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close this bookHandbook for Emergencies - Second Edition (UNHCR, 1999, 414 p.)
close this folder9. External Relations
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentRelations with Government and Diplomatic Corps
View the documentRelations with the Media
View the documentFunding and Donor Relations
View the documentFormal Written Communications
View the documentAnnexes

Relations with the Media


12. The media has traditionally been an ally of UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies working in difficult conditions. The media, especially locally based correspondents, can also be a useful source of information. There may be considerable media interest in an emergency and perceptions of how the international community in general, and UNHCR in particular, is responding will be set in the early days. This has important implications for support for UNHCR. It takes time to correct an unfavourable first impression, and media interest may have shifted elsewhere before this happens.

The best way to have positive media coverage and support is to run the most effective emergency operation possible in the circumstances. Expertise in relations with the media can never substitute for good performance.

13. Television, radio and newspapers operate on tight deadlines and need factual stories on the emergency, with some background information. Magazines and some radio and television programs cover stories in depth and have more time available for research and subsequent re-checking. Television news channels (such as CNN, BBC World and Sky News), and wire services (for example AFP, AP, Reuters), produce bulletin-type news stories, have very short deadlines, and are likely to be the major source for world-wide coverage of the emergency.

14. Given the logistical difficulties of some emergencies, journalists are likely to approach humanitarian agencies with requests for help in moving around. Whenever possible, and taking into account the operational priorities and the sensitivity of some situations, journalists, both national and international, should be assisted in getting to the story.

General Guidelines for Relations with the Media

15. The first decision to make concerns who should handle relations with the media. The media prefer information directly from those responsible, which can be very time-consuming. It is therefore recommended that a Public Information Officer be a member of the UNHCR field team from the start.

16. The Public Information Officer must have full and immediate access to information concerning developments in the operation and UNHCR policies and reactions. He/she needs to be updated by the most senior UNHCR Officer in the operation as often as necessary, at least once per day in a major emergency. The Public Information Officer should then be responsible for all aspects of relations with the media. Where there is no UNHCR Public Information Officer, good contacts with the press officers of other organizations will be helpful for general advice, and for organizing joint news conferences.

17. In emergencies the media will probably go to the location of the refugees, often unannounced, and expect a briefing from UNHCR field officers on the spot. The briefing given should be limited to facts and practical intentions. See below for tips for interviews.

18. When intense press interest in a particular event can be predicted, there is much to be said for preparing a short and simple statement, distributing it to the enquirers, and avoiding further comment. Close internal coordination with field staff is essential, particularly if the interest relates to an event occurring in a location where UNHCR has field staff. Sending the statement to Headquarters is essential as questions are likely to be raised in Geneva.

19. Newspaper editors will generally print a factual correction, and will often give space in opinion or correspondence columns for UNHCR to comment on errors of interpretation of UNHCR's role and policy. It is more difficult to correct a factual error made on television or radio. However, when trying to made corrections, these should be corrections of fact not interpretation.

UNHCR should be careful to avoid public polemical debate.

Locally-based Media

20. The national media will be very important in determining local attitudes to the refugees, and may also give an early indication of sensitive issues and even government policy. The government may be as concerned by national coverage as by foreign coverage. Local foreign-language newspapers may be less important, except indirectly as a result of their effect on the diplomatic community or foreign press corps.

21. Field offices should monitor the local media, including the radio and television, which may play a much greater role in influencing public opinion than newspapers. Good relations should be developed with local correspondents covering the emergency. However, exercise considerable discretion until there is practical experience of the outcome of interviews. Language barriers are often a source of misunderstanding, particularly on the telephone and a locally recruited Public Information Assistant can be very helpful in this regard.

22. It will probably be useful to make early contact with the news editors of the main national (and any local foreign language) radio, and television stations and newspapers to explain UNHCR's role. Stress that every priority is being given to the needs of the emergency and give a contact reference, should further information be required.

Information Sharing with the Government

23. The government may be sensitive to coverage of the refugees, and early contact should be established with the official press office or information service. General statements or press releases should be shared with the government information services and the department handling refugees and UNHCR. Statements relating to joint government-UNHCR actions may have to be cleared with the government first.

Field/Headquarters Information Sharing

24. A regular and swift exchange of information is essential. Many questions on the operation will be asked directly in Geneva and New York. There is a UN press briefing in Geneva every Tuesday and Friday morning, where UNHCR participates, and a weekday press briefing at noon in New York by the spokesperson of the Secretary-General. In addition, UNHCR calls special news conferences whenever necessary.

25. The Public Information Section at Headquarters must have access to up-to-date information. The Field should therefore:

Keep media interest in mind when reporting to Headquarters (for example in sit reps);

Provide information (in sitreps or separately) on matters likely to be of specific press interest;

Send reviews of local media coverage to Headquarters.

26. In addition, if the Field has given an interview with a major foreign newspaper or network, or if a foreign correspondent has been aggressive or appeared unsatisfied with answers, the Public Information Section at Headquarters should be forewarned.

27. Similarly, the Field must be kept regularly informed by the Public Information Section at Headquarters of international media coverage. Important international media reports (including those based on briefings given in the field) may not be available in the field.

Press who contact Headquarters before going to the field should be clearly briefed that only limited attention and logistical support can be devoted to them by the field offices during the emergency phase.

