Handling media in an humanitarian crisis - Interview with Elisabeth Byrs, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ spokesperson in Geneva

2 January 2009
Handling media in an humanitarian crisis - Interview with Elisabeth Byrs, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs' spokesperson in Geneva

When the tsunami crisis struck on the 26 December 2004, nobody thought that this disaster was going to turn into the most dreadful one that humankind has known for a long time, killing more than 200,000 people. At that time, attention turned to OCHA and the United Nations Relief Co-ordinator and Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, Mr Jan Egeland. He mobilized the troops both in Geneva and New York—OCHA were working round the clock ...

During the tsunami crisis, OCHA granted more than 300 interviews, organized press briefings three times a day so that the journalist working in different time zones would get their articles out on time … you could hardly miss either Jan Egeland or somebody else of his staff on TV, radio …. The Palais des Nations in Geneva was in a frenzy with journalists rushing in from all over the world.

On the 26 December, Elisabeth Byrs was on holiday with her family. Being the spokesperson for OCHA in Geneva, she left her family behind and rushed back home where the journalists were waiting … She and her colleagues in OCHA were under considerable pressure: the phone never stopped ringing; e-mails were arriving from journalists all over the world. Everybody wanted to know what was going on, how OCHA was coping with the crisis …

Let us first say that Elisabeth is not a newcomer in the field of communications. For more than twenty years she worked as a journalist at AFP, the French press agency. Her experience proved itself to be very valuable as she knows exactly what kind of information is needed for journalists to do a proper job, and she was always calm and friendly despite the rush, the questions and the requests.

Q: The disaster happened on 26 December. How did it affect you?

A: It was the first time we were facing a disaster of this magnitude with twelve countries being affected. In general, whenever there is an earthquake, one country is affected, but this time there were twelve. When one country in concerned, it is easier to handle, if I can put it this way. We send off an assessment and co-ordination team to evaluate the damage incurred, then assistance is dispatched and we collaborate closely with the government, either at the local, regional or national or level. This time we had to deal with twelve countries, each with their specificities—we had never been in a situation like this before. The task was enormous and we simply had to handle it.

On 26 December I was on holiday with my family in the Caribbean. Due to the time difference, I got the information about the first major earthquake later than I would normally have done. Later the same day came the news about the second earthquake. In the beginning the figures were 400 victims. It was like a “normal earthquake”—if I may express myself this way. In the beginning I was not too worried, as I had not realised the magnitude of the disaster. In the evening the phone started to ring and the SMS started to rain … I managed to find an Internet connection and got in touch with our website Relief-web to get information about what was going on. And then I realised that there was something really serious happening. When the TV channels started to broadcast images from the disaster, we really understood the magnitude of the disaster.

My mobile telephone ran non-stop—the journalists wanted to get a reaction, to know what were going on. It was non-stop. OCHA had already sent off evaluation teams, and then I was glued to my computer the whole time trying to read the situation reports and other internal reports so that I could respond to the questions from the journalists. The following day, I was on the plane to Geneva. As soon as I got out of the airplane—completely jetlagged—I rushed off to the Palais des Nations and started to answer the request from the journalists. There were more often than not three telephones ringing simultaneously …

We have never been confronted with such effervescence and activity in the offices here in Geneva. From that day, the small team started to work non-stop to grant interviews to the different radios, TV, newspapers and to other journalists who came in to see how OCHA was responding to this disaster. We did not have time to rest or to eat—it was completely crazy. For instance, we had one journalist from Die Welt camping in our small office of twelve square metres for a whole week.

Q: The Palais was closed at that time, and the majority of people were away on holiday. I remember there were quite a number of press conferences, briefings, etc. How did you organize the logistics, if I may put it this way?

A: We tried to organize ourselves in a very practical manner with the journalists present. The Palais was closed from 31 December and reopened officially on 4 January. All OCHA staff, of course, were on duty and we had meetings every morning with the task-force group headed by Ms Yvette Stevens, the Assistant Emergency Relief Co-ordinator and the Director of OCHA in Geneva. Present were all the persons involved in the logistics, liaison, military, people in the field … Everybody was there. The first ones to provide assistance were the different military forces, and at the end of the relief operations more than thirty different armies had been providing assistance to the victims.

Every morning, we had to brief the journalists who were waiting for news. Often I had to be up before 5 o’clock in the morning to grant interviews to, for instance, the South African media. We tried to please all the journalists, no matter what the time difference and no matter what the language. My boss, Mr Sergio Piazzi, granted interviews to the Italian media.

On 6 January, Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary-General, officially launched the UN Appeal for US$977 million for the victims of the tsunami. On 11 January Mr Egeland, the Under Secretary General for the Humanitarian Affairs and Relief Co-ordinator, convened a huge donor’s conference and we started then preparing for the different media events to take place during the Conference.

On 11 January huge crowds of journalists flew in to Geneva. They came from the United States, Indonesia, India, Thailand, different European countries … The mobilization was fantastic. OCHA, under the leadership of Jan Egeland, witnessed a tremendous generosity, both from the private sector, Member States, individuals—everybody felt concerned about this disaster. For the first time in history, one week after the UN launch for the victims of tsunami, OCHA had received about 50% of the total funds requested.

Q: I remember the 11 January very well. Jan Egeland held three press conferences. I think I have never seen so many people at an event before. How did you get all these people here?

A: I think that the disaster was of such an importance that we did not have to do very much, apart from briefing them and giving them the necessary information—to raise the information curtain. Jan Egeland responded present to the media, and the poor man only had a sandwich to eat during the whole day. It was a challenging time, most exhausting, but I think we all tried to do our best so that the information would circulate.

Geneva is, in fact, the capital of Humanitarian Affairs and since this Conference took place here in Geneva, it was not only important for Geneva as such but also for the Palais des Nations. The Conference was a huge success for OCHA, and we are still getting at least three requests a day about the tsunami and about the funding issues in particular. I would say that, media-wise, the Tsunami has had a positive effect for OCHA. I say this because whenever the journalists with whom I worked during this crisis needed some information, they called me, and whenever Mr Egeland was coming to Geneva journalists were queuing up for interviews.

Editor’s note:
So let me just join the other journalists to say “THANK YOU” and “BRAVO” for the excellent work to Mr Egeland, to yourself and to your other colleagues in OCHA for having been there in one of the darkest moment of the history of mankind.

Geneva 2005