Monday, February 8, 2010

Don't let bad reporting dampen public/private partnerships

Public/private partnerships in large disasters are critical. The upside is becoming increasingly clear. But there is a very big dark side to public/private partnerships and Haiti demonstrates some of the hazards for private companies of getting involved.

Steve Duin is a blogger and columnist for the Oregonian out of Portland. Like most journalists writing for local or regional outlets, he reports on the local connection to the Haiti disaster. Here he blogs about two companies, TEC Equipment and Evergreen Helicopters--both Oregon companies and both involved in Haiti. But he puts the white hat on TEC and the black hat squarely on Evergreen.

Why is Evergreen such a bad guy in Haiti? Because they refused (apparently) to help a French search and rescue team fly into Haiti and instead a pilot reportedly quoted them an outrageous price of $7000 an hour to fly them into Haiti on one of their helicopters. Not one to mince words or hesitate to pass judgment, Duin says of Evergreen: "Yikes. Ghoulishly opportunistic to the bitter end. "

Now, if you read the rest of the article, you will find it isn't quite the story that Duin pretends it is in the first part of the article. First he reports that someone else from the company explained that the overheard conversation was not what it sounded like, but a conversation between pilots comparing rates. Second, the president of the company pointed out that Evergreen has been very involved in charity flights in Haiti including moving people in from World Vision and a team of doctors from Texas Tech. It is to Duin's credit that he allowed this information into his story--but only after he told the story the way he wanted to, refusing the allow the facts to get in the way of his pre-conceived story.

Yes, I think the comments are out of line and unfair. But that is not the point here. There are alot of private companies and organizations who stepped up big time to help out in Haiti. But no private company has the capability of meeting all the desperate needs that are there and they do not have the apparently endless financial resources of the American taxpayer to be able to pay for all their good intentions. Clearly those who are there are well positioned to help out even if someone else is paying the bill and likely some or many positioned themselves for that. Does it make them evil if they now make their services, equipment, people and resources available for hire? I don't think so. I'm sure there are a great many more reporters other than Duin who would be eager to find a sordid story of opportunism of which there no doubt will be many. But when reporters jump on this and turn companies like Evergreen into really creepy bad guys who don't care about the people of Haiti but are there just to make a buck, what private company will be willing to respond? No one wants to take the reputation hit of being called a profiteer. No one wants to be accused of ghoulish opportunism.

From what little I can see from this article, Duin owes Evergreen an apology. But more than that, he and other reporters need to understand that their natural tendency to hype the evil that no doubt will be found in the behavior of some bad apples, could have some pretty devastating and unintended consequences for disaster response and recovery in the future. Governments involved in major disaster relief need all the private help they can get. We don't need reporters eager to put the black hats on well-meaning people to scare them off.

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