Preparing to run 'lifeline' programming before a crisis can build relationships between humanitarians, media and the government, facilitating collaboration that gets life-saving information to people when disaster strikes.
In a humanitarian crisis, people need timely and accurate information about how to meet their fundamental needs. They want to know where they can find food, shelter, water and medical help and how they can keep themselves and their families safe.
Getting the right information to crisis-affected people at the right time requires a diverse cast of organisations to communicate with each other as well as those in need - all amidst considerable confusion. These actors include government, volunteers, aid workers, journalists, medics, the military, telecoms workers and many more besides.
Yet all too often, coordination of communication is a challenge in a crisis. The media doesn't traditionally work in partnership with aid workers and the government; they actually often mistrust each other, as the media usually plays an important role in holding the other two accountable. But getting information to people in need after a disaster requires them all to work effectively together.
Nor are humanitarian agencies always coordinated in their approach to communicating with communities. Following the Nepal earthquake, there were instances of different agencies bidding for the same prime broadcast slots to ensure their message reached more people than other agencies, rather than collectively determining a package of key information so people could hear the full range of what they needed to know.
So we're faced with two challenges. Firstly, crisis-affected people need life-saving information and, secondly, the organisations working to help them may - in turn - need some help to better understand each other. 'Lifeline', a special type of media programming BBC Media Action uses in humanitarian crises, can help address both these tricky issues. It does this by bringing media, humanitarians and government agencies together around the common goal of getting life-saving information to crisis-affected people.
A meeting of minds - to meet needs
Lifeline programming differs from conventional news reporting in that it is for people in an emergency rather than about them. Aimed at alleviating people's suffering and assisting with their recovery, it should not only be timely and accurate but also practical, accurate, accessible, engaging and motivating. Lifeline programming can help people make decisions about what to do next, cope with physical and psychosocial suffering, and help them get them back to some kind of 'normal'.
In the chaotic days and weeks after a humanitarian crisis hits, ensuring such vital information reaches the people who need it, when they need it and in a language they understand is no mean feat. The difficulty of this task is why it's so important that all the many groups involved in relief efforts communicate with one another in a transparent and effective way.
However, this is not a foregone conclusion. Humanitarians, government and the media will instinctively describe the information they're sharing with crisis-affected communities in different terms, which can lead to disjointed, contradictory or incoherent information being shared.
Fortunately, this hurdle isn't insurmountable, as we've learned from training a range of organisations how to communicate with crisis-affected people in 13 countries over the past four years. We recently evaluated our lifeline preparedness work in Myanmar and Nepal, which included training humanitarian, government and media practitioners. The study showed that the training built confidence amongst practitioners and was effective in strengthening ties between the three groups. Trainees went on to draw on new relationships and skills in responding to the Nepal earthquakes and Myanmar flooding in 2015.
Having identified common purposes and points of mutual understanding, trainees were keen to collaborate in future on both accurately sharing important information and communicating it to the people who needed it most. They had perhaps come to realise the languages they spoke were not so different after all.
As one trainee from a humanitarian agency in Nepal put it: "Journalists from other media organisations started lifeline programmes. When they tried to contact ministries and humanitarian agencies it all went smoothly as they knew media would be contacting them for precious lifeline information. This would not have happened before."
The need for lifeline programming is only growing
Over the last 20 years, 1.35 million people have died in more than 7,000 disaster events, with earthquakes and tsunamis the biggest killers, followed closely by climate-related disasters, such as drought, flooding and tropical storms. A staggering 90% of these deaths occurred in low and middle-income countries.
As though this was not enough to contend with, the world is facing a host of other new and escalating threats. Conflict is displacing record numbers of people, whose desire for information is as great as their need for shelter, food and healthcare. Yet the politics of conflict make it incredibly difficult to provide them with communication as aid.
So with conflicts likely to rage on and climate-related disasters set to increase, both in number and intensity, it seems that there will be a pressing need for lifeline programming.
To better meet this need, the media for development community should pool evidence on what kind of communication works best in conflict settings and how best to prepare stakeholders to source, produce and disseminate it. Our evaluation suggests there should also be greater investment in communication preparedness, which includes building relationships between media, humanitarians and the government, at an individual and organisational level, to work together when crisis strikes.
After all, saving lives is not only about acting sooner and smarter, but working together.
Katy Williams is Research Editor at BBC Media Action.
This article originally appeared on the BBC Media Action Insight blog