The power of PR to support humanitarian relief

Recently my team were awarded the 2018 International Public Relations Association (IPRA) Global Contribution Award for our work forcing the UK Government to live up to its responsibilities in Anguilla, a British overseas territory, in the aftermath of the unprecedented Hurricane Irma in September 2017. 

At the ceremony and in the subsequent weeks I have had numerous conversations about just how impactful PR can be in alleviating the horrific effects of humanitarian disasters. For many, PR is a consumer-focused industry responsible for launching a new smartphone or brand of toothpaste.  Yet the IPRA awards showcased numerous organisations who were using the power of PR to tackle major global social, developmental and humanitarian issues, many of which are changing the lives of thousands of people worldwide. Campaigns included using media in Nigeria to tackle the injustices of the prison systems where 80% of prisoners were Awaiting Trial Inmates and thus technically innocent; initiatives to encourage more girls into STEM; and efforts to encourage eye tests in the Philippines among school children. This is truly inspiring and life-changing work.

We launched our campaign on 7th September 2017 in the aftermath of the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Irma across the Caribbean. Almost overnight and with vast time restraints, our team devised and implemented a highly strategic global media campaign, turning the UK’s failure to react into a global news story. Without this campaign, life-saving assistance would have been delivered too late, if at all. And this week, just a little over 12 months later, a long campaigned for change in policy has been announced whereby overseas territories may now qualify for foreign aid assistance in the event of natural disasters like Hurricane Irma.

Campaigns such as these are now more important than ever. Over the past few years the public in the West has become increasingly reluctant to engage with humanitarian efforts. Media distortion and the inability to convey the complexity of certain humanitarian crises mean that there is a disparity in the level of aid diverted to particular crises. The tsunami earthquake appeal in 2004 raised £392m; the 2008 appeal for the Democratic Republic of the Congo generated only £10.5 million.

The level of support a humanitarian crisis can garner tends to be impacted by its cultural relevance. In PR we have to find the point of relevance of a crisis and the underlying incentives of politicians to take heed. Aid is fundamentally political; in many cases it must move people and cause outrage in order for politicians to react. Hurricane Irma and its impact on Anguilla had all the key ingredients to stir up a PR campaign which would prompt media attention and widespread outrage to ensure timely action. Importantly, it had someone to blame - there was irrefutable evidence that the UK government had done virtually nothing in the face of the disaster. This was coupled with the fact that the French government had reacted almost immediately to help its own territories, thereby invoking further outrage in the UK and Anguilla. We knew if we acted quickly we could form robust messages and a call to action for influential media contacts to pressure the British Government into providing enough support to Anguilla.

It is clear that when an effective and targeted public relations campaign is launched it can play a pivotal role in modern humanitarian communications. Our team has the expertise and know-how to run a campaign to raise awareness of the impact of natural disasters and we will continue to support countries such as Anguilla in the aftermath of these horrors when they occur. Yet, if PR can be a powerful tool in the aftermath of disasters, so too must it be in preventing them. In the future, PR companies must harness their expertise and experience in tackling the consequences and begin to focus much more of our efforts on tackling the causes of humanitarian disasters, such as climate change and inequality in the distribution of wealth.