Interview with Michel Sailhan, Bureau Chief in Turkey for the international France Pres agency. He co-animated the recent PPRD South Workshop on “Information in Emergency” in July in Amman. Michel has a long experience as a journalist in the Mediterranean region and has been through most of the major disasters that struck the region in the past 30 years.
Q. What are the basic rules that a Civil Protection Official should follow while communicating to the media during an emergency so as to avoid misinformation and reduce the negative impacts on the population?
A. It is very important for the Civil Protection Authorities have a good communication and media strategy. Relations with the media should be built well in advance before emergencies and kept up with continuity. Solid credibility and transparent accountability are the key aspects of a successful institutional media strategy.
During emergencies the effort of the communication sector of the Civil Protection should be focused on trying to avoid panic in the population, inform about the operations carried out, the problems encountered and the solutions put in place. The first principle is to be prepared to reply in real time to any news disseminated by the media. Agencies often publish alerts mentioning only the news and the source as soon as they receive the information. The Civil Protection Authorities should be ready to react to any news published by agencies clearly stating what is true and what is not in order to avoid possible negative “media effects” on the institution and the operations. With well prepared media relations and solid credibility this task is much easier.
Q. As highlighted by the participants to the PPRD South workshop on “Information in Emergency”, Civil Protection Authorities have often the impression that media work against them, that they try to give them most of the responsibility of the negative consequences of an emergency on the population.
A. Press officers of the Civil Protection Authorities should bear in mind that media are not supposed to work in favour or against the institution. The aim of the media is creating stories and reporting what is happening. Journalists have their own logic and sense in explaining the story to their readers. They try to find an angle for the story that will be interesting and grab attention. For example, in case of earthquake, they may be interested in reporting the event from the point of view of the damages to historical sites or of the children among the victims.
Q. Which aspects should be considered when preparing an effective communication to the media, i.e. a press release?
A. An effective press release should say something that is newsworthy from the point of view of the media. We are used to say that a news is a change in the status quo that has consequences on a community. The main factors that guide the decision of a journalist on what is news and what is not news are the impact on a specific population – for example, how many people are affected by the event and how seriously or how close the impact of the event is to the public. Good communicators should always bear in mind their audience’s interests when formulating press releases. They have also to prepare it in a professional manner. Normally a press release should be built around one main idea well explained and documented. In some specific cases the same idea can be seen from two different sides if this twofold perspective strengthens the message.
Q. What is the importance of images when informing the public on the impact of a disaster and on the civil protection actions being carried out?
A. Images are very important to reinforce the message of a communication or news-item. Sometimes images are so important that they may become the news. We call it the “frame effect”.
Q. Participants in Amman highlighted the difficulties they experience when dealing with electronic media which sometimes disseminate information misleading and counter producing. To what extent these “new media” have changed the work of journalists and civil protection press officers?
A. During the years 1990-2000 national and international information flows were managed by the National News Agencies and by three international news agencies: France Press, Associated Press and Reuters. Today, following the changes to the media environment brought about by the electronic media, newspapers produce and publish a continuous information flow on their websites, blogs and social networks allow the public to produce information and directly publish it on the internet.
This information is often manipulated and sometimes very close to propaganda. The work of civil protection press officers and spoke persons as well as of journalists working in the traditional media is much more complicated. They have to take in consideration what those information sources say. They have also to improve their capacity of providing living information and interact with the public in order not to appear static and too authoritative.
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