Author: Richardson, J.
The great Indian Ocean tsunami of 26 December 2004 killed more people in a shorter space of time, and generated more media coverage and donor funding than any disaster in recent times.
UNICEF was one of a minority of international aid agencies that gained early prominence in the media coverage and, as a result, received substantially more funding than it usually does in emergency operations – over half a billion dollars in five weeks. In ways that are not easy to quantify, the organization gained greater credibility and influence as well.
The tsunami experience dramatized the extraordinary relationship at the start of the 21st century between media technology and the speed of global response at individual, government and corporate levels. As a result of staff experience, corporate preparation and a series of fortuitous developments, UNICEF was able to benefit as an organization from the convergence of these factors and establish itself as a favored organization among individual and corporate donors, and fortify its international reputation as a voice for and guardian of the interests of children.
The purpose of the assessment, according to the Terms of Reference, "is to assess what impact this communications prominence had on government policies and UNICEF's country programmes in the tsunami zone, and to draw lessons learned with a view to improving the future use of communication, in support of UNICEF programming and advocacy… the study would primarily look at the impact of UNICEF's communication work in Indonesia and Sri Lanka."
The basic elements of the assessment that are outlined in the Terms of Reference include:
The assessment took place from 15 July to 15 November 2005, and was commissioned by the UNICEF Regional Communications Office for East Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok, Thailand. The assessment focused on Indonesia and Sri Lanka, the two countries that were hit the hardest by the tsunami and suffered the overwhelming majority of fatalities. The two countries suffered close to a quarter of a million deaths as a result of the tsunami, with some 170,000 estimated to have died or disappeared in Aceh province of Indonesia alone.
More than 90 UNICEF staff, government officials, media representatives, government health workers, educators and child protection staff, and NGO staff were interviewed in New York, Bangkok, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, either by phone or e-mail in Geneva and other locales. Interviewees were asked questions directed specifically at the link between UNICEF's media messaging and their particular areas of responsibility and expertise.
Daily press clipping summaries for the first three months after the tsunami that were compiled by the Division of Communication in New York were reviewed, as were various situation reports, country reports from Sri Lanka and Indonesia, and reports and feature stories available on UNICEF's website.
A media content analysis was undertaken by the London and New York offices of Echo Research, Inc., a leading global reputation analyst. Their findings were used to further substantiate many of the conclusions in this report, and provide various quantitative profiles of the large volume of media stories that were built around or mentioned UNICEF's main media messages. As explained in the introduction to their report, their study "tracks messages pick up, spokespersons, issues related to the aftermath of the tsunami and UNICEF's efforts related to these issues." The period of analysis covers the three months following the tsunami from 26 Dec. 2004 to 26 March 2005.
Samples of Echo Research's findings and various insights are used in the following report, and credited accordingly. Their complete report is available separately, and is full of important insights about UNICEF's media performance.
Note: In both this assessment and the study by Echo Research, media messages were studied primarily in the print media. Compendiums of daily press clippings are easily available on the internet and in organizational files, but the wide range of visual imagery from television stations and private individuals is much more difficult to track. This constitutes a major limitation of both studies, but the major media messages crafted by UNICEF communications and programme staff is in full evidence in the print media.
Findings and Conclusions:
1. UNICEF had a major influence on how the global media story was shaped during the first month after the tsunami. Media messages were consistent and were aimed at characterizing the nature and extent of the disaster and identifying priorities for action rather than at promoting the organization. Communications staff in the affected areas worked closely with communications staff at regional and global headquarters to shape the story as it evolved.
2. Global spokespeople, including the Executive Director, the head of Emergency Operations in New York, various communications staff and some heads of National Committees, were consistent in their repetition of the organization's generic media messages in the areas of education, health and child protection. These were messages that adhered closely to the organization's set of core corporate responsibilities in emergencies, and were effective in large part because they were both generic and relevant to the actual situations in the affected countries.
3. The generic global messages provided a unifying context or operating umbrella for the more nuanced sub-messages delivered by regional and national communications staff, who had greater knowledge of realities on the ground and were able to present print, television and radio journalists with color and detail unique to the situations at hand. The details provided by communications staff in the country offices in turn helped regional and global level staff further refine the broader global messages, and feed breaking updates to National Committee staff for their fundraising efforts.
4. The message that one third of the victims were children quickly established UNICEF as the global authority on how the tsunami was affecting children. While it is not possible to substantiate in any more than a speculative way, it is quite likely that this message may have been the most important of UNICEF's messages when it came to fundraising. It helped establish a very early and very public link between UNICEF as an authoritative advocate for the interests of children and those who wanted to help. By establishing itself early as an authority, UNICEF earned a reputation that benefited all who worked for the organization in the weeks ahead.
5. Because the warnings of potential disease outbreaks was somewhat generic to any emergency situation, and was being issued by several aid agencies, it never belonged distinctly to UNICEF. But the Executive Director and the organization, as a whole, continued to voice its concern throughout the first few weeks and, in Indonesia, UNICEF launched a measles immunization campaign in northern Sumatra.
