Old dogs, new
By Claes Amundsen
coverage of domestic Red Cross activities often seems to pale
in comparison to the sexier, large-scale international relief
operations. This is not, however, a law of nature, as some
newly established programmes in European Red Cross Societies
show. Creativeness, responsiveness and imagination are the
key words as the old dogs rapidly adjust to their new tricks.
“The postcard was just one of hundreds given away
free in Danish cafés this year. And yet, it found
its way into the pages of several national newspapers. The
message was simple, but its humour had touched a chord:
“Some of the fun is to put it on — use condoms!”
As it happens, the AIDS campaign was originally designed
by the Finnish Red Cross, but it had been enthusiastically
adopted by the Danish Red Cross Youth. According to Barbara
Gram, Head of Information at the Danish Red Cross, there
are various reasons why the postcard was such a success:
“First of all, people are surprised when we come
across in such a direct way,” she says. “Many
see the Red Cross as a rather stiff and somewhat dusty institution.
It’s because we’ve been around for a long time,
I guess. But if we want to keep talking to people, we need
to communicate on their own terms.
“Even more important is our ability to identify the
real needs. An irrelevant activity will never make a good
story. AIDS is a major challenge to public health in the
nineties and, therefore, the Red Cross needs to deal with
it. Of course, we should never do it just to get press coverage,
but experience tells me that coverage will automatically
follow when we address the important issues.”
Other examples of new initiatives in Denmark are drop-in
centres for the mentally afflicted. People who use the centres
have often dropped out of the public system and they appreciate
the care and warmth offered by Red Cross volunteers. Just
outside Copenhagen a night hostel for homeless women has
recently opened, and news about these activities rapidly
travelled to the media.
Patrolling the streets
Information officers in other European National Societies
will tell similar stories. In neighbouring Norway, for instance,
a nationwide campaign to stop youth violence has gained
lots of attention.
“It seems to reflect a sentiment of the times,”
says Anna Benedicte Stigen from the Norwegian Red Cross
information department. “Violence is a growing problem
in Norway, and tens of thousands of volunteers have involved
themselves in our campaign. We have had mass meetings, and
many people have pledged to fight the violence. Volunteers
have created night patrols in order to keep things calm
in the streets of Oslo.
“Actually, if they are important enough, I think
national activities will get even more press coverage than
international ones. The floods in Norway in early 1995 provided
proof of this. Media attention on national activities could
be one of the reasons behind our success in getting new
members.” The Norwegian Red Cross must be one of the
fastest growing National Societies in the world with a membership
increase from 150,000 only two years ago to the present
Side effects of democracy
Responding to growing needs at home is also a main priority
in Eastern Europe. Encho Gospodinov, Federation information
delegate in Budapest, explains that before the transition
to democracy, Red Cross Societies in Eastern Europe were
mainly known for their international activities. “Social
problems at home were not as bad as they are now. At least
everybody had food to eat and a place to live. Today, many
people are living below the poverty line in these countries.
In Bulgaria, street children constitute a new problem. The
Red Cross Youth assist them with food, medicine and counselling.
They try to reintegrate them into society and get them back
“Similar programmes are taking shape in other Eastern
European countries,” Gospodinov continues. “Romania,
for instance, now has a lot of HIV-infected children. The
breakdown of the economy after the collapse of communism
has led to poor sanitary conditions and contaminated needles
and blood transfusions contribute to the spread of the disease.
You could call it the negative effect of democracy.”
Gospodinov also talks of the millions of elderly and disabled
people and invalids who are struggling to survive in the
former Soviet Union. These people have been derailed from
normal life and now depend heavily on the Red Cross for
“The biggest problem, however, is undoubtedly the
crisis created by the conflict in the former Yugoslavia.
The conflict area as well as the neighbouring countries
host a great number of refugees and displaced people, and
this has given the Red Cross a lot of work.”
“As the Eastern European countries now face all these
problems at home, the Red Cross Societies are becoming better
known for their domestic activities,” Gospodinov says.
fire brigade leaves
In London, the British Red Cross is trying to establish
a whole new profile for its domestic work. Lolly Walters,
Head of Public Relations, is very involved in this task. “We
are trying to reposition the Red Cross,” she says. “Earlier
we had so many small and unconnected services that it was
difficult to get a clear profile. Today we try to focus on
fewer and stronger activities. Our overall message is that
we are here to respond in time of emergencies. We are addressing
the sudden disasters, such as flooding or a plane crash, as
well as the daily emergency needs of individual people.
“Our fire victim support scheme is a good example of
this. When the fire brigade leaves, Red Cross volunteers take
over. We offer moral and practical support to people who have
lost their homes to the flames.
“In order to promote these services we target the press
in a very selective way. We rarely send out press releases.
Instead, we will call a newspaper or a magazine and offer
the journalist an interview with someone who has a story to
tell. It could be the man who had a triple by-pass operation
and was told never to work again. Then he called the Red Cross
and joined as a volunteer. Or it could be a person who has
received support through one of our programmes. Human interest
stories are a very effective way of reaching the British media.”
Whether it is a human interest feature, a story about the
elderly or disabled, or a campaign against violence or AIDS,
European National Societies have found that media interest
is less a function of international versus national news items
and more a matter of what is relevant in today’s often
difficult world. Such criteria can only be helpful as it pushes
National Societies to critically examine their activities
and make sure that they are, in fact, newsworthy.
Claes Amundsen is currently the Federation’s information
delegate in Sarajevo. He has also worked in the information
department of the Danish Red Cross.
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