Any journalist working on assignment should put in place a solid communications plan. But for freelancers “going it alone,” it’s a potential life-saver.
Most news organizations will have a communications plan in place for staff going on high risk assignments, and for good reason: It will quickly alert them if something goes wrong, and provide details on what to do about it. But for many freelancers it’s the missing piece in their preparation, especially for those working on self-funded projects.
That’s why we included a detailed Communications Plan template in the Rory Peck Trust’s freelance safety resources. It’s a straightforward way of putting all your emergency information in one place. It’s a plan that stays at home with a designated contact and gives them everything they need to know in case of an emergency.
Here’s some key things to consider when completing yours.
Choosing your Key Contact
“Your contact needs to be someone who understands and takes seriously what their role entails”, said Elisabet Cantenys, head of Programmes for the Rory Peck Trust. “It’s got to be someone who also has the capacity to put the plan into action if needed.”
“Close colleagues can be good at this since they have an understanding of the nature of the work, especially if they have experience and knowledge of the country you will be working from. The downside is that you don’t want to have a colleague that may be running off to cover their own story when you’re expecting him or her to be standby.” She said an editor could be an ideal candidate if you’re working closely with them: It’s in their interest that you come back home safely.
However, a good safety contact doesn’t need to be an insider from the journalism community, just someone you can trust to be reliable, calm and practical if something goes wrong. Cantenys advises that “family members may not always be the best option if they are likely to be overwhelmed or feel paralyzed by a crisis situation. “If your safety contact is someone who has not been in that position before, or is new to the concept, you’ll need to prepare them and make sure they understand what’s expected.”
Freelance documentary photographer Daniel van Moll, who uses the Trust’s communications plan template, says he tends to make a fellow journalist with on-the-ground knowledge and contacts his safety contact.
“While in Gaza I made my safety contact a friend who himself worked a lot in Palestine and had excellent contacts to the embassy in Israel and also the IDF. Pick someone you trust and someone not likely to panic.”
What goes into the plan?
When filling out a Communications Plan, the point is to give your contact everything they need should you get in trouble and not be able to reach anyone.
“You need a well thought out plan,” said Cantenys, “with the right contact details in place and information responding to the needs of your assignment. In the end, the more solid both your risk assessment and communications plan is, the easier it will be for your safety contact to press the red button and action your emergency plan.”
“Be extremely meticulous,” said van Moll. “Put all contacts in the order you want them to be contacted for the various types of escalation — e.g. when you haven’t heard from me in 24 hours, in 48 hours, etc. … I always also include information like my blood-types, insurance details, passport copies in this paper, too in order to make my safety-contact deal with, for example hospitals and medevacs”.
How will you stay in contact?
Whether your key safety contact puts your plan into action or not depends on when and how you stay in touch. At the top of RPT’s Communication Plan template are the questions “how often do you need to be in touch with your key contact?” and “through what methods?”
“When you agree on contacting every 12 hours, make absolutely sure you do it,” said van Moll. This is important on two levels: If you don’t, your key contact could launch a safety plan that’s not needed. A direr situation is that they may become used to you missing deadlines and not start contacting safety contacts when it’s actually necessary.
Adding good digital security protocols to your communications can help keep them private as well as help prove authenticity. Using passphrases for messages (or even better, encryption) can help alert your contact that all is not right if your computer is stolen. If you need to contact them via a different method than agreed upon, having a quick Q&A at the start (with difficult-to-guess answers) can confirm that each of you are the right person.
Should your computer be seized and you had worked out sending encrypted email or messages that included a specific phrase or something else unique, if these are ever changed or absent, it can signal an alert to your contact. If you need to contact them via a different method than agreed upon, having a quick Q&A at the start (with difficult-to-guess answers) can confirm that each of you are the right person.
A communication plan reduces the feeling of “going it alone.” It’s one part of a freelancer’s assignment preparation. You can find more in Rory Peck Trust’s Safety & Security resource.
Top tips for a good Communications Plan
1. Choose the right contact
- Pick someone who’s going to be available and contactable
- They should:
- Be organized.
- Be knowledgeable about your work and assignment.
- Be able to keep calm in stressful emergency situations.
2. Make sure they have the right information
- Your emergency contact list with updated details
- When each should be contacted (after not checking in after 12 hours, 24 hours, etc.)
- Your own personal details (biographical, medical, family, professional, etc.)
- Information about your assignment (subject, contacts, travel itinerary, hotels, etc.)
3. Decide clearly how and when you will communicate
- How often and when will you be updating your key safety contact?
- By what method? Assess whether email, phone, SMS, or other methods will work. Have back-ups.
- Do a risk assessment on these methods: could they be blocked or unavailable while you’re on assignment?
- Under what situations could they be monitored, and by whom?
Are their methods you can both adopt to add security (encryption, privacy-enhanced chat service, etc.)?
- Make sure to put your communications methods to the test before starting your assignment.
Andrew Ford Lyons is the digital producer for Rory Peck Trust, the only organization dedicated to the support, safety and welfare of freelance newsgatherers around the world. Andrew oversees the Trust’s online projects and runs its digital security programs. His GPG key is here.