U.S. Navy Outflanks Red Cross in Tsunami Coverage
You’d think that charitable aid groups would have been lauded for their quick reaction to the deadly tsunami and earthquake in Japan. Yet some in the press have expressed skepticism of organizations like the American Red Cross. By contrast, the U.S. Navy has come off well, even in the Japanese media, where the continued, post-WWII American military presence in the country is controversial.
Reuters blogger Felix Salmon pulled no punches when, last Monday, he actually asked readers not to earmark donations to Japan. His reasons? First, Japan was a rich country and could take care of itself. Second, private charities — however sincere their intentions — would just make a mess of things because they had no real action plan for how to help survivors in tsunami-stricken areas.
Meanwhile, a New York Times article by Stephanie Strom took an even harsher line, questioning the motives behind groups fundraising for Japan. The piece quoted a founder of GiveWell, a website that researches charities, who complained that many nonprofit groups have jumped on the tsunami relief bandwagon, plugging keywords like “Japan,” “earthquake,” and “disaster” into their online ads.
Strom added that the American Red Cross had been fundraising for tsunami survivors even though its Japanese counterpart was, at the time, not seeking outside aid. Why would it do such a thing? The reporter never answered this question directly. But she did note “The American Red Cross keeps 9 percent of any money it raises,” which meant that it had so far raised millions of dollars for itself.
Clearly, groups like the American Red Cross have done a poor job developing a PR campaign to support their fundraising efforts. Perhaps, they felt that just being a good soul was enough. Bad mistake. They needed to explain to the media why a rich country might still have poor people and how foreign aid groups could help those left homeless and hungry by a natural disaster.
The U.S. Navy came off much better in the press because the journalists could see specific actions, rather than just vague promises. For example, AFP reported that the Navy delivered special protective suits to Japanese nuclear workers struggling to prevent a radioactive disaster at the damaged Fukushima plant. Global Hawk drones have, at the same time, been following events from the sky.
The Navy aircraft have also flown a few hundred sorties in Japan — moving people to safe areas, conducting search-and-rescue missions and delivering critical supplies to survivors. In fact, 17,000 out of 50,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan have been involved in relief efforts. None of this has been lost on the American media or the usually more critical local press.
Could the U.S. military build on the goodwill already accumulated among the Japanese? Sure. But that requires a conscious and sustained effort. As the mixed reaction in the press to charitable aid groups demonstrates, being a saint is not enough.