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How to Communicate During Disasters

Marjorie is a journalist and media veteran. Her articles range from communication to money, health, and behavioral psychology.


The Importance of a Communications Plan in Disaster Response

A few months after the global panic brought on by COVID-19, we have the benefit of looking back at how our leaders handled the crisis. Some outstanding heads of state blazed the trail by developing firm yet compassionate public policies on the fly, while some merely confused, misled, or even harangued their citizenry. While having an effective emergency public health plan is certainly advantageous, some fail to see another crucial part of emergency response, a tool that can save lives if used properly and responsibly: A communications plan.

A well-crafted communications plan is the easiest and fastest way to gain control of an emergency. Touching base immediately with those affected by a crisis and giving them useful information so they can protect themselves is the fastest way to save lives in a high-stress situation where every minute counts.

If we were told much earlier to be careful about touching our faces, keeping our distance in public, and wearing face masks, do you think it would have all gone down much better? Well, that depends on a couple of factors.

There were plenty of public communications disasters that had us agog these recent months. Some of you may have even lost sleep over them. I, for one, was deeply concerned for my family quarantined far away. Months later I feel just as outraged, but I realized why I was so anxious after reading the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) principles for communicating in a public health crisis. Crucial components were missing in each press conference such as empathy, perspicuousness, transparency, and a sense of urgency. It may sound strange that a simple speech could have put people more at ease, but comparing the lack of straightforward directions in the early days of the pandemic from autocratic leaders compared to the empathy and decisiveness of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, for example, likely spelled a difference in saving people’s lives.

In 2002, the CDC published The Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication (CERC) guidelines. The guidelines underline the need to provide the public with information that can help them make the best choices in a limited amount of time, but most importantly, they take into consideration the barriers that could hinder communications and provide common-sense solutions to these problems to lessen the life-threatening impacts of a disaster from grassroots up.


The CDC’s Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication Guidelines

1. Be First

In any emergency, it is a race to get life-saving information out to those affected. They need to know what is happening, and what they can do to help themselves if outside help can’t come right away. So even though you don’t have a lot of information yet, share what you know and tell them what you are doing to address the situation. They just need to know and trust that you are working on it.

By putting yourself out there first with verifiable information, you are establishing yourself as the most credible source for updates. This will likely quell misinformation, rumors, or fake news that will follow.

Also crucial to this principle is the method of disseminating the information. It has to be given in a way that is easy to understand, through a medium that can reach a mass audience as fast as possible. If the message is in a language that the audience cannot grasp (speaking in English if your audience speaks Spanish, for example), or if you ramble rather than giving it straight then the opportunity is lost. If you provide the information in a channel that has a small reach, or at an hour where no one is awake then you have wasted the chance to help people.

2. Be Right

It is crucial to be the first to reach affected communities and to give them accurate information out of the gate. But what if you got some things wrong? You have to own up to that mistake and not cover it up, deny you said it, accuse the media of misrepresenting what you said, or some other song and dance that takes away the focus from the important job of saving lives.

Being upfront with the public shows them you are sincere about giving them the right information. If you correct yourself before anyone else calls you out, you get plus points for not trying to cover up your mistakes. One of the things we learned from political scandals is that sometimes the cover-up is worse than the crime.

Another thing to consider is updating the information regularly. Remember that information evolves quickly during an emergency and providing follow-ups, errata, or addendums is just as important as that first speech.

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3. Be Credible

Being first, right, and credible are all closely related. If you are first and right, the audience will likely gauge that you are credible but it’s not always that easy. Being sincere in telling the truth, being transparent, or correcting yourself if you gave wrong information earns the public’s trust.

In a crisis situation, trust makes people follow your instructions more readily. If you are trusted they will refute misinformation themselves using the instructions and details you provided. If you are trusted, people will be quick to conform to your evolving messages and act accordingly.


4. Express Empathy

It’s great to adhere to the first three principles, but being coldly factual is often not enough. Remember that in a crisis, people are highly stressed and thinking about what they stand to lose. There is fear and uncertainty. Coming at them without sincerity or just a half-baked attempt at showing concern can rub them the wrong way.

Even in non-emergency situations, people want to be understood. This goes tenfold in a crisis where emotions are high. Overused statements like “our thoughts and prayers” have been regurgitated so many times that they’re now used ironically. You want to show that you understand what they are going through. It must be a scary time for them. Acknowledge that and be genuine.

5. Promote Action

Promoting action is why we are communicating in the first place. If there is something that people can do to minimize risk, it will certainly help first responders to have fewer cases to handle. It will also empower people to know there is something they can do when it feels like things are out of control, and make them feel less anxious. Asking people to go to a clinic for vaccines, or simply washing hands and staying at home are messages that should be simply

6. Show Respect

If you have sincere empathy for your audience, it would be automatic for you to give them respect. Your audience may have lost loved ones or suffering in the aftermath of the disaster or pandemic. They may have lost their jobs, their homes, or their communities. Listen to their concerns and address them in your communication.

This also not the time to make jokes. Because lives are on the line, keep your communication serious to address the gravity of the situation and in consideration for those who are in distress. Imagine yourself hanging from a cliff while someone makes fun of your predicament instead of helping you out. That’s how it feels, so be considerate and respectful.


Relationship With The Media

Aside from preparing your communication strategies, you also have to deal with the media. Some leaders consider the media their foes, but in a disaster, they are your greatest ally.

You should get rid of the idea that they are your enemy. They are people too, who have as much to gain or lose in a pandemic if they get their reporting wrong. They are rooting for your success too. If they call you out for a mistake (because you forgot rule 3) then own up to it and promise to do better. It’s the role of the media to give out the right information. Being hostile to reporters is as useful as punching a hole in a face mask because you don’t like how it fits your nose. When there is a pandemic, stick to the bigger issues like saving lives.

The Main Priority

Making sure your message is to-the-point, accessible, and easy to reproduce on the ground for those affected is very important. This is the main goal of any communication strategy.

Rising above personal squabbles is a mark of professionalism. In crisis situations, it is imperative to put lives over pettiness. There is just no time for personal issues in an emergency. Everyone should work together to make sure there is no confusion and assist people in their roles to save lives.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Marjorie Dumont

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