Story: Alex Haederle | Production: Melissa Blum | Photos: Provided by Timothy La Rose
Left and Top Right: Mission to Forecariah, Guinea then the epicenter of the outbreak.
Bottom Right: Meeting with Ebola survivors and UNICEF Child Protection experts.
Timothy La Rose is the Director of Communications and Outreach for Ripple Effect. In this role, he manages a team of eighteen communications professionals and oversees the development and implementation of communications strategies, as well as projects, for Ripple’s clients. Timothy is a career communications specialist with a focus in global health and human rights and has worked throughout the world in support of humanitarian missions for over 20 years.
From 2013-2016, he was the Chief of Communications for UNICEF in Guinea, working on the front lines throughout the Ebola crisis, one of the deadliest infectious disease outbreaks in world history. In this interview, we spoke virtually to Timothy about his experiences in West Africa, what being on the front lines of a crisis taught him about communications, and lessons that he’d share with communications professionals in preparing for—and responding to—crisis situations.
RIPPLE EFFECT: Tell us about what you were doing in West Africa in 2013. What was your job?
TIMOTHY LA ROSE: I was the head of communications for UNICEF’s Country Office in Guinea. My job was to be an advocate for children, from public health to child protection, nutrition, water sanitation, hygiene, and more in the region and internationally.
What were some of your duties?
Initially, I managed a small team of two people (me included) and together we’d tell the stories of children and local communities through multimedia content. The team grew during the Ebola outbreak. We’d organize media interviews, shoot photos and video, write stories, and generally develop content for blogs, social media feeds, press releases, and so on.
What drew you to Guinea?
In previous jobs, I traveled all over the world for the United Nations to advocate for children in armed conflicts, human trafficking victims, and to draw attention to other humanitarian efforts. But I always wanted a long-term field post, and UNICEF afforded me the perfect opportunity to do just that. Guinea didn’t receive much global attention until Ebola broke out.
Tell us about what that was like—when Ebola first hit.
I remember coming in to work that first Monday after the WHO declaration, and there was literally a line of local journalists outside our office, all waiting for access and comment on the outbreak. There had never been a recorded outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. My phone was constantly ringing with calls from NPR, BBC, CNN, France 24, etc. It was overwhelming.
How did you respond? What was the first action you took?
My first job was to help communities understand Ebola—basically, to explain what the disease was and how it could be prevented. Simultaneously, I had to alert the international donor community about the needs of the people of Guinea to fight the outbreak, and let the world know that UNICEF was responding to this. UNICEF is an operational program with the capabilities to help respond on the ground. It was our job to use our expertise and infrastructure to help communities with messages, personal protective equipment (PPE), water facilities, soap, chlorine, thermometers, school protection measures, and support for orphans.
What was going through your head at the time?
First, there was incredible pressure: Imagine a small field office, and I’m the only one with experience developing communications strategies and coordinating global media responses. I felt pressure to get the story right—to get out in the field, shoot photos and video footage, talk to community members—as well as give the press firsthand content that they can use. I spent a lot of nights chasing down experts for interviews and shepherding journalists, at the expense of sleep.
How did the outbreak affect you personally?
Immediate fear. My family was there with me in Guinea, my son just had his first birthday a few months before. We didn’t know anything about how the disease was moving, how contagious it was, or where it was safe to be in the first few days. A year, even two years in, we’d think the outbreak was controlled, then it would pop up somewhere else. There were so many times that people wanted to give up—this is hopeless, it’s endemic—but I tried to keep a sense of hope and optimism that eventually, it would be contained, and we would end Ebola in Guinea. But it took so long, and that was scary, sad, and frustrating.
Was there a specific event or incident that sticks with you?
Oh yes. I was flying from West Guinea to the capital, due east across the country with a team of journalists after spending time with the people in Meliandou, the village where Ebola started, and one of the plane’s engines failed at 20,000 feet. My biggest fear at that moment was that we’d have to land the plane in the middle of Guinea and drive three days back home. I remember I was listening to Radiohead on my headphones, just trying to keep calm and look ‘cool’ in front of the journalists and get through it. Fortunately, the pilots were eventually able to restart the engine and we made it to the capital without incident.
We’ll return to West Africa in a bit. Tell us about how your experience changed you as a communications professional.
I developed so much more confidence in myself and a deeper understanding of the power of firsthand, authentic communications. I had to learn how to shoot better photos and pair it with my own written content, both on UNICEF’s channels and my own. When those photos, videos, press releases, and stories were picked up by major outlets—from the New York Times to Le Monde, El Pais, and BBC—it made me realize how much of an impact visual imagery had in evoking emotion and interest. If I hadn’t focused on visual communications, we wouldn’t have had nearly as much attention from journalists to cover the stories.
Did that change your philosophy at all about the power of information, especially in crisis situations?
