A Key Ingredient

Once you put aside all of the social media and traditional media
stuff, there are really only two things I write about here. What to
say in an emergency, and what to say before an emergency. I’m trying
to explore what makes us successful pre-emergency communicators and
what makes us successful emergency communicators. A lot of times, I
put forward the idea that being successful before the emergency
makes it more likely that you will be successful during the
emergency. I’m still having difficulty teasing out if good
communicators just are good at what they do or if, by dint of their
pre-emergency communication, have laid the groundwork that facilitates
successful emergency communication.

For all of the “be first, be right, be open,” there is one thing,
though, that seems to underpin both situations: trustworthiness.

A trustworthy communicator is someone that people will listen to and
integrate into their lives before an emergency. And while those folks
tend to be trustworthy in general, they also create an environment
where people can believe them in an emergency and accept their word at
face value. Like I said, it could be one or the other reason, but is
probably some combination of both.

Yesterday, TheFireTracker
passed along an article out of the Wall Street
Journal

that I could tell he was smitten with. He rarely gushes, but he did
here, and I can see why. The article was exceptional. While I
encourage you to read the whole thing, here’s a quick rundown of the
five main points:

Show that your interests are the same.

Seems simple enough, but how many times have we heard CEOs publicly
wishing “for their lives back.” Your public needs to know that you’re
working toward a mutually beneficial goal, and for the reasons they
consider to be right. Have goals, “we’re working to…,” and all that.
It goes a long way.

Demonstrate concern for others.

This one is easy. In fact, every single media and public information
trainer out there (even the really bad ones) will tell you that one of
your first statements in an emergency should express empathy. They do
that because it helps build trustworthiness. It shows that you are
concerned about others. Do it.

Deliver on your promises.

If you’re not going to have that fire under control, don’t say it. If
you’re not going to have vaccine ready, don’t say that. For every
promise we make—and break—we lose a bit more credibility. And this one
isn’t just about shoring up before a flood, this is about showing up
to give a promised preparedness talk at the senior center, this is
about following up with a community advocate. If you can prove that
you can deliver brochures on a sunny day, I’m more likely to believe
you’ll deliver sandbags on a rainy day.

Be consistent and honest.

This is another one that media trainers will tell you. If you don’t
know yet, say, “we don’t know yet.” Constantly altering worst-case
scenarios make you look like you’re underplaying a disaster. The Coast
Guard, in a training I attended recently, said that in ship-based oil
spills, they always release the full capacity of the ship to the
media. This is how bad it could be, but we’re working extremely hard
to keep that from happening. And thus, the message is always
consistent and honest. One number, unchanging, grounded in absolute
reality.

Communicate frequently, clearly and openly.

Well, if you haven’t heard me say this a million times, you haven’t
been paying attention. The key to a successful communication effort is
communication. Say the same thing a dozen times to make sure new
folks can get caught up. Integrate new developments into your spiel
and repeat them, too. Be open, be honest, and be sure to be available.
It seems like a small thing, but when your agency is understaffed and
overwhelmed, sometimes you forget that just telling the media
something once doesn’t work. Your spokesperson should not be
operational. It’s okay to have operational folks and SMEs do some of
the talking, but when they go back to the response, someone still
needs to be there pushing your messages out.

Like Jay-Z said, “Trust, it’s a word you seldom hear from us.” But in
reality, it may very well be the most important thing.

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3 thoughts on “A Key Ingredient

  1. Does building relationships with other trustworthy and or noteworthy people in the social media sphere for your community make sense? If yes, how do you integrate that into your pre-emergency communications plan? For example, you could leverage those relationships to make a call to action for a mass CPR training event or individual disaster preparedness tasks.

  2. What a great point, Greg! I totally agree with you!In fact, that’s a key component of my Program’s outreach strategy. We use what we’ve termed the, “trusted agent model.” That basically means that we conduct outreach to community and faith based leaders with the implicit understanding that they’ll then push those messages to their communities.We believe there are two good reasons for this. First, in a city of 1.5MM, there is no way we could talk to everyone, in the language the wish, in the manner they wish and with appropriate topics. We just don’t have the staff, so Trusted Agents act as force multipliers for our outreach. The second gets at your point. Research has shown that people, in emergencies, need to validate emergency information with multiple trusted sources. If we blast the airwaves with evacuation or shelter-in-place messages, we know that people will ask community leaders they trust, who we’ve already brought into the loop. Because the public trusts them (more than they do the government), the message is validated and is thus more likely to be acted upon.Expanding that idea to the social media sphere is a no-brainer. Of course we should. In fact, I pressed very hard during H1N1 to conduct targeted outreach to local “mommybloggers.” At the time, they’d come to be seen as trusted, validating purveyors of information to the chief medical decision-makers in the household (moms). By working with them, we figured we could influence the decision-making process around vaccination.Thanks so much for raising that very, very key point.Jim

  3. Outstanding. I really like your “trusted agent model” I have also come to the conclusion that we need to make sure our social media audience includes the cohorts that are not active participants in social media. I think your focus on caregivers – clergy, moms, grandmothers, healthcare providers, social service providers – is spot on. In addition to connecting with caregivers I think we should also focus on how we prepare/equip them to share the messages effectively.

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