February 15, 2016
I’ve been a proud volunteer for the Minnesota chapter of the American Red Cross for a year. The Minnesota Red Cross chapter offers a vast variety and specialties of Red Cross volunteer opportunities, which means by volunteering with the Red Cross, volunteers can laser-focus their efforts to most efficiently use the few but valuable hours they have to dedicate to volunteering, but still make a true difference. This approach was new and inspiring to a young professional like myself, so I decided to get hooked up with the Minnesota Red Cross’s public affairs volunteer team.
Most people are aware the Red Cross volunteers of all specialties connect with those affected by devastating home fires and other disasters to provide assistance for their immediate emergency needs. Depending on the nature of the emergency and the people affected, this assistance may include a place to stay, food, clothing, emotional support and help with long-term recovery planning… and sometimes public affairs assistance.
In a nutshell, the members of the public affairs team act as volunteer PR professionals for people affected by disasters who are receiving Red Cross assistance. You’re probably thinking, why would someone who just lost their home to a massive fire want anything to do with a PR person? I asked myself the same thing.
Everyone has turned on the morning news to see their local news “reporting live from a devastating house fire in [local town nearby].” When local news crews are dispatched to the scene of a fire or other disaster, they will often seek out the victims to be on camera and tell the story. However, most victims of house fires (as the most common example) may not want to be on their local news as they’re standing barefoot in their front yard, watching all their worldly possessions burn to the ground. Not to mention, assuming everyone got out safely, “all their worldly possessions” is the best-case scenario.
This is when a Red Cross public affairs volunteer will step in on behalf of the victim to mediate the conversation with the media. Would they like to speak on camera? Would they like to be left alone? What does it mean to do a live news interview? If the disaster or tragedy is large enough to garner multiple days of media attention, the Red Cross public affairs team will stick with the victims to be their media counsel if they request the assistance.
As a public affairs volunteer, I take monthly “on call” shifts as an overnight PA volunteer for the Minnesota Red Cross. Most on-call nights I’m not dispatched to house fires, but instead parked on my couch sending press releases to local newspapers about house fires in their area. While a house fire may not make the front page of the Star Tribune, anyone from a small town knows a house fire is front-page-worthy news at small local papers. The Red Cross sends these releases to let the media know the fire occurred, where it was (roughly, no specific address), how many people were affected and that they are receiving assistance from the American Red Cross.
The public affairs team also gets to take photos and blog about the Red Cross’s local initiatives, like the nationwide campaign to reduce the number of home-fire deaths and injuries by joining fire departments and community groups nationwide to install smoke alarms in communities with high numbers of fires.
Although every Red Cross volunteer has a specific job they’re trained to do, anyone wearing the Red Cross vest is ultimately a first responder and we do whatever needs to be done to help the people affected by disaster – whether it’s first aid, PR assistance, or simply a bottle of water and a kind smile.