June 22, 2017

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How Volunteer Communicators Help the Red Cross

How Volunteer Communicators Help the Red Cross

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Patrick Pannett about his work as a communications volunteer for the Red Cross. Patrick is a former colleague of mine who serves as a Director with DCI Group, a Washington, DC-based global public affairs firm. Patrick discusses how he got involved with the Red Cross, what volunteers like him do, and practical advice for any communicator working in a disaster response or crisis situation.

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An unedited transcript of our conversation is included here for your convenience, as well. 

Since this is an unedited transcript, you should rely on the original audio for accuracy.

One of the things that you do, apart from your day job working in public affairs, is volunteer work for the Red Cross. Can you tell us how you got engaged with them?

That’s right. Back in 2005, right around the time of Hurricane Katrina, I got involved with the Red Cross through the Alexandria chapter. Sort of accidentally, really. I was being a referee for someone else who was going through the background and the interview process to be deployed out to Louisiana to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Just as the result of that, I got interested myself and got involved with the Alexandria chapter. It’s basically just gone onwards and upwards from there.

Today, I’m still involved with the chapter. I’m also involved with the region, the National Capital Region which is sort of all the counties in Northern Virginia and Prince George’s and Montgomery county in Maryland, plus of course the District of Columbia as well and do public affairs for them.

Again, it involves [unintelligible 01:27] for the region and also parts of the advanced public affairs team, which is a national team of Red Crossers, both paid and volunteer, who are tasked to be on call for several weeks several times throughout the year to be deployed to do immediate media, as and when needed, following major disasters. And sometimes before landfall, even.

So basically, you as a volunteer and your fellow volunteers supplement what the Red Cross is already doing through its paid staff, right?

That’s right. It’s possible that you could be doing an event locally with a full team of paid staff, or a full team of volunteer staff, or a hybrid. And it’s most often the hybrid that I come across, that I’ll be working with both paid staff and volunteers like myself.

And so, when you’re dropped into a disaster situation and you have to help out with communications, what are some of the challenges you face as a volunteer? Not doing this all day, every day.

I think the biggest thing, and the reason that they do so many trainings for us so regularly – whether it be via WebEx, or via newsletter, or just by staying in touch with what’s going on through Facebook and LinkedIn groups specifically – that’s what allows us to stay in touch with the issues.

Clearly, every individual disaster, be it a house fire in a local municipality to a full-scale tornado, hurricane, or earthquake is going to have its own set of challenges. Oftentimes, there isn’t really much to speak about in the beginning hours, especially during the search and rescue and as we’re staging everything for the actual disaster response and clean up.

It’s really just a case of having a good understanding of how the organization operates, logistically speaking and otherwise. And then after a few hours and a few days into the operation, you really do start getting into the details about how the response is going specifically for that operation.

Why does communications matter for an organization like the Red Cross during a disaster? We all understand why government agencies and those sorts of things need to speak out, but tell us a little bit more about the role that communications plays in how the Red Cross responds.

Definitely. And again, just no matter what it is we’re involved with, it’s critical, especially in light of a disaster that we get our message out about where services are, for example. We have wildfires going across a number of states right now, and in many cases you have hundreds if not thousands of people being displaced from their homes to shelters, so part of that is to let them know where there’s a shelter.

Some of it might be when they get back into their house, we need the public affairs to work with the media to let them know where they can get help and cleanup kits. To let them know where we will have our kitchens and where we will be doing fixed and mobile feeding. And any number of the services we do and that we contribute to a community.

It’s always the essential because very oftentimes these are the resources that folks need: food, a place to sleep, and maybe toys for the kids to make them feel better in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.

And I would imagine you’d generally find the media cooperative with your efforts, right? Whereas, sometimes they may have an adversarial relationship with government agencies, I would imagine it’s generally a positive working relationship that you all have with the media.

Absolutely. That’s a big thing that many of the local chapters do on a day-to-day basis is having that relationship with the media. Talking from my local perspective here in D.C., we have a great relationship. Oftentimes through our big fundraisers and for other events we do, the media groups, be it print, radio, TV, are obviously very well aware of what we do and have an interest in covering us when we’re involved in the community.

That said, when there are issues or rumors or other issues coming up that, “Well, we heard the Red Cross is doing this or that.” Oftentimes we need to have the answers to be able to redress what the reality is. Just because we’re a humanitarian organization doing good doesn’t mean sometimes things happen and that the media will be coming to us to get answers to that.

One of the things that you had touched on a little bit earlier, and I think is a critical point here, is the importance of preparedness. You talked about the training that you undergo as a volunteer. I imagine the staff does as well. Preparing entirely for the communications campaign, whether it’s building the connections with the reporters in advance, all these things. It really plays just as important a role as what you do during the disaster response itself, right?

