Getting the Story out Is Key Element of Faith-Based Disaster Response

By Linda Bloom, NYC Chapter president

Interfaith Disaster Panel (from left): Peter Gudaitis, NYDIS; Lesley Crosson, CWS; Francesco Paganini, UMCOR; Larry Peterson, LDS (photo by Tara Barnes)

Can faith-based organizations fundraise for disaster response without sensationalizing or stereotyping?

Is it possible to explain the complexities of a disaster to donors?

Does the public realize the depth of experience that faith groups have in long-term recovery?

Those were some of the issues raised during a March 19 program on "Communicating in Times of Disaster," hosted by the RCC New York Chapter at the Interchurch Center, popularly known as "475" for its address on Riverside Drive in Manhattan.

Jay Rollins, United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) and RCC national president, moderated the discussion. Panelists were Lesley Crosson, media relations officer, Church World Service (CWS); Lawrence R. Peterson Jr., public affairs representative, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS); Peter Gudaitis, chief response officer, New York Disaster Interfaith Services ()NYDIS); and Francesco Paganini, executive secretary, UMCOR.

"There is pressure on every single organization to say that they are responding right away," said Paganini. But, he added, "You can't always have a plan in 72 hours. Immediate aid is usually done by local entities."

To help manage that pressure, faith groups, their relief agencies and their communicators can:

  • Take advantage of organizational structures for communication purposes. Members of the Church of Latter-day Saints trust the hierarchy, Peterson noted, making it easier to spread the word in times of disaster.
  • Use social media as a tool for needs such as donations and volunteer recruitment but be wary of repeating misinformation, especially in the early stages of a disaster.
  • Resist making people in the field serve as spokespersons. "Asking the operational people to do communications in the initial phases can be a burden," Paganini said.
  • Share information on the expertise of faith-based organizations in disaster response and recovery with the public, Crosson said, as well as with members and donors. "Even FEMA looks to UMCOR for training in disaster case management," Gudaitis pointed out. "Those stories need to be told."
  • Highlight the ability to provide long-term recovery and support through faith representatives within communities, ideally in a collaborative way.

"We have a very robust interfaith collaborative here and it's considered a national model," Gudaitis said about New York Disaster Interfaith Services. "The only common goal we sought out together was our common values on human suffering.

 
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