By John Rainford, Director, The Warning Project

Last year I facilitated a workshop of emergency management experts and front-line responders. I asked this group – drawn from across the country and representing a broad range of emergency organizations – two questions.

1. In your experience, to effectively manage an emergency, how important is public and partner communication on a scale of 1 to 10?

The vast majority indicated 9 or 10 on the scale.

2. In terms of your emergency preparedness resources – such as exercises, training, planning –what percentage is dedicated to public and partner communication?

Sensing where this was going, the crowd was decidedly sheepish, but honest, all the same. Most indicated less than 5%, many suggested less than 1%, if at all.

Such informal polling methods don’t produce hard data, but I’ve asked these questions a number of times to a number of emergency management groups and the results are always similar. Despite clear acknowledgement of communication as a key emergency management tool, few are investing time, training, or planning for this function.

Assessment of emergency responses clearly demonstrates the results of this disparity. Indeed, I struggle to think of a single after-action report or review of a complex emergency that doesn’t highlight the importance, and challenge, of the communication role.

It’s a basic contradiction: communication is a core element – and a potentially serious weakness — of emergency management, but rarely do we do anything about it.

Why?

It’s a question I’ve asked myself in some form or another for years. I work to help organizations build emergency communication capacity. Frankly, the search for answers continues, but here are a few thoughts so far.

1. Organizations like to buy stuff

I once was part of an external assessment in a country in the Middle East that had been involved in a controversial emergency. They were showing us their shiny new EOC as a sign they were well prepared. Fiber optic cables, banks of monitors and tv screens, tiered seating equipped with the latest technology, they bought everything.

“We have real time emerging threat data from every corner of the country,” our guide explained.

“So, just what do you do with all that information?” I asked, prompting an awkward pause.

“Have you seen the plasma tvs?”.

Organizations love hard assets. The cost of 1 million doses of vaccine is a lot easier to explain and justify than a behavioural change communication strategy on vaccine hesitancy, even

though the latter might be more important. Just ask France, which bought 60 million doses of H1N1 vaccine – enough for everyone — only to find less than 5% of its population would actually take it.

Effective emergency communication strategies and practice are the result of processes and analysis, not individual pieces of equipment, channels, or software programs. Designed to influence perception and action, communication success is achieved person-by-person, interview-by-interview, webcast-by-webcast, town-meeting by town-meeting. No single product, act, or channel can be showcased as the reason for success.

Rooted in social science where context and intersecting variables are part of the mix, communication can feel “mushy” and imprecise to many emergency managers. It’s a lot easier to quantify improved scores of participants in training on a new document management system than to explain the process and impact of a community engagement strategy or message testing for at-risk populations.

2. Communication = Politics….I hate politics

For a politician, communication is their stock in trade, the function through which they typically succeed or fail. Many emergency managers are cut from a different cloth, for example, priding themselves on action not talk.

Around emergency centre tables and hallways I’ve often sensed an unease working in the political arena. How many times have we heard after a serious emergency: “everything was going well until the politicians got involved”.

Thing is, they always get involved.

Emergencies are political events. Choices have to be made.

Public perception and comment about the wisdom, success, failure, and accountability of actions taken and recommended by emergency managers are inherent elements of the emergency landscape. News and social media cover them, governments react to them, and department funding increases or declines because of them. The ability to communicate in ways that influence public and partner perceptions of emergency management and recommendations has to be built and to address this reality.

3. Emergency Communication versus PR: Round Holes, Square Pegs

But it’s not just emergency managers who may be reluctant to embrace the emergency communication function. It clearly goes the other way too, with many communication staff either disengaged or ill-equipped to be a key member of the emergency management team. A big part of this may be explained by the day to day work of those communication staff, often employed to provide traditional public relations support to the organization and its leadership, for example, highlighting good news stories.

But success as defined in the PR domain is often fundamentally different than that of emergency communication. For example, the PR professional might track social media conversation to assess how positively or negatively the organization is being viewed. The

emergency communication professional, however, is more likely to be tracking social media for evidence of confusion or misunderstanding of the advice offered.

For legitimate reasons, the PR professional is particularly sensitive to organizational criticism and often holds it up as the indicator of success or failure. For the emergency communication pro, however, their focus is on supporting emergency management outcomes. The measure of success is whether communication helps those at risk and in distress to know about and take productive action to mitigate suffering and lower risk, even while the organization is being attacked.

Going forward, getting better

Core to effective emergency management is an ongoing effort to improve performance. But if we recognize the central role communication plays in your work, its high time we embraced the function. Its time for an increased focus, on targeted investments in exercises, training, and professionalization of this function.

As the Director of an organization dedicated to those objectives, it must sound self-serving. It is. But I’m also a citizen, a father, a community member, and a passionate believer in the importance of emergency preparedness and response.

I know we have the capacity to do this better, which is in all of our interests. John Rainford is the Director of The Warning Project.

He is the former Director, Emergency and Risk Communications for Health Canada and Global Project Lead, Risk Communication Capacity Building for the World Health Organization. Additionally, he worked at the Privy Council Office in Ottawa as the lead analyst responsible for national security communications.

He has specialized in the field of high risk communication for the past 20 years after several years covering and working in politics as a journalist and aide on Canada’s Parliament Hill.

He has a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Queen’s University, teaches emergency risk communication at Carleton University, and has led emergency risk communication workshops around the world involving participants from over 150 different countries.

For information about the support and services of The Warning Project, please contact info@warningproject.org

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