by Faith Toran
Writing this blog and creating my other content for Channels this month on the topic of crisis communication has been quite the challenge. I just completed a mission in Haiti, and have been prioritizing my mental health while preparing for my next mission. Knowing how to balance distancing myself from the trauma I witnessed and sharing meaningful information on crisis communications was quite the task.
Over the past 7 years, I have worked in International Development as a Communication for Development (C4D) Specialist. My work in Communication for Development prepared me to work with communities, using communication tools such as Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA)—such as transect walks, mapping, and focus groups—to facilitate processes where communities analyse a development challenge and decide collectively on their own development. This is one of the reasons that I love C4D: the participatory aspects.
I began working in crisis communication in humanitarian contexts in 2021. With my background in C4D, I had learned valuable skills to utilize in the field in humanitarian crises, such as actively listening to communities and facilitating a process of sharing information from first-hand accounts on health crises.
A selection of photographs from Faith's recent mission managing communications for a global humanitarian organization in Haiti. Faith in Haiti (image sources: Faith D. Toran)
What is crisis communication in humanitarian contexts?
The term ‘crisis communications’ means different things in different contexts. In general, crisis communication can be defined as the “collection, processing and dissemination of information required to address a crisis situation” (Page Center Training). It is the dialog between an organization and its public(s) prior to, during and after a negative occurrence.
Crisis communication encompasses different techniques, tools, and processes to address different crises ranging from corporate communication to communicating in humanitarian emergencies.
Learn about the history of communication for development from Faith herself
At times of humanitarian crises, communicating has a lot to do with the process of collecting and analysing information to respond to a crisis. This requires both internal and external communication processes. During a crisis, it’s crucial for good communication processes and practices to ensure an effective and context-sensitive response. In the humanitarian context, crisis communication has many definitions, processes, and tools based on organizational goals and objectives.
In the private sector, crisis comms is often part of the Public Relations field and works toward protecting reputations of individuals, companies, brands, etc.
Regardless of the field that one is working in, crisis communication requires quick responses to crises: collecting information, processing and analysing it, and preparing information for dissemination to the public.
My experience working with crisis communications
I have worked as a Communications Manager for a large, global humanitarian organization; most recently in Haiti. In that context, our communication processes have been geared mainly towards responding to health emergencies. Some of our objectives were:
Creating awareness on a crisis situation to multiple publics
Communicating with local publics on resources and humanitarian aid
Creating visibility on humanitarian projects
Seems quite straightforward, right? For me, what was most challenging was bearing witness to multiple traumas simultaneously. That brings me to the next point: guard your mental health.
Faith in Haiti (image provided by Faith D. Toran)
Guard your mental health
Communicating on trauma constantly takes a harsh toll on your mental health. For many reasons, notably the fact that you are in the midst of the trauma, seeing and hearing firsthand accounts of those impacted by the traumatic experience. Secondly you are communicating to an audience about trauma, and lastly possibly experiencing some symptoms of ‘vicarious trauma’.
Vicarious trauma is an occupational challenge for people working and volunteering in the fields of victim services, law enforcement, emergency medical services, fire services, and other allied professions, due to their continuous exposure to victims of trauma and violence (Office for Victims of Crime).
Vicarious trauma may occur during the crisis or post crisis. In any case, when communicating on any crisis situation, ask yourself three simple questions:
Is the crisis affecting my mental health, if yes, in which ways?
Do I have the support I need to manage the crisis (organizational and psychological)?
Do I have a post-mission plan to continue to receive psychological support?
Working in crisis communication is a meaningful job. I would advise anyone interested in this field to continue to hear first-hand experiences of those working in this field. I believe that using communication techniques from C4D paired with personal mental health support for both victims of trauma and staff, allows for effective communication in humanitarian emergencies. I will be venturing off on another mission to Cameroon very shortly, and I look forward to sharing more on crisis communication in the near future.
Additional Reading & Resources for those interested in Crisis Communications
Communicating with Communities During Conflict by Peace Direct, via ReliefWeb
The Vicarious Trauma Toolkit (VTT) was developed on the premise that exposure to the traumatic experiences of other people—known as vicarious trauma—is an inevitable occupational challenge for the fields of victim services, emergency medical services, fire services, law enforcement, and other allied professionals; however, organizations can mitigate the potentially negative effects of trauma exposure by becoming vicarious trauma-informed.
The Arthur W. Page Center - Public Relations Ethics
Office for Victims of Crime - Vicarious Trauma
The Origins and Practice of Participatory/Rural Appraisal by Robert Chambers via IRC
Communication for Development and Social Change edited by Jan Servaes
Faith D. Toran is a Communication for Development Specialist (C4D), Co-Founder of The Channels Network – a global communication for social impact grassroots network, Environmentalist, and Author of a book of Poetry and Prose – Freedom at day Zero. Over the past eight years, her professional experiences have covered working in Communication for Development (C4D) and Humanitarian emergencies in the US, Burkina Faso, France, India, Guinea and Haiti.