Things have been either really tough for folks who work in risk and crisis communications recently. Between the absurd flooding in upper Midwest, the explosion in West, Texas, and the Boston situation, it’s been a busy couple of weeks. Add to that the bioterror attack on the Senate and White House, the earthquakes in Iran and China, H7N9 influenza and insanely unusual snow in Minnesota, one should have their pick of hazards to message on!
We only have to turn on cable news or flip open a national newspaper, or search on Google News to see the havoc being wrought… Wait, not really. Where’s all of the information about Chinese earthquake? Do you know, without looking, the final count of dead in West, Texas? What city is worst flooded in Michigan? Did you know the FBI released their suspect in the ricin letters case? The Elvis impersonator?
It’s really hard to find any of this information, but why? Sure, the Boston bombings, manhunt and region-wide lockdown are HUGE news stories, but are they the biggest story? Certainly not in terms of deaths, or property loss, or scope, or scale, or weirdness, heck, that’s not even the only terrorism that happened that week! So, why is the media focusing so singularly on the Boston situation? Is there a reason why, and if so, what can we learn from that?
The cynical among us would say that it’s because it’s Boston, and it’s got five-star hotels and bureaus for all of the major networks, so it’s easy to get the best reporters there. And on it’s face, that’s not really a bad answer. West, Texas is REALLY hard to get to, especially in the dead of night. Sichuan, China, even harder. The Iranian/Pakistani border, almost impossible. But that doesn’t really explain the ricin (it happened in Washington, DC, for Pete’s sake!), or the Midwest flooding (there’s still a few pretty big towns up there, I’ve heard).
I think the problem is more squishy than comfort and not using airline miles. I think it has to do with the situations themselves, specifically how they’re perceived.
Risk perception is a crazy thing. Dr. Barbara Reynolds, founder of the Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication (CERC) model likes to tell the story of what to worry about in Hawaii. Quick, in Hawaii, what do you think is the greatest hazard? If you said sharks, you’d be, well, normal but also wrong. Coconuts, now there’s something you need to be afraid of. There are reports (though completely unreliable, and I don’t really believe it) that coconuts kill 15 times as many people per year than sharks. The reason we fear sharks is because they are unusual and attract media attention. Coconuts? Not so much.
Dr. Sandman (our dear old friend), has a great table to help us see what causes some topics to engender high perceptions of risk, and others lower. On that table, we see that when comparing Boston to West, Boston is more likely to cause increased public concern due to Familiarity, Understanding, Voluntariness (remember that most of the West deaths were responders), Effects on Children, Dread and Origin. And when comparing Boston to the Midwest floods, well, there’s just no comparison. And the ricin letters, frankly, didn’t cause any deaths–they were handled by competent responders and systems–almost became background noise. Overseas natural disasters are almost always reported as “statistical deaths” and are thus harder to get riled up about.
So, what can we learn from this whole disaster-filled April? A couple of things. First, not all disasters are created equal. Some are worse, and some are just perceived as worse.
When you have your disaster, make sure you can step back and see where yours falls on the continuum. Second, the media will pick and choose which disasters they report on. We’ve talked about this before, specifically during tornado season. Be ready for the media to pack up and high-tail it out of there when something “better” comes along. Likewise, if the perception of your disaster changes, be ready for a huge surge of interest at any point during your response.
The media may be a fickle partner, but that doesn’t mean that there’s not some science behind it all.