That’s exactly right. Certainly if it’s a national disaster and we’re getting on scene during landfall or immediately in hours after a disaster, the first thing we do is go to whichever village or wherever it is that all the satellite trucks are lined up. We’ll obviously go there, introduce ourselves, and let the reporters and the producers know what we’re doing.

Again, speaking to the credibility of the organization. TV, like MSNBC and CNN and news radio, be it locally WTOP or nationally CBS Talk will often be some of the first people they’ll reach out to to get you a sense of being on the ground. Because not only are we providing services, but we’re also on the ground and we generally have a pretty good insight into what the lay of the land is and what we’re seeing on the ground.

Now obviously, Customer Scoop is a media monitoring company, and there are lots of companies like ours out there. We all work with disaster response organizations and other folks who have to respond in crises. Can you talk a little bit about how media monitoring generally, both traditional and social media, matters when you’re responding in a disaster situation?

It matters profoundly. Number one, obviously, as any organization needs to be tracking and seeing what the day-to-day coverage is and reputation management is part of that. The other item that one would need to be following and would need the media observing for is obviously to is if anything is incorrect, or even if you’re identifying a hole.

For example, if you see that your getting great print coverage but your radio coverage or your TV coverage is lacking, that can give you a sense of where you might need to redirect your resources. But again, be it on a daily, a weekly, or a post-operation basis, or if you’re working locally on a chapter you need to be able to measure the impact and the effectiveness of what the paid staff and the volunteers have been doing. I think a good media monitoring service is something that’s critical for measuring that. Plus, as I said, to identify holes where you may not be getting coverage.

The misinformation part, I think, is important, too, right? When you’re in a disaster there tends to be all sorts of rumor or incorrect reporting because they tend to be fast moving in a lot of cases, at least if it’s a large scale disaster. You frequently see information that’s simply incorrect out there. If people are relying on incorrect information, it can lead to a bad outcome. I would imagine the misinformation piece during the crisis is particularly valuable.

That’s exactly right and as the disaster and the recovery efforts move along it might be – we might be closing a shelter and opening another one. We may be entering another phase of cleanups, so we may be having new resources, new equipment that we’re working with in the field.

That’s the sort of stuff that if it’s not getting out, be it through ourselves, through our partners with government or the local media that we need to know so that we can push to get that information out to the sources that it needs to go to. Ultimately so both our partners and the clients, and the victims, and everyone affected by this knows the lay of the land.

It is, as you said, the rumors oftentimes – and oftentimes with the best of intentions, that they get out there, but they still need to be corrected.

What advice would you offer to communicators who are finding themselves having to handle a disaster response situation? Whether it’s fellow Red Cross volunteers or employees, or anyone with any organization that has to face that situation.

You mentioned it earlier, Chip. Obviously, the key thing is preparedness. It’s having your list of reporters, producers, your allies in the media that you can call immediately who are… Not just so that you can call them to get them information about what you’re doing, but so that when they have a question or that they hear a rumor or that they hear something that may be affecting the organization they can also call you to get your input.

Of course, the second part is tracking what you’re doing so that you have a good idea. In the early stages of a disaster — especially if you’re one of the few people on the ground – you’re going to getting so many calls and so many requests for your time. It’s very important that you manage the requests and that you get back to everyone because you may be dealing with an emergency operations center run by a city, a county, or a state. You may be working with key government officials and their staffs who are coming in to visit the area.

So obviously managing the time and making sure that everybody gets a call back that needs a call back is a big part of that. So between the time management and monitoring, what’s going on currently to put the essential things.

That’s great. Now the last thing I would ask is obviously with the news lately being filled with stories of various disasters across the country. I think there are a lot of people who are wondering how can they get involved? How can they help? And obviously, folks can make contributions to the Red Cross, but how else can folks get involved, particularly communicators?

Absolutely. And of course, the first thing we always say is that the Red Cross is an organization that runs on time, blood, and money. The National Red Cross website, RedCross.org, is a great resource. If you’re looking for a local chapter, that’s a good way to find out who and where your local chapter is.

And of course, if you’re a communications professional looking to get involved, that’s absolutely the best starting point, is to call your local, your city, your county chapter and talk to them and get the ball rolling from there.

It’s something that is absolutely critical. As you said, at various times over the past few months we’ve had operations running in more than half of the U.S., so that’s obviously a massive stretch on our resources.

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About The Author

Chip Griffin is the Founder of CustomScoop. He writes and speaks frequently about data-driven public relations. You can follow him on Twitter at @ChipGriffin.

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