When the humanitarian worker becomes the story

I heard an interview this morning on National Public Radio with the World Food Programme’s regional emergency coordinator for Syria. He had a compelling voice and a lot of empathy, plus good legitimacy when it was mentioned that he was based in Syria even before the crisis broke out.

But the funny thing about the interview was that the key message, and indeed the story headline online, was “risks increase for humanitarian aid workers in Syria.”

I was cooking lunch when I heard it, but it sure did get my attention. Since when do humanitarian aid workers talk about ourselves to the press?

We all know that humanitarian workers face tremendous risks in the field. I’m not debating that point whatsoever. But is it good communications practice to make those risks the point of an interview?

I would say, rather strongly, it is not. Communications in emergencies is all about trying to help people affected by a crisis. When we as humanitarians talk about our work, it’s so that we can improve understanding of the situation on the ground and how the world can do better to help people in need. Constrains on humanitarian workers’ ability to provide aid does take a toll on people in need of assistance, but the story isn’t about us. The story is about people whose lives have been tragically altered by a disaster or a conflict.

Of course there are caveats to this position. Sometimes you need to put a human face on a story to get interest, whether from the reporter or his audience. Sometimes, as a last resort, you turn to your own human face to get that interest.

This is particularly relevant when dealing with (and I’m being very blunt here) unprofessional, ill-informed members of the media who want to tell a “local girl is hero in foreign land” story. All of us communications managers in Haiti had a good laugh when a colleague from a big aid agency — who was a media liaison officer, not a doctor or something somewhat relevant — was emblazoned on a British tabloid newspaper cuddling with “adoring” Haitian children. She didn’t ask for that story to be run, but in the end that’s how the reporter was determined to tell the story. Perhaps the bigger question is if she should have tried to get the reporter to drop the story altogether — but she’s a great gal and I’m not about the speculate how that story made it to press.

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