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Tsunami a crash course in crisis communication

by Amanda Palmer, staff writer


By helping to communicate to the world the extent of the disaster, an adjunct HPU instructor in public relations played a major role in getting aid to Indonesia in the aftermath of the December tsunami that destroyed Indian Ocean coastlines. It wasn’t until Feb. 9 that Kerry Gersha-neck, deputy of public affairs for the U.S. Army Pacific,could tell his communications students about his experience coordinating media and support operations for tsunami relief in Asia.

Gershaneck asked his students to imagine how it would feel to experience the fear and devastation of a tsunami, with no comfort or relief in sight. Survivors of the tsunami were left without the basic necessities of life; fresh water sources were contaminated by the sea, and all their food, shelter, and clothing had been swept away. Many people lost loved ones; many more were missing, and mass communication was disabled. There were no phones, no television, no way of knowing what would happen next. The tsunami victims were completely devastated.

“The sight and smell was awful…I threw away the clothes I wore the first two days I was there,” relates Gershaneck, who helped to establish the CFS headquarters in Utapao, Thailand, and organized Colin Powell’s press conference in Phucket, Thailand. Gershaneck teaches that communications professionals have two immediate goals in a crisis: to save lives and to mitigate suffering. Gershaneck and a team of professionals employed strategic public relations practices in their efforts during the tsunami crisis. For example, they established a base of operations and re-established lines of communication in disaster areas. During this time it was important to “get everyone speaking with one voice,” said Gershaneck, so the media and its public would clearly understand the situation as it developed.

Since the tsunami affected several nations, it was crucial to establish relations between them and combine relief efforts with their governments and other international support operations.

Gershaneck reminded his students that cooperation is key in times of crisis, and it is the job of the communications professional to make contact, initiate, and guide these relationships to bring relief quickly and effectively. The tsunami relief efforts of the U.S. government had positive and negative outcomes beyond saving lives. Gershaneck says that a positive outcome was the U.S. re-establishing contact with the Indonesian military, which had been prohibited by law since 1994. A negative outcome was Singapore’s disgruntlement because it did not receive as much media coverage as other nations.

Overall, the U.S. tsunami relief efforts increased U.S. popularity around the world, and particularly in areas affected by the tsunami. And these efforts helped save lives and relieve suffering. All through effective public relations.



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