On Demystifying Our Message

Ms. Valerie Lucus-McEwen, writing for Emergency Management Magazine, had an interesting couple of articles recently published that I wanted to touch on. The first, Demystify the Message, is an in-depth critique of how emergency managers view emergency warnings from the perspective of vetted, accepted academic research on the topic. The second, Demystifying the Message: An Afterthought, points us to another resource from which we can learn more. Both are worth the click through.

I wanted to talk a bit about the blind spot that these articles call out because I think that all of us are afflicted by it and can unlearn it. (By us, I mean government communicators.) Ms. Lucus-McEwen described it thusly:

Many emergency managers still think of emergency warnings as an initial blast and don’t think of following through by monitoring public interpretation or people’s need for additional information.

She quotes Art Botterell, a disaster management consultant with Carnegie Mellon University, Silicon Valley:

We assume we have the authority to wag out fingers at the public with great vigor and tell them what to do, and them express frustration when they don’t listen. Well, nobody told them they had to listen.

I bring this article to your attention not because I don’t talk about it enough (because I do), but because of the language that Mr. Botterell used. I immediately knew that feeling, and had felt it around topics beyond emergency notification. I think of the same thing when I read a lot of public health communications, too. Which got me to wondering, do we, as government communicators talk to our audiences in a certain way? Do we assume that because we represent some official voice that we can decree things be?

This is dangerous on so many levels. How dare the government assume! I believe that in emergency situations people may have died from the government’s hubris. In public health, people live less full lives because we produce crappy materials that don’t give them the tools to fix their lives.

We are communicators before we are government communicators. We know—deep down—what works and what doesn’t. I worry that we allow ourselves to think that subject matter experts should guide the development of materials because they are the experts. But we are the experts, too. We are the ones who took all of those classes on the communications process (message, encode, transmit, receive, decode), so we know where it can break down. But do we say that out loud? At meetings? In front of a grizzled fire chief or a battle-tested infectious disease doctor? Why not? And does our messaging suffer because of it? Do our communities suffer because of it?