Edited Version of October 14, 1998 Transcript
EIIP Virtual Forum Special Event

"World Disaster Reduction Day
October 14, 1998"

Helena Molin Valdes
Latin America Unit in Costa Rica
IDNDR Secretariat

The following version of the transcript has been edited for easier reading and comprehension. Typos were corrected, date/time/names attributed by the software to each were deleted but content of discussion, questions, and responses are as stated by each participant. Answers from the presenter to questions by the audience are grouped beneath the appropriate question to facilitate meaning.


Avagene Moore: Welcome to the EIIP Virtual Forum -- we are highlighting World Disaster Reduction Day in this session. Today, October 14, 1998, is United Nations World Disaster Reduction Day. The celebration of the Day is the culmination of the United Nations World Disaster Reduction Campaigns, organized by the IDNDR Secretariat.

We are pleased to have everyone with us today. We want to give an overview of what World Disaster Reduction Day is all about. Quoting from a message from the Secretary General, Kofi Annan, of the United Nations Organisation:

"Almost daily, we are reminded of the threat of natural disasters. Since the beginning of the year, we have endured catastrophic floods in Asia, deadly hurricanes in the Americas and serious consequences of El Niño on several continents. But while we cannot stop the forces of nature, we can and must prevent them from turning into major social and economic disasters.

Prevention begins with information. On this International Day for Natural Disaster Reduction, I wish to encourage the widest possible partnership, communication and exchange of information among all groups of society and all nations to ensure a sustained commitment to a safer world, a world more resilient to the impact of natural hazards and disasters."

We can certainly agree with the UN Secretary General's remarks. Many of you have read the entire statement if you are participating in the ongoing UN IDNDR Virtual Conference.

The United Nations World Disaster Reduction Campaigns, organized by the IDNDR Secretariat, are designed to make people aware, world-wide, and across all professional and social sectors, of what they can do to protect their countries and communities from natural hazards.


We are pleased to have an IDNDR representative with us today. Our special guest is Helena Molin Valdes, Head, Latin America Unit in Costa Rica, IDNDR Secretariat. Helena is a Swedish Master of Architecture, working at the UN IDNDR Secretariat, outposted in Costa Rica for the region of Latin America and the Caribbean, since 1992.

Prior to her IDNDR involvement, Helena worked in Nicaragua for six years in local development projects (housing, water, community training and capacity building, municipality reinforcement, local building material development, energy saving firewood stoves, etc.) with Swedish cooperation.

As part of IDNDR responsibility, Helena also functions as director of the Regional Disaster Information Center CRID, based in Costa Rica. Helena, thanks for being here today. I turn the floor to you now.

Amy Sebring: <http://www.netsalud.sa.cr/crid/>

Helena Molin Valdes: Thank you, on behalf of my Colleagues at the IDNDR Secretariat which is based at the United Nations in Geneva. We have one outposted regional office only, here in San Jose.

With the campaign this year we want to enhance a closer partnership with COMMUNICATORS for disaster reduction that means to reduce the IMPACT of disasters. Too often scientists and disaster managers work "in the dark" or spread messages, not easily understood by the public.

My basic message today will be: to make any information strategy worthwhile and create public information/change of attitudes towards a prevention culture, it is absolutely necessary that social communicators (call them journalists if you want) work hand in hand with so called disaster managers. Every scientific and disaster management institution should have professional communicators on their staff.

Media and journalists alone are not responsible for "sensationalistic approach". "Partnership" and close contacts, training, ownership and the window of opportunity of a disaster are the keywords for how to get media more involved in the PREVENTION message.

Ignorance about the internal functioning of the media explains why misunderstandings or even conflicts may arise between specialists in any given field and the media. Lack of interest from the owners of media make "serious journalism" difficult sometimes, so work with the owners of media, as well as with journalists for partnership.

These were some main conclusions at a recent Latin American Workshop for Media on Disaster prevention, held in Ecuador two weeks ago. Do we have any communicators or media people with us?

Amy Sebring: We are probably all communicators, but not professional media.

Avagene Moore: I don't know that we have any professional media here today.

Helena Molin Valdes: Right, but that is also an issue. "We are all communicators" but the difference is that to prepare a public information strategy or messages for a "disaster prevention culture", a professional input changes the approach. Do you agree?

Quoting a previous conference presenter, Mr. Athanase Karayenga, Journalist (Burundi) and Communication Expert:

"The disaster management specialist often believes that the media will prefer sensationalist news and reporting on natural disasters when it is too late".

The media specialist often believes that the methods used to sensitize the general public used by disaster specialists are formulated in a language which is too complicated and not accessible to everyone.

medicb4 (Stockholm): "Public information strategy" infers a level of organization sadly lacking in planning today worldwide, with a few exceptions.

Helena Molin Valdes: This is ground for a misunderstanding based on different views, even if both analyses are eventually true. If specialists in natural phenomena and media professionals collaborate and develop a simple but sharp information campaign together, there is no reason why a culture of prevention should not enter people's minds and habits.