6. The public campaigns in Indonesia and Sri Lanka to restore normalcy to children's lives after the tsunami by getting them back to school was one of the most important – and most successful of UNICEF's efforts. A consistent media message was an essential part of the campaign, but equally important was the fact that in both countries, UNICEF already had relations with the ministries of education, and was supporting its effort with ambitious programmes to rebuild damaged schools and construct new ones.
7. There were mixed feelings in both UNICEF and among government, organizational and media partners about the child trafficking story – specifically about its legitimacy and whether or not it was appropriate and beneficial. But there were also those who felt that one of the reasons that no one was able to uncover evidence of any substantial trafficking was because the story had generated so much concern that it worked effectively as a preventive measure.
8. Overall, the consensus is that UNICEF's communications effort – which crystallized in the form of the major media messages – supported existing policy efforts rather than directed them. But the huge volume of media coverage also exerted pressure on all who were involved in response to the tsunami to act – whether government officials in the countries affected, aid agency staff, rebel leaders, or individuals in faraway countries who were watching the calamity on their televisions.
9. The high visibility and media exposure gave the organization more credibility and, therefore, more leverage in its varied dealings with counterparts in government, among other agencies and among donors. One senior education officer in Jakarta noted that the prominence of the media effort aided him in his talks with government, and the UNICEF regional representative in Bangkok noted that the tsunami experience has made it easier now to talk about problems of poverty and inequity in the region.
10. The media campaign put pressure on the rest of the organization to back up its advocacy with fast-track delivery of supplies and the development of programmes that were consistent with its mandate and responsive to the most urgent needs. This was seen as essential to any successful relief operation, but there were those among the UNICEF staff who worried that some of the organization's operational and administrative difficulties would compromise the credibility that it gained through its media visibility.
UNICEF's response to the Indian Ocean tsunami provides an unusual opportunity to observe how a successful UNICEF media campaign works. Following are some lessons from the tsunami experience that can be applied to any UNICEF media campaigns.
1. The UNICEF media campaign during the aftermath to the tsunami was effective because all levels of the organization's global communications system worked together. Various organizational spokespeople reinforced the basic organizational messages repeatedly in the four to six weeks after the tsunami. They included not just communications staff but senior management and division heads at global, regional and country levels.
2. Generic global messages provided a universal context and organizational parameters for the more nuanced and changing sub-messages developed by communications and country programme staff. The global messages told the world what UNICEF stood for, and allowed the organization major influence in establishing relief priorities in what was a very competitive environment for relief agencies. The sub-messages were what made UNICEF credible to journalists who were looking for unique details of developments on the ground. Both types of messaging reinforced each other, and between them were responsible for UNICEF's credibility as a voice in the media.
3. The main messages were simple, clear, and to the point – and there were a small number of them. The messages offered broad points that were easy to comprehend and, for the most part, avoided complicated numbers and lengthy explanations full of technical language. "One third of the victims were children" is much easier for most people to grasp than large and constantly changing numbers – and potentially more meaningful.
4. Key staff were accessible to the media, and responded willingly to media inquiries. A number of journalists noted that UNICEF seemed to know what was going on and had a plan to respond, a perception that was largely the result of such accessibility. One journalist noted that one of the most important factors in UNICEF's media appeal was that their leading spokespeople spoke with apparent passion about the situation.
5. Interaction with both international and national media was most effective when an international communications officer was paired with a national officer. The observation was highlighted by one of the national communications officers who worked with an international counterpart in the first weeks in Aceh. The pairing allowed for a full information exchange between those who are most conversant with what is happening internationally (international journalists and international staff) and those who know the most about what is happening nationally and locally.
6. UNICEF exercised its role as an authority on and spokesperson for children rather than attempted to promote the organization. Details about what UNICEF was doing were available in press releases and situation reports, but the spokespeople who interacted with the media tended to address the broader concerns of those affected by the tsunami. In some cases, the organization addressed concerns that were also relevant to the broader society – such as the need for clean water or rehabilitated schools.
7. The main media messages served as a bridge between existing corporate emergency commitments and realities on the ground. This meant that what UNICEF was telling the world about the disaster and the problems that it was identifying were things that the organization were prepared to address.
8. Media messages were at their most effective when spokespeople were honest and relied upon what they knew. When asked to comment on the performance of the communications staff during the tsunami, the former Executive Director described them as 'realistic.' In a small minority of cases – most notably, some of the speculation that child trafficking of tsunami children was actually occurring when, in truth, no one really knew – speculation damaged the credibility of the organization in the eyes of some journalists.
9. When UNICEF communications messages got out in front of the actual relief effort – as they did after the tsunami – they had the potential to motivate the organization and set up an accountability system. That happened, to a meaningful extent, during the days after the tsunami. But there is always the risk of generating expectations that the organization cannot live up to, a fear that was shared by a number of UNICEF staff at the time.
10. During the aftermath to the tsunami, it was possible to see how the total organization functioned at its best on a global level. The high level of media exposure led to a high level of donor funding, which provided the financial means to exercise leverage for programmes at regional and national levels with governments and other agencies. That dynamic provides the organization with the opportunity to be an effective relief organization. Whether it succeeds in being so is another matter.
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Emergency - Response