Communications in a Disaster Zone: The Stories You Choose Not to Tell

As the world rushes to aid the victims of the earthquake on Sept. 8 in Morocco, Susan Malandrino looks back at her work with the American Red Cross in Turkey and Syria this past February.

It’s been several months since the devastating earthquakes rocked Türkiye and Syria, killing more than 50,000 people and causing immeasurable strife.

As the anniversary approached, I’ve thought a lot about my experience as a deployed delegate for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. My role on the ground in Gaziantep, Türkiye was to capture what I saw and the people I met, and to share these stories with the wider world through PR efforts.

I was on the ground for 30 days and we achieved great success landing stories in major media markets and top-tier publications. We shared stories of heartbreak and hope with the wider world. Since that time, I can’t help but reflect on the stories I didn’t tell, the stories that were too hard and too painful to share.

There was the father I met two weeks after the quake outside his destroyed place of business. Each day, he stood vigil hoping to recover the laptop he’d left at work before officials razed the building. Looking at the enormous pile of debris, we both knew the chances were slim at best. But neither of us said it.

“The computer contains the last pictures of my 11-year-old daughter. It’s all that remains of her,” he said somberly. Showing me videos on his phone of a bright bubbly girl with an enormous grin, it was almost as if my heart ruptured in my chest. My voice caught in my throat, and we stood silently crying together. I thought of my own daughter, the same age, at home in her bed 6,000 miles away. His daughter lay down the street cocooned in a tomb of rubble and perhaps may never be found. His story was simply too personal, too heartbreaking and too tragic.

There was my colleague, who told us of the logistical challenges of obtaining a death certificate for his mother and sister who perished in the quake. Without any bodies, his local municipality wouldn’t issue the paperwork required to declare them deceased.

Stuck in a bureaucratic loop while trying to process his immeasurable grief, he was unable to move forward both administratively and emotionally. I gave him a hug and asked, “Are you OK?” As soon as I said it, I wanted to claw the words back as they floated into the ether. No, he was not OK. His grief and frustration were too large to comprehend and couldn’t be easily fixed.

There was the mother, distraught that her college-age son who was studying abroad and now had no home to return to. Her story was sad and convoluted. She was trying to process trauma and loss and simply wanted someone to listen. While we talked, she routinely reached out and touched my cheeks as she spoke. “You wear your heart on your face, and it makes me feel better,” she said. Rather than telling her story, in that moment my job was instead to listen and simply be present.

Teams do more than simply listen. Red Cross and Red Crescent staff and volunteers work nonstop to help those in need. Thus far, they have delivered over 400 million hot meals, provided hundreds of thousands of essential items and distributed millions of dollars in cash assistance to those in need. Teams delivered hygiene kits and blood supplies and provided much-needed psychological aid. They have poured resources alongside their hearts and souls into helping others.

So much of our role in public relations in the field involves bearing witness. We are entrusted to respect those we meet during their darkest hours. We must thread the needle and know when to share stories with the wider world and when to put the camera down, put the pen down and simply listen.

Seven-plus months later, part of my heart remains in Türkiye wondering how that dad is doing. Did he find that laptop? If so, did those pictures bring him any solace? I don’t know. But here is what I do know — humanitarian communicators around the world will continue to be there when people need it most. We will document the most critical stories when we can. When we can’t, we will silently grieve with those who have lost it all. Even if we don’t share a story with the rest of the world, we will hold it close to our hearts.

Susan Malandrino is the communications manager for International and Service to the Armed Forces at the American Red Cross. She’s passionate about humanitarian issues. X/Twitter: @semalandrino.

[Photo credit: mohammad bash]

The post Communications in a Disaster Zone: The Stories You Choose Not to Tell first appeared on PRsay.

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