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Old dogs, new tricks

By Claes Amundsen

Press 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 315,000.

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 to school.

“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 assistance.

“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.


When the 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
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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