Stop Panicking About Panic

Scientific American published a very interesting article this month about the nature of survivor’s reaction to being in a disaster. Now, if you read anything from my other blog, you know what a big fan I am of Amanda Ripley and her book, The Unthinkable. While I couldn’t see the whole article (thanks pay wall!), after reading the introduction and three brief points pulled out by the SciAm editors, I’d be surprised if Ms. Ripley’s work wasn’t heavily referenced in this article. The conclusions seem about the same:

[A]ccounts of the Twin Towers evacuation [on September 11th] show that there was none of the “mass panic” that many emergency planners expect to see in a disaster. In fact, when researchers look closely at almost any major disaster, they find little to support the assumption that ordinary people lose their heads in these extraordinary situations. Instead they find that individuals not only behave sensibly in emergencies but also display a solidarity that can be a valuable asset.

While this has obvious implications for the disaster response planners amongst us, I think there is also a lesson to be learned for communicators. In many of our trainings, we hear the mantra of, “Don’t be patronizing!” We can all figure out why this is—people who are being talked down to usually don’t react that positively.

This advice is usually couched in terms of a John Wayne type striding into a room and saying, “Don’t worry, little lady. We’ll take care of everything.” (On a side note, Dr. Barbara Reynolds of CDC does a wonderfully horrific imitation of this, sounding nothing at all like John Wayne.) But I think it also applies in the situation we’re discussing now. Telling people to stay calm when, by and large, they’re already calm and orderly is patronizing. One can imagine frustration as survivors are reminded—over and over again—to stay calm. At some point, people will stop hearing your messages—even the important ones.

Furthermore, it wastes valuable time. Messages, especially in disaster situations, need time to be understood, verified by peers, internalized and acted upon. Telling people to stay calm delays delivery of other, probably more important, messages like evacuate, or don’t go that way, or close your vents.

Lesson learned: there are only so many messages that you can transmit, don’t waste them telling people to do things that research shows they’re probably already doing.