Are We Intentionally Ignoring 16% Of Our Population?

I do love pop quizzes. Especially when I already know the answers.

So, pop quiz!

You’ve got a website, and a regularly updated blog, right? Of course
you do. And every once in a while, it reads like this
right? Right?

Imagínense que acaba de perder la electricidad en su vivienda, ya sea por un temblor, un tornado,la explosión de una fábrica, o una bomba. ¿Ahora que va a hacer? ¿Va a salir de su vivienda o quedarse en ella? ¿Tiene una linterna? ¿Velas? ¿Fósforos? ¿Una radio que funcione con baterías? ¿Tiene baterías? ¿Ud. o alguien en su familia toma medicamentos que necesitan refrigeración? ¿Si usa lentes, los tiene a la mano? ¿Tiene mascotas?

Let me guess your answer. No, right? And it’s isn’t a specific knock
against you, because just about nobody does. But why? More than 16%
of the US population is
I’ll bet there’s even some folks where you live that only speak
Spanish. So, why aren’t you—I mean, we—engaging with what is a
significant, and growing, portion of our population?

I know, I know, it’s difficult and expensive to get stuff translated.
But putting the preparedness message above aside for a minute and
focusing on emergency communications for a second, you’ll find we have
some leeway. If it’s an emergency, you can do things you wouldn’t
normally do, like find alternate ways to translate something. In fact,
I’ll even bet you probably have someone who speaks and writes and
translates Spanish in your office. They don’t even have to write the
copy, just translate it!

Now, you guys know I don’t like to talk about the work we do in my
office, but we did something very similar during H1N1. We developed
public messages and passed them to folks in our office who could
translate into Spanish and French. Within an hour, we could push
messages out to a much larger, more diverse population than we could
otherwise. That little trick is now a key component of our crisis
communications plan.

Need another reason to seriously plan and include? Beyond the obvious
and previously stated goal of pushing our life-saving messages to the
broadest possible audience, think of the positive PR you can get in
those traditionally undeserved communities. We’ve complained about
how nobody trusts government
so wouldn’t the first step in gaining that trust be actually talking
to people in their language? And once you get really good? Why not
integrate other languages into your every day communications? (And I
don’t mean having your Executive butcher another language on camera in
an effort to appear inclusive.) Take, for example, the great work done
by the Spanish language Twitter accounts for
CDC,, and the
bilingual FEMA account.

Take another look at your crisis communication plan, heck, your whole
outreach plan, and see how much of it is focused on multilingual
support and outreach. I’m willing to bet it’s not as much as it should

Many, many thanks to Belen Moran
for helping with this post.


11 thoughts on “Are We Intentionally Ignoring 16% Of Our Population?

  1. Great post! I do not speak or read Spanish. But I advocated for and gave the legal signoff for FEMA to operate bilingually in both person and documents in the early 80’s. Most of the work initially in Puerto Rico but then utilized in almost every disaster including the Disaster Assistance Centers. While English is the dominant language in the USA it is not legally mandated as the exclusive language in any federal statute that I know of at this time. There have been bills introduced in both the STATES and the Congress but none have become law.

  2. This is critically important in just about every community in the country. And it seems like an outstanding opportunity to engage volunteers from within the community. A great opportunity to build some real-life relationships and build preparedness champions from within the non-English speaking community within one’s jurisdiction, obtain quality translations for preparedness messaging, and quite possibly someone (or multiple people) to provide “real time” translations during the response phase, either from within the EOC or remotely.

  3. Agree completely too. You can’t leave 16 percent of the population out. That being said, you also need to be careful to consider (and not upset by over looking) other large and small immigrant communities living in your area. I agree with @garytx that it is critically important to engage volunteers to translate. Thankfully, social media opens up new opportunities to do that, both remotely and from within your local non-English speaking community.

  4. Why could not the new devices have a translate button so automatic translation from a list of languages?  You can have the patent.

  5. vlg338 Many message output applications have that feature, like Tweetdeck for Twitter. But it’s imperfect, and these messages are too important for mistakes to happen. But they’re better than nothing, and do get used.

  6. You’re spot on Jim. The community I work in has significant populations of both Spanish speakers and Slavic language speakers (mostly Russians and Ukrainians). Reaching these two groups during H1N1 was a major challenge – one we did not meet with tremendous success. As a result, we conducted a good deal of research on where and how these two communities access information, and are using that data to inform a communications strategy we hope to begin implementing next year.Multi-lingual capability is an important facet of any engagement strategy.

  7. Another great post Jim! One thing that a lot of people don’t seem to be aware of, is that any organization that accepts Federal funding (ie most agencies involved in Public Health and Emergency Planning) are bound to respect the Title VI rulings related to the members of our community who are Lesser English Proficient. This means that you should not only know when you have over 5% of the population that speaks a different language than English, but you should have built the capacity to provide access to the same level of information and service in those languages. There are provisions that let people take shortcuts related to ADA & the Civil Rights Act in emergencies, but recent clarifications show that this isn’t intended for situations where the emergency response is something that is considered a key part of the activities of the agency (this clarification was about ASL interpreting–that it is inappropriate for a medic to use a child at the location to interpret for the medical call, since it is known that medical calls may encounter individuals who do not understand the medics, the ability to overcome the communication barrier without involving the child should be built into the procedures).

  8. Great post Jim–and so happy to see someone writing about this important issue!! (Yes, double exclamation points are needed). Nice work!At IQ, we’ve always had a priority of reaching Spanish-speaking audiences—and we’ve seen an upward trend in the frequency and need to integrate bi-lingual communications in our social media, mobile and Web work as well. Something we’ve also found extremely helpful is multi-lingual search engine optimization. Just about no one is doing it–so if you optimize your site in other languages, you tend to see a nice ROI. See: for an example.Others may also be interested in the new, usability-tested, en espanol site we recently launched on behalf of the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion at HHS:

  9. <tr><td>I’m sorry for this odd request because it might get to you too urgent but it’s because of the situation of things right now.. I am presently stuck in Spain right now. I came here on vacation and Unfortunately we got Robbed at the park of the hotel where we stayed. All cash and credit cards were stolen. Glad we still have our passports with us!!! We’ve been to the embassy and the Police here but they’re not helping issues at all and our flight leaves in less than 6hrs from now but we’re having problems settling the hotel bills and the hotel manager won’t let us leave until we settle the bills. I need a quick loan from you to settle our bills and i will be very very glad to pay back…You have my word. William </td></tr>

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