 16:43 GMT

You wouldn’t necessarily think there would be many similarities between disaster relief and communications but yesterday’s emergency simulation exercise at UNICEF UK in London definitely provided food for thought for communicators.

We were lucky to be invited to UNICEF’s re-enactment of the pressure-cooker situation created by a humanitarian crisis and took part alongside representatives from the charity’s corporate partners. We were divided into groups of two with each pair given specific roles including logistics, water & sanitation, nutrition and communications.

Of course, we naturally would have felt most at home in the comms team. So, we were slightly perturbed to find ourselves in the child protection (Adam) and education (Jo) teams instead, having to ensure that UNICEF was providing an efficient and cost-effective response to specific needs in these areas.

Handling the pressure

We definitely learned a lot, not least that using maths (of any sort) to calculate how many “school-in-a-box” kits to send to a flood-ravaged country is still not my idea of fun and is quite stressful (Jo) and that remembering how best to handle news broadcasters door-stepping you while you’re trying to help parents locate their children can be pretty difficult, despite years of experience in media training (Adam)!

Crisis comms 101

The simulation definitely made us think back to the crisis comms rule book. And, it was pretty interesting to watch everyone forget best practice pretty quickly, once the situation unravelled and cabin fever set in!

For a start, with our competitive streaks taking hold, we forgot to share all the facts at the beginning (something we advise clients to do in a crisis situation ourselves). Instead, each group ended up going off into its own silo which meant that most teams submitted completely unrealistic budgets and were working to different priorities.

It was also useful to remind ourselves of the importance of having one port of call for media and centralised message alignment. We saw how the situation could easily get out of hand if the media were badly briefed by unofficial spokespeople who didn’t have all the correct facts to hand.

What can charities teach corporates?

Finally, we learned about the importance of innovation and collaboration (both themes we’ve been discussing recently as a corporate and brand reputation team). This came to life when we heard about the ways in which NGOs like UNICEF are innovating with their use of technology in the field, for example, experimenting with mobile phones to create a centralised database of missing children for all NGOs to use.

All in all, it was a hugely thought-provoking couple of hours. Challenging but fulfilling, it showed us how useful it can be not just to hear about a crisis from another perspective but to experience it ourselves.

Thanks to UNICEF for having us!

By Jo Kwiatkowska and Adam Keal

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