Haiti: Having a full and frank conversation with the media

I’m standing outside Haiti’s Presidential Palace with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Craig McMurtrie.  We’ve met Craig and his cameraman Dan here today since they want to film an interview with Australian aid worker Ian Rodgers.

According to the ABC, Ian is a ‘rare animal’.  He is precisely the kind of ‘talent’ the Australian media hope to find in a place like earthquake-affected Haiti – a) he is Australian and b) he was here when the earthquake struck.  It means a lot to Australian media – for that matter any nation’s media – to have a local hero on the ground to tell the story of the disaster response.

So, today we find ourselves filming with the Presidential Palace – its back broken by the quake – as the visual backdrop for ABC’s story.  The questions for Ian are varied.  Tell us where you were and what you were doing the day of the earthquake?  Were you scared?  How long did you work in the disaster response?  Why has the pace of recovery been slow?  Has the international community done enough to speed Haiti’s recovery?

The answers to these questions come naturally to Ian, an experienced aid worker who is used to doing media interviews.  That said he was also well briefed since I sat down with him the previous day to rehearse what we call key media messages.  Now, I’d be the first to admit that rehearsing media lines might appear to be an attempt to ‘manage the media’ like, say, Malcolm Tucker the foul-mouthed political spin doctor from the British film, In the Loop.

The reality is my role is neither Machiavellian nor spin-doctor. What we media communicators do, however, is ensure that Save the Children’s spokespeople are well briefed for interviews; that they understand the agency’s policy on, say, the ongoing Presidential election saga in Haiti, or that they have the latest figures to hand on the number of cholera treatment units we run or patients treated.  After all, it is not possible for someone like Ian whose primary role is to advise communities on how to mitigate the devastating effects of natural hazards to be across every single issue concerning the agency’s work in Haiti.

When it comes down to it, agencies like Save the Children want to have a full and frank conversation with the media.  We see them very much as our allies to help disseminate the message of the perils, pitfalls and challenges of working in Haiti’s post-earthquake environment.

From my own experience of working with media in emergencies over the past ten years, I have nearly always found the kinds of journalists who work in these complex and challenging situations to value the work of aid agencies, and their media professionals – many of whom are themselves ex-journalists.

There’s definitely mutual respect.  My guess is that’s because they can trust us to be fair and honest – a tradition that I very much wish to uphold.

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