In order to ameliorate collaboration with media professionals, it is crucial that disaster management specialists get to know the media to contact the appropriate specialized services relative to the level of the emergency.

Simple prevention messages may be enough sometimes. Special editions and documentaries will need to be produced to explain certain phenomena in the absence of an immediate threat. Early warning messages will need to be circulated --- with media already involved in advance in how these work linked to local organizations to respond.

In short, for public opinion to adopt a culture of prevention, a sound, imaginative and efficient communication strategy with the media needs to be developed.

Another truth is: work with community leaders and media together. Messages prepared by the people living at risk are many times more appropriate for radio and local press than messages prepared only by professionals (read disaster managers or journalists from another area). The READING of the message or codification, is very close to local practices and culture.

Did anyone read the article from the Costa Rican experience to work integrated with community organizations for mitigation and preparedness and with local media, that together with community leaders worked on messages and campaigns?

Amy Sebring: Please note that the article Helena refers to can be found in the press kit at <>

Avagene Moore: Thank you, Helena. I recommend that everyone in our audience today take a look at the IDNDR Press Kit (link to IDNDR information on Virtual Forum home page). This is the URL Amy has on screen for you.

Helena Molin Valdes: The IDNDR campaign is based on activities that are promoted and carried out all over the world by local and national organizations.

Avagene Moore: Before we go to Q&A, is there anyone on line working closely with the IDNDR? I know David Butler does. Dave, do you want to add anything to what Helena has shared with us? Then we will open to Q&A with the audience.

David Butler: Helena, I did read the Costa Rica article and thought it was one of the best contributions to this year's Internet conference.

Well, there's a lot I could add. But one thing that struck me (and I don't want to be a Pollyanna ) is that we tend to talk about disaster communication and information as though it is mostly a failure and that it needs much improvement.

But at the same time, and this is just my personal opinion, not supported by quantitative data, it really does seem that in the last ten years, general awareness --- both among governmental agencies around the world and among the general public --- is better. Disasters and disaster mitigation are certainly higher on the national and world agenda than a decade ago. I just say this to remind ourselves that we have, in part, succeeded.

Avagene Moore: Thank you, David. One more thing before Q&A, sorry. Amy, I believe you have something you want to contribute to our discussion from one of the papers shared during the ongoing IDNDR Virtual Conference.

Amy Sebring: Yes, thank you. One of the best pieces, in addition to Helena's, was by Gloria Bratschi which I wanted to share. It is an excerpt from her book, Comunicando el Desastre (Communicating Disasters). She describes an 8 step process which I would like to post quickly.

Organizational Outline of a Campaign:

1. Research (gathering of quantitative and qualitative data; initial sketching of goals).

2. Analysis of all the material compiled.

3. Study of the target audience (typifying the different social, economic and cultural profiles of that audience).

4. Definition of the goals, both general and specific.

5. Definition of the stages of the campaign, on the basis of opportunity, selection and definition criteria.

6. Selection of the channels to be used, taking into account both face-to-face and mediated communication.

7. Preparation of the messages, which will be adapted to each channel chosen, particularly bearing in mind the characteristics of face-to-face and mediated communication.

8. The development of a campaign timeline or flowchart listing the various channels and activities to enable planners to have an overview of the entire campaign and verify is the communications strategy is balanced.

This is professional advice and I think very helpful in developing a strategy. Thanks.

Avagene Moore: Thank you, Amy. Please, everyone, read these articles if you have not at this point. To keep order for Q&A, you are asked to type in a question mark (?) if you wish to speak or ask a question. Compose your question or comment while waiting to be recognized by the moderator. First question, please.


Amy Sebring: In follow up to David Butler's remark, and Helena's point about documentaries --- I rarely watch TV but last night I watched PBS. Back to back there was a NOVA program on El Niño and a Frontline piece on biological terrorism, so we are getting some good attention.


David Seabrook: It seems to me that debate on how to improve the effectiveness of the media message presumes that they are able to serve outside the influence of the political process. Speaking from the American perspective, I have concerns that they can function independently. Can you comment?

Helena Molin Valdes: My opinion is that this can work independently. Depends on the will of media to not only be "controversial" or to "sell action" but to see the information value of guiding the audience towards how to live safer and how to learn in the long run (without necessarily talk about devastation).


Mark Wood: Hi folks, it's confession time. I used to work at the BBC so there are some viewpoints that I can share. The folks who really decide what you see are the news editors. However, public warnings are rather 'boring' and are not really news. So I think perhaps a 'feature' editor will be interested more. Perhaps a liaison with the 'news' and 'features' editors would be helpful. Have you tried that?

Helena Molin Valdes: I have been told that it is not ONLY the news editors, but the OWNERS that decide about angles? Good idea with the "feature" editor, yes, we have tried; it sometimes works. Also some editions have Supplements, where these kind of messages work.

