■ Thought Leadership

Tapping Media for Credible Disaster Communication

By Steven Johnson

Few preparations made in anticipation of a disaster pay bigger dividends than how the team communicates with the news media and the public during a disaster. Seamless and coordinated communication is as important as seamless and coordinated operations – both during the disaster and in the recovery stage. Communications and operations must work in tandem.

Timely and relevant information flow is obviously vital to sound decision-making during a disaster, but is also a vital public service that informs – and may protect – the public from further effects. Executed professionally and timely, disaster communication also can play a major role in transforming concerned or even angry audiences into allies. A critical linchpin in the effort is the news media, which must collaborate to efficiently and credibly disseminate information to the public.

Tell the Truth & Tell It Fast

To engage the news media, information must be truthful, clear, and timely. This requires that emergency response authorities, operations directors, and first responders provide updates and their best thinking efficiently and regularly. Even if all disaster preparedness professionals and first responders are on board, often very little information is available in the early stages of a disaster. Even as a team awaits information – about what happened, when, why, and how many people have been affected – its authority and credibility is bolstered when they demonstrate empathy and action early and often. The public wants to see and hear concern and contrition, and spokespeople need to acknowledge the uncertainty and fluidity of the situation. For example, in the case of AirAsia flight 8501’s crash in 2014, Chief Executive Officer Anthony Francis (Tony) Fernandes had little information about the tragedy. He knew the statistics of the aircraft and experience of the pilot and crew. Beyond that, though, all he could do was express the deep sadness that he and his colleagues felt and how his organization was committed to working with authorities to learn what happened and what could be done to ensure that it would not happen again. Ultimately, the entire disaster preparedness community wants to foster trust and credibility – which is most likely to happen via timely, transparent, and proactive communication. Crisis Communications – Starting With News Conferences The first evidence most members of the public see of a coordinated disaster response is a news conference or briefing, which is an efficient means to distribute information during a chaotic time. Although it is no longer the information behemoth is once was, and social media support is crucial, television continues to be a primary information outlet for the majority of the public. Its immediacy and ability to compellingly package the visual and verbal remain unparalleled.

Setting a schedule of news briefings provides media and the public a consistent rhythm of information. Truthful, timely communications can minimize harm and reduce the scope of impact. To that end, risks and potential risks should be identified and explained to help ease concerns and help people cope. From the first engagement, the communications function should establish what the public can expect in terms of frequency of updates and level of detail regarding the effectiveness in response and recovery. This information can be effectively delivered during a news conference.

When preparing for news conferences, teams must be prepared to answer these questions, or to say when answers may be available:

  • What happened?
  • Who’s affected? Why? How? How many?
  • How bad is it?
  • Who’s at risk? Why?
  • How bad will things get?
  • How can I protect myself/my family?
  • What’s being done to protect/mitigate harm?

A secondary set of questions can include:

  • What’s the latest?
  • What steps are being taken?
  • Who’s responsible?

Supporting Documents & Communication Flow

A key internal reference document would: contain messages that address the most likely crises or disasters that could strike; keep a running list of actions taken by the team and authorities assigned to respond; and include activation times and dates. In anticipation of the inevitable emergency or crisis, disaster preparedness professionals should compile a list of detailed questions and answers of every imaginable question they expect and then prepare answers infused with key messaging and actions that can be delivered by any spokesperson. Questions should be solicited from every aspect of the disaster preparedness effort, and the resulting questions and answers should be regularly reviewed and revised. An updateable fact sheet also is an important resource that can quickly and efficiently answer the “who, what, where, when, and why” for any media outlets at any phase of the disaster.

An organization’s established communications channels – its website, email, RSS subscription feeds, and social media channels – can be leveraged to provide round-the- clock updates and details beyond regularly scheduled news conferences and briefings. These channels are available to the news media and the public at any time. An organization can also prepare an emergency website (a “dark site”) that is not visible to the public or even much of the organization until the immediate minutes and hours after a disaster or crisis strikes. When needed, a dark site can very quickly take the place of a traditional site.

Social media increasingly plays a role in effective crisis response. Imagery, recorded video, and even live video are frequently sought after as response content. To complement social media channels, disaster preparedness officials should consider establishing hashtags that the news media and public may follow to filter information that is specifically related to the disaster. An excellent example of social media’s value is how authorities used Twitter to disseminate information during the Branson, Missouri, tornado of 2012. There was a clear focus to leverage the channel for real-time information through key hashtags such as #LeapDayStorm.

Beyond the virtual world, a call center still proves invaluable during large-scale events, especially as crises and disasters know no demographic boundaries. Age and income play major roles in the digital divide – understanding of and access to newer technologies and communications platforms. Many affected may not be comfortable with constantly evolving social media tools. Beyond the 1-800 number, a designated information headquarters also provides a physical anchor to provide municipalities, public agencies, and private organizations an identifiable venue from which news media and the public can retrieve essential information. Email list services and RSS feeds to which the news media and/or the public may subscribe can also facilitate media distribution.

Getting Comfortable With the Highly Uncomfortable

It is essential that people assigned to lead the crisis communications effort are comfortable with the highly uncomfortable. This means that public and private agencies and organizations should practice various operational and communications responses appropriate for the types of crisis or disaster most likely to occur in the community. If possible, they should incorporate local media in any exercises because they can provide not only a realistic volley of questions across an array of formats, but also can help identify gaps in both the information flow and content. In the end, the flow of information to the public is about being accurate and timely.

Steve Johnson is a Chicago-based associate of WPNT Ltd., which has provided crisis communications training and strategy to disaster preparedness professionals for more than 20 years. He also is principal of SJConnects Public Relations. Over his two-plus decades in communications, he has developed and initiated issues and crisis communications plans across traditional and social media channels.