Using the Science

stormGovernment communicators get asked to do lots of not fun things. When things have gone sideways, we’re in charge of cleaning up the mess until the underlying mess (which is never our fault!) is fixed. When the press is looking for blood, or inches, or quotes, we stand guard at the gate and beat back the hordes. We sometimes have over-inflated visions of what our jobs are. But through it all, we are the ones that have to say something about a topic that most likely we’ve had nothing to do with until that moment when the phone rings.

So when I see headlines like this:

FEMA Scales Back Flood Zones After Controversy

It really gets my goat. Because, one day, some poor communicator will be asked why FEMA said a home wasn’t likely to flood, and then it did. Again.

The agency released advisory maps in December that vastly expanded the so-called V-zones, where waves could cause severe damage to property. Many homeowners and elected officials objected, because those areas carry much higher reconstruction costs and higher flood insurance rates.

In new maps, officially out today, much less of the coast is considered in the highest risk category.

Just to demonstrate that I’m not totally heartless, I understand why the public and elected officials complained. Many would be absolutely priced out of their homes and businesses. That’s upsetting and they’re upset. I get that. But, assuming that the first maps published by FEMA were science-based, that’s where the recommendation should lie. Even if it makes people upset. Because it’s the right thing to do.

When those houses flood again, and they will, the media will swamp that poor communicator asking why all of those homes weren’t required to have flood insurance, and whatever they say in reply won’t be completely honest. They’ll say it was based upon the latest models, that it was it was most cost-effective, that no one could have predicted. But they did, and then they walked it back. Unless she says, “We wanted to say they were in the 100-year floodplain, but we crumbled due to political pressure,” whatever she says won’t be the full truth. And that is something that no communicator can fix.

Instead, we need to let the science dictate what we say. Because the science is our answer to why we did it that way. Not politics, not underhanded dealings, not sweetheart deals, nothing reproachable. We did it because the science said that we should. And it doesn’t matter if you hate me for it, this is our rationale and it’s defensible. A communicator can work with that.

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5 thoughts on “Using the Science

  1. I like your “naiveté” on that one Jim ! Wish we could all say the truth and base our comms on science and true risk assessments. But what we’re involved in deals with people … and emotions and therefore risk perception which is singularly difficult to match up between the public’s comprehension of risks and what the “experts” foresee. It’s a losing battle … what we can do is focus on preparation when mitigation comes at too high a cost … unfortunate but true …

    1. I understand how difficult it is, how impossible it is, but this should be the goal. This should be what we strive for. And I know it’s a process that might never finish, I just wish that Executives understood what kind of a position they put us in.

  2. Jim, your observation applies to all comms. I can’t count the number of times that as a government flack I was called to clean up messes that were totally predictable.

    1. The old saying is that poor communications can derail any effort. The less-understood corollary is that no amount of perfect communications can fix a clusterf*ck.

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