Mark Wood: It can be a bit political with the news organisation. There is a gentleman's agreement about what is news and what is a feature. I think it is as brutal as this. You never know when there is going to be a boring day. So you keep some feature stories up your sleeve to roll out if there is not real news. However, they try to make the feature topical.


Kevin Farrell: It sounds like what you're saying is that PSAs (public service announcements) do not garner network rating points. Correct?

Helena Molin Valdes: Correct. But "Twisters" and "Dantes Peak" do. Use these and big disasters as windows of opportunities to "talk prevention business".

Avagene Moore: Anyone else have a question for Helena before we run out of time? I want to let our audience know that next week we will be discussing the Pop Culture of Disasters -- reference to disaster movies triggered that.


Terry Storer: Should we re-direct some of our thinking to the kids of Planet Earth? Maybe Disaster Dudes rather than Power Rangers. Imagine a whole generation of disaster-savvy kids.

Avagene Moore: Great idea, Terry. Helena, what do you think about Terry's idea?

Helena Molin Valdes: Very good! Now we have to sell to some network. IDNDR tried to engage Mr. Bean in a series on this topic. For what I know, it did not work. Good luck!

Mark Wood: In fact, there is "Thunderbirds are go", a British children's series which is very good at this.


Marilyn Barker: How does the high turnover rate among media people affect this effort? So that could also be a local effort?

Helena Molin Valdes: We suggest that journalist schools (social communication) should have the topic as a course (compulsory or free). Short training sessions with media and journalists are also being done, at least in some Latin American countries. Visits and "personal contact building" between disaster managers and specific journalists or media owners are also good.

Amy Sebring: We missed Marilyn's question. Journalists tend to move around a lot so there is constant re-educating involved it seems.

Avagene Moore: Isabel, you have a comment. Folks, this is good dialogue; with your permission, we will run over a bit today.

Isabel McCurdy: Comment To David Butler. It appears why there has been an increased interest in disaster and mitigation has been a result of legislation. Canada's legislation was only formulated 10 years ago. Information has to be consistent.

David Butler: But regarding the idea of educating kids --- in fact, FEMA has adopted this approach. For example, see the FEMA for kids Web site: <www.fema.gov/kids/>

Ray Pena: The most important thing we do as emergency managers is provide information to the people we serve about how to manage hazards and the effects of disaster. Most people get their info from the media. Ergo, media and emergency managers MUST work together. (Sorry if this belabors the obvious or has been previously stated.)

Helena Molin Valdes: Announcement: We make a Magazine for Latin America and the Caribbean called IDNDR Informs (Spanish and English). You may send us your address if you want to receive it (semestral). IDNDR Regional Unit in Costa Rica: <[email protected]>

Avagene Moore: Helena, this has been a wonderful exchange. Thank you so much for joining us today. Thanks to our audience also. Good input and a topic that needs more discussion.

Amy Sebring: Before Helena runs off --- Want to remind once again about the upcoming OAS Internet conference next week (October 19-23) will be a logical continuation regarding disaster reduction in the education sector. Please see <http://www.oas.org/EN/prog/nhp/virtual.htm>

Helena Molin Valdes: Thank you everyone, on behalf of the IDNDR Secretariat (see more: <www.idndr.org>) You are right! I will be moderating 21 October on the OAS Virtual Conference. Academic Aspects. See you!

Avagene Moore: Thanks, Amy. Everyone should be interested in the OAS virtual conference. Helena, again, many thanks for your participation. Good session! Helena, join us again in the Virtual Forum when you can. You know where we are now.

Amy Sebring: Thank you so much, Helena. Announcement: Isabel has agreed to give us a quick turn around on today's transcript. So we will have it up ASAP and hope to announce it on the IDNDR list as well.

Avagene Moore: Wonderful! Let's hear it for Isabel McCurdy, EIIP Librarian, in Vancouver, British Columbia. She does a marvelous job on our transcripts.

David Butler: Have to go. But nice to talk with you Helena (indeed, we never know where we'll meet next!)

Amy Sebring: We are honored you all have come to celebrate World Disaster Reduction Day with us. I think the improvement we have seen that you spoke of David, has in part been due to IDNDR. Please note that the new IDNDR site has some very good info now <http://www.idndr.org>, including the Yokohama message. Preparations for wrapping up the decade are already underway.

Avagene Moore: You know that the IDNDR is celebrating big time in Geneva right now. For example: Mr. Duo Ji Cai Rang, Minister of Civil Affairs (China) and Mr. Wang Ang-Sheng, Chinese Academy of Sciences are the recipients of the 1998 United Nations Sasawaka Disaster Prevention Award.

Joe Ashby: Good for them, Dr. Wang was not able to meet with me in Beijing.

Avagene Moore: Activities are occurring around the world today and in the coming weeks designed to make people aware, worldwide, and across all professional and social sectors, of what they can do to make their countries and communities safer from natural disasters. Many seminars and special workshops plus the EIIP Virtual Forum. We are proud to be part of World Disaster Reduction Day!!