Communications Lessons From the Tsunami

For those of us trying to communicate about events important to human life and Christian faith the tsunami is a learning experience. To state the obvious, we’ve entered the digital age and this changes everything.

Time is compressed.
A New York Times article made the point that the major news distributors were chasing after digital images–video and still–taken by tourists and locals on the scene. The news gatherers are no longer first to capture and release images or reports from an event. Digital media in the hands of everyday folks results in worldwide distribution without an intermediary almost instantaneously.

Digital media are empowering. In addition to camcorders, digital cameras and camera-equipped telephones, the Internet gives individuals power unknown to any former generation. Not only can bloggers tell a continuous story first-hand, people who want to respond have multiple, immediate choices. They can volunteer, donate funds, or connect with others to advocate for change.

The message matters. What you say, when and how, matters. Those agencies who had communications plans in place and were fast out of the gate, got their messages through the clutter. Those who were late did not. What is worse, for those who were not visible in the media, it appeared they were doing nothing. Even if this is inaccurate, the failure to be present in the media communicated an impression of inactivity. That’s costly not only in monetary terms, it’s costly for the mission of good organizations that do great humanitarian work. Given multiple options, people can move easily from supporting one organization to another with the click of the mouse. And the fleeting “teaching moment” in which you can explain your mission while there is interest, evaporates as quickly as it forms. Such opportunities don’t roll around very often. Therefore, what you say, or don’t say, sends a message and people receive it and act upon the information. The message matters.

Fundraising has changed. On-line giving has come into its own. Of course traditional fundraising will continue, but for particular kinds of circumstances–a natural disaster that is media-intensive, for example–on-line fundraising will play a major role. This will affect other forms of fundraising and it’s too early to assess exactly how, but that assessment is already underway.

I’m sure this is only scratching the surface of the learnings that are to come. I’ll keep listening and evaluating because this is clearly a turning point in communications.

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