Absolutely. It’s in crises that you realize proactive communications are essential. Because people are paying attention. If we saw bad information or narratives portrayed incorrectly in the press or online, we’d take corrective action. Getting everyone on the same, accurate message is important, especially when you’re coordinating responses with other organizations. Philosophically, it’s essential that communications experts are armed with correct technical information—good and bad—and always tell the truth.
What can crisis communications professionals take away from that?
Lots of people don’t want to communicate during a crisis. Unfortunately, that’s not an option. You can’t crawl under the covers and not talk. Even if it’s all bad news, and you feel like you’ll be attacked for anything you say, people will always respond to honesty and accountability. No matter the conversation, the worst thing you can do is not communicate—because not communicating is still communicating… you are telling people that you are afraid and insecure. It validates negative assumptions.
What are the biggest mistakes you see people and companies make when dealing with media during crises and emergencies?
Two common mistakes I see: One, companies go silent and two, they insert their brand into places where they don’t belong—basically, unnecessarily linking a crisis to your company or product. The latter is opportunist, and the cost is sounding insensitive and losing credibility. That’s the opposite side of not speaking at all. What I’d recommend companies is to find their place—their role in a crisis—and shape a genuine, accurate message around that. If there is no message, and if you have no role, see how your company can support those who do.
What’s the first thing a company should do during a crisis?
Take a breath! Meet with your experts and get the right information, take some time to analyze and form a plan, and get the proper buy-in from leadership. You don’t want to go into a crisis divided. You have to move quickly, sure, but you do have some time, so take it and use it wisely.
What are the key aspects of an effective crisis communication program?
Access to experts—I can’t stress that enough. You need messages that are accurate the first time, and those should ideally come from people with authority on the subject. In theory, you need to have your audiences built out, your channels up and active, and your content in a good place. When you have your experts and leadership available, meet with them and craft messages together that are accurate and address the real implications and emotions of a crisis.
Those make sense, as far as building an internal strategy to respond. What about external considerations?
Partners and relationships outside your organization are essential. Before you share an external message about a crisis situation, you should be asking yourself, “What will our partners and clients think about this?”; “How are they communicating?”; and “Do our messages conflict with theirs?” Alignment is important—if you contradict your trusted allies and customers, you will all look bad.
Great advice for response situations. What can companies do to better prepare for crises?
Empower your communications team. Connect them with technical experts and leadership, as well as reliable data streams to ensure that they’re crafting messages and developing channel strategies based on the most accurate, up-to-date information available. Ensure that your communications team has all of the information, good or bad, otherwise they may accidently tread into dangerous territory. Proactively build relationships with journalists and media who you know are honest, fair, and available for you to reach out to. And identify channels where you can be interviewed, or place an op-ed or comment to tell your side of a story.
How can social media help in planning and responding to crisis situations?
Use social media for engagement, to interact with people who need to ask you questions and gather information. Access and transparency can go a long way in helping manage a reputation through a crisis, because being transparent and vulnerable builds trust. Be honest when a question is outside of our expertise. If it makes sense in your situation, use social media early and often, especially if you feel you’re on the right side of an issue.
Let’s bring it back to Guinea. What are some lessons you learned from the Ebola crisis that feel especially relevant now?
The Ebola outbreak was the biggest story of 2014, almost as much as COVID-19 is the defining story of 2020. Being on the inside helped me understand how the world, the media, and leadership respond to a crisis. One thing I realized—and this applies to any content creator, or brand with active channels—is that you’re probably not reaching people the way you think you are.
What does that mean?
There are different ways that people get information, and one communications approach can’t possibly hit everybody with the same levels of trust and intensity. You have to go where people are. Never assume that your tweet, press release, or big newspaper story is going to reach everyone you need to reach, especially in a crisis.
On top of that, you may not have the communications tools that you think you have. In Guinea, I saw many governments and organizations using radio to reach people; many assumed there was radio all throughout Guinea in local languages, but there actually wasn’t. So people turned elsewhere for information, and that information wasn’t always helpful.
Those are great tips. Any parting words for communicators who may not know what to do when a crisis hits?
They call communications specialists ‘flaks’ because you get hit from all sides. Sometimes you have to just be the flak: the one wearing the jacket, having to absorb the brunt of pressure and criticism. Do the best you can. You’ll get to the other side. Communicate information that is helpful and correct, and worry more about being accurate than being fast and first. Every crisis comes to an end. With Ebola, it was the people of Guinea who ended it.
Inspired by Timothy’s story, or want to ask him a question about his experiences or advice for crisis communication? Reach out! You can connect with Timothy on LinkedIn, or leave a comment in the field below.
As always, articulate, intelligent & thorough. You have to respect Timothy La Rose’s knowledge and how he applies and shares his experience. Thank you, Timothy!
Interesting article some solid ideas for communications folks during a crisis.
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