Tips for Interviews

28. Reporters generally respect the ground rules for an interview, provided these are clearly established in advance. The interviewer and interviewee should agree on type of attribution and how the interviewee will be quoted: for example: by name, "a UNHCR spokesman", "UN sources", "humanitarian worker", "sources in the international community", etc. An interview may need to mix full attribution for the facts, and no attribution for information on political considerations and constraints. Alternatively an interview can be fully attributed and may often be tape recorded. An interview can also be for background information, and in this case what is said by the interviewee is not attributed directly.

29. Radio and television interviews can provide good coverage for UNHCR's aims. They are, by definition, for full attribution. If this is not advisable because of particular sensitivities, avoid such interviews. Bear in mind that interviews on radio and television can be edited.

30. In all interviews and comments to the media, when in doubt err on the side of discretion. Considerable experience and self-discipline is needed to limit remarks to what was previously planned. Having agreed to give an interview or answer questions, showing hostility or irritation will nearly always be counter-productive, no matter how unreasonable or loaded the questions are.

31. UNHCR's work is difficult and mistakes will inevitably be made, but do not try to hide problems and difficulties.

Though it is important to be discreet, honesty and clarity are the best policy.

Most journalists understand these problems and respect efforts in what they know are very difficult conditions. In fact, it is almost always best to talk about problems before the media find out about them on their own - and they usually do. Finally, if mistakes are made, admit them and try to learn from them.

32. When a complete answer to a question is given and a silence ensues, leave it silent. There is no law stating that one has to say more than one wants or intends to say. It is better to pause to construct a response than to ramble. Do not suggest follow-up questions, unless it is in order to disseminate important information.

33. Do not ask for a story to be killed or suppressed. Attempts at censorship will backfire and are likely to generate two immediate consequences; stepped up investigation of the matter to be suppressed; and an unfavourable story on the attempts to suppress it.

34. When in a press conference and especially with the electronic media, state the most important point at the beginning. In subsequent answers and statements, refer again to the most important point. When dealing with radio and television, keep answers short; television and radio put severe restrictions on how much information can be used and long drawn-out explanations and answers tend not to be used and the main point not covered.

35. Give direct answers to direct questions. If the facts are not known, say so, and offer to get back to the reporter with the information.

36. Sensitive political or policy questions should be referred to the main UNHCR field office. Responses to general questions about the situation should be made with UNHCR's mandate and goals in mind.

37. Take the initiative/control. Avoid answering speculative "what if" questions.

Be prepared to take the lead and direct the interview into positive areas of information about the operation.

38. Key things to remember for all interviews are:

BE YOURSELF. While journalists are always on the lookout for a good story, they are not out to make your life miserable. So relax and be friendly. Look at the interviewer. Avoid nervous gestures and mannerisms. Keep your answers short and simple;

BE POSITIVE. Do not criticize colleagues or other UN organizations and NGOs. We are all in the same boat;

BE CONVERSATIONAL. When you talk to journalists, keep it simple and clear. Do not use the type of language found in many UNHCR internal documents. In everyday conversation, ordinary people don't use terms like "modalities", "durable solutions," "inter alia" "specific international protection mandate," "NGO," and "implementing partner." Use examples that will make the information comprehensible to your audience;

BE CONCISE. A 10-minute interview may end up being seconds on the air, or three lines in the newspaper. It is essential to crystallize your thoughts in a few quotable sentences;

BE IDENTIFIABLE WITH UNHCR. If you are being interviewed for television, or if a photograph will accompany the report, try to get a UNHCR logo in the background -possibly a flag or on a vehicle, wear a UNHCR T-shirt or cap.

Guidelines For Appearance On Television

39. Key things to remember for television interviews are:


Do make and maintain eye contact with the questioner, not the camera. Do not let your eyes wander;

DO wear suitable subdued-coloured clothes. Normal working clothes for field conditions are fine - ties and suits are not appropriate;

DO check your appearance before going in front of the camera, hair, buttons, zips?

DO make short statements, each holding up on its own;

DO remember to make your most important points as early as possible;

DO, before you begin, discuss with the interviewer what line the discussion will take;

DO remember that the interviewer and audience know less about your subject than you do;

DO remember that any programme is likely to be edited before use.


DON'T smoke;

DON'T wear sunglasses or jewellery;

DON'T forget that the smallest mannerisms show up more obviously on television;

DON'T fidget or fiddle with pens, pencils, lighters, etc.;

DON'T say "I think" too often, it sounds as though you are uncertain of your subject. Talk about "we" or "UNHCR" instead.

Visibility of the Operation

40. In addition to working with the media to ensure coverage of UNHCR operations, emergency managers must pay attention to the visibility of the operation.

41. Proper identification of staff, vehicles, buildings and relief materials contributes to improved dialogue with beneficiaries, local authorities and partners.

In conflict zones, visible markings can be an important security measure for staff and property.

42. Staff should be visible and identifiable as UNHCR personnel. Visibility items for staff, vehicles and buildings are available from Headquarters (see Catalogue of Emergency Response Resources, Appendix 1). A visible UNHCR will help to show the beneficiaries and the outside world that UNHCR is present, active and delivering services to the refugees.