The Very First Lessons Learned in Japan

(NOTE: This was written before the latest events in Japan. I’ve pushed up the publish time just because it looks like tomorrow morning will be, well, something I hoped I’d never see.)

As it should be in the wake of a disaster, two big things are happening off-site. The first is an outpouring of support (which you can do here and here). The second is everyone in the emergency preparedness and response fields watching very closely to learn as much as they can. And there is so much to learn from a country that was so prepared for disaster but instead saw a catastrophe.

Frankly, I hope the lessons stop soon, but the bad news just continues to compound—more lessons to be learned, I guess. If anyone is myopic enough to think I’m looking at this disaster selfishly, I argue that I owe it to my community to learn as much as I can so that I might help them avoid the same fate. Those who lost their lives in Japan will not have died in vain. We won’t make the same mistakes again.

So, what have I learned thus far? For as little information has made it out and in my tiny slice of the emergency world, there is plenty to learn. The first, and arguably most buzzwordy, is about social media. While traditional communications lines went down, social media use continued and served as a lifeline to those trying to communicate. If you don’t know how to use text-based communications, learn. And if you count people who don’t use text-based communications amongst your target audience, teach them. And incorporate those tools into your plan for communicating with your publics. And if you’ve got someone who sneeringly tells you that the internet will go down in a disaster, you can now tell them that even after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and 10-meter tsunami, the internet still worked.

The second is all about our communications. People understand earthquakes (better on the west coast than on the east coast), and after 2004 people understand tsunamis (and after this latest disaster, they’ll know even more thanks to ubiquitous video). But nuclear accidents? Well, there was Chernobyl, which was really bad, and TMI, which ended up being a lot of nothing, and, well… The China Syndrome, maybe? I know this, a meltdown is bad, except that’s what happened at TMI, and they think might be happening there now. And explosions are the worst of the worst, except when they aren’t.

How the heck do you do risk communication in an event like this? And maybe this is just showing that I do not work very close to a nuclear reactor, but damned if I’m not confused.

The thing is, if something big were to happen in Japan or somewhere else in the States, I would have to be able to communicate on nuclear risks to my publics. The last really big threat was TMI and that was in an era when it would’ve gotten two, three minutes on the six and eleven o’clock news, and then an above the fold article in the mornings paper with all of the info coming directly from the mouth of the horse. You think that’s happening today? With a million bloggers and pundits on half a dozen cable news shows are spouting off on every rumor you can think of, filling miles of blog inches and weeks of evening television and talk radio, I doubt it.

If something big happens, my publics are going to be scared and confused. And I don’t live by a nuclear reactor; so I cannot take for granted that they know anything. I have to boil down nuclear physics to a fourth-grade reading level. Sure, we’ve got templated message maps, but I don’t know the last time they were reviewed (before today, I mean). And I’ve got to find a health physicist to find out if they’re even any good!

We live in a world where disasters on the other side of the globe raise questions from our publics in hours. The hazard-vulnerability analysis that I need to develop my messages maps from just grew from Philadelphia-centric disasters to envelop everything under the sun.

For me, the biggest lesson that communicators can learn from all of this is that you are not ready. Consider everything and don’t dare say, “But it’ll never happen here.” Because it doesn’t need to happen here to be a disaster.


One thought on “The Very First Lessons Learned in Japan”

  1. Excellent points. Thanks for writing this up!The huge quantities of misinformation are stirring a low level panic around the globe. If people had communication from the experts on the scene and via the web, such as over here:, there might be less panic and more organized action around the globe.Please keep on stepping back and looking at the big picture, we need all of that we can get!Regards,Larry Oliver

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