Failure to Communicate in Haiti

Communicating poorly can have catastrophic results as we have clearly seen during the recent tragic events in Haiti.  The victims of the devastating earthquake have lived the worst moments of this drama, without information regarding what they could do or where to find the international aid being made available.

A minimum of three million of Haiti’s nine million inhabitants have been affected by the earthquake.  The government states that at least 80,000 have died, while other sources claim that the number will rise to 200,000.  The number of wounded, those in shock, orphans and those still missing is not yet known.

President René Préval, who miraculously survived the destruction of the presidential palace, had to move through a capital city in chaos riding on a small motorcycle to survey the extent of the devastation.  During the first hours after the earthquake, Préval had no even idea about which members of his cabinet had survived.  Since the buildings that housed the government ministries had been destroyed, the cabinet is working out of a small police station.  In a nation with such a limited government structure due to a lack of resources, the earthquake completely vanished its already poor ability to react when dealing with such a disaster.  It is understandable that when faced with such a chaotic situation the government would feel overcome by circumstances and become paralyzed.  However, on the other hand, and precisely because of the glaring lack of resources, the president should have given a clear priority to communication.  Not only to convey the idea that there was a government that was trying to regain control of the situation, but especially, to let the population know what to do during such a delicate situation.  The nation, in a crisis situation, always looks for effective and quick action from its leaders.

The Haitian media reports that during the first seven days after the earthquake not one member of the government addressed the nation.  It adds that there wasn’t even one press conference by any government leader.  Millions of Haitians, rich and poor, anxiously awaited guidance from their leaders, but the only thing they encountered was silence.  This doesn’t mean that the nation’s leaders were doing nothing.  Many were trying to coordinate the urgent arrival of international aid as well as visiting areas affected by the earthquake.  However, a half hour on the radio would have broadcast the message that Haitians so much needed to hear in a more effective way than visiting  a dozen locations every day.  Radio is widely listened to in Haiti and several radio stations were on the air.

Mario Viau, owner of Signal FM, an important local radio station, said that he sent his employees on a mission to find any government representative to address the nation from its studios.  He explains that he did it in light of the total official silence.  He failed.  Afterwards, on the air, he appealed to the government to send a spokesperson to his studios to explain basic facts, such as what should be done to find a missing relative or what to do with bodies that had not been picked up yet from the streets.  The only thing he received was a recording from the president asking for calm.  “We didn’t feel like we had a government,” said Viau to The Washington Post.

Communicating is always important, but in times such as this it is crucial.  This lack of communication made the tragedy even worse.  Naming a spokesperson and ensuring that there is a constant flow of information is vital.  Letting the population know which hospitals are open, where to find international aid.  There are hundreds of questions that require an immediate answer.  It is, literally, a matter of life and death.  It is almost unthinkable that a government, even when immersed in such a serious crisis and with such few resources at its disposition, couldn’t understand how fundamental it is to keep the information flow going.  It is imperative to be prepared for a crisis and to execute a previously established crisis management plan when these crises arise.  There is no need to improvise.

The first rule of any crisis is to communicate.  To be proactive.  To have an up-to-date list of media contacts and put them to maximum use.  The Haitian government has been accused of focusing its efforts in communicating with the international community to be able to obtain assistance.  This is undoubtedly essential during a crisis, but informing the population is just as important: they are the victims.

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