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Public Relations in Practice

Prof. David Park of Xavier University, New Orleans, Louisiana visited Jamaica in February 2007 where he toured facilities at the Caribbean Institute of Media and Communication (CARIMAC) and discussed plans to partner with CARIMAC on an exchange programme.

Xavier's undergraduate offerings include a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication with concentrations in Broadcast, Print, Public Relations and Speech Pathology. Prof. Park talks about the use of public relations in crisis management from a North American perspective. Prof. Park led a team of students from the Communication Department at Xavier on a campaign to help clean up New Orleans. News Orleans was flooded after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when the levee surrounding the city broke.

Q1. Your students used public relations to help in the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort. How did they do this?

A. We joined forces with a non-profit group called Common Ground Relief. They had set up a communication centre where people could access phones and the internet [and] they could look for jobs. What they needed most at the time were volunteers.

Students from Xavier worked on a national campaign to bring in volunteers to work for Common Ground. The campaign was built in with their writing for PR/campaign class.

The students worked on a website. They made PSAs for radio, wrote press releases, a series of articles and news releases for distribution to media across America. They targeted mainly college students. We were able to bring in over a couple thousand volunteers.

It made a very big difference to bring the students to areas that were destroyed. Once they saw [the devastation], it motivated them. What the students said at the end of the campaign was that they felt they actually made a difference. It was also an interesting experience for students because they learned how to coordinate a campaign.

Q2. What was the media's response to the crisis in New Orleans?

A. Most couldn't [respond] because they were basically off-line. I haven't had a chance to analyse the local media but what was striking to me was listening to the radio as we were being evacuated, and getting angry.

The only station we could receive is extremely conservative. The radio station was blaming the people of New Orleans. They said that people were lazy. That there was a socialist system. This was a week after the levee breech. And so this right-wing radio station was blaming the victims instead of looking forsolutions and presenting the issue as it really was.

Instead they said what happened to New Orleans was a natural disaster that could not have been prevented, when the opposite was true. The levee breech was predicated many years ago and could have been prevented.

Q3. In your opinion, what impact did that station's position have on how the events of 2005 were remembered in New Orleans?

A. The impact is obvious. There are people in the US and around the world who believe that what happened in New Orleans was a result of a natural disaster. That it could not be prevented.

It was not [this] station alone that made this so. The government realised that other media gave reports that showed the truth. Even if it was for a short time. People saw the suffering and death. But the government realised the damage it was doing to their reputation
and redirected the media content.

Using their own brand of public relations they created a new reality, a spin on what was happening. And they could do this because it is he or she who has the most resources to direct the media wins. This unfortunately is often the case.

Their campaign was clearly to create credibility so that people would believe that what happened was on account of a natural disaster. They brought in different experts from the military and environmental agencies to do press conferences over several days to redirect the media attention. These official sources who then reframed the disaster as a natural disaster no one could have predicted. They did and said everything that would make the administration look good.

Q4. How did the media react to the government's campaign?

They carried the press conferences as news and presented the government experts as the definitive voice on what happened. The news was not proactive. Their job is to simply report events.

You see the media are owned by a conglomerate of corporations whose sole purpose is to make a profit. These corporations also have political affiliations. Their interest therefore does not lie in the public's interest but their own. In fact, what we saw around this time was more of truth coming from sports reporters than traditional political beat reporters.

Q5. What steps could the media have taken to prevent this?

The media could be more proactive by showing all sides of the story. They could have looked for other official sources to balance the kind of argument the government was proposing.

I think though they realise what happened and many social and political institutions are in the process of rethinking and regrouping. What is needed though is a reform of media. We need to move from media that are [profit driven] to a media structure that is free and independent, in a real sense: media that gives access to the less privileged and that gives them a voice.

Source: Caribbean Institute of Media and Communications (CARIMAC), University of the West Indies
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