In an emergency, providing timely and factual information to key stakeholders can mean the difference between life and death, order and chaos. Crisis communication focuses on collecting, organizing, and disseminating information for the purpose of mitigating the impact of a crisis and helping communities recover.
Virginia Commonwealth University’s Online Master of Arts in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness equips graduates with the crisis communication skills they need to obtain and synthesize crisis related information into a comprehensible script and disseminate these critical messages to respective stakeholders.
The Role of Crisis Communication in Emergency Management
Large-scale crises can provoke fear, confusion and panic. Without timely, effective mass communication during crises, people may turn to unreliable or incomplete information. The public needs factual, clear information about the crisis, that tells them what to do and how to do it, and reassures them that help is on the way.
Deliver Critical Information
If people feel they don’t know what’s going on or what will happen next, they may jump to conclusions about the risks and dangers of a situation. In some cases, people overreact. In other cases, people don’t act with enough urgency. However, with the right information people can respond more appropriately.
When a hurricane looms, for example, people need timely, clear information about when and if they need to evacuate. Without it, they may rush to leave the area, causing traffic jams that actually slow down emergency management efforts. On the other hand, they might delay and wait too long to evacuate. Compounding the problem, those who’ve stayed often don’t notify first responders, impeding the process of getting assistance.
Counter Rumors and Misconceptions
Emergency and crisis managers must provide factual information about a crisis as soon as possible. Otherwise, rumors can gain control of the narrative compromising the ability of emergency and crisis management officials. Additionally, once people have misconceptions about an emergency, dispelling them is hard.
For instance, if an active shooter threatens a shopping center, people need to know areas to avoid to stay safe and whether they need to evacuate or shelter in place. If they don’t get that information quickly from emergency management, then misinformation may spread, leading to panic and avoidable exposure to danger. .
Build Trust in Leadership
Often, a crisis can cause communities to experience a loss of control leading to feeling vulnerable. The competent delivery of clear, timely information can build trust in emergency and crisis management leadership and alleviate people’s fear. Without trust in emergency and crisis response officials and communications, the public is less likely to follow their advice or cooperate with response and recovery plans.
After a safety incident at a nuclear power plant, for instance, nearby communities need clear and accurate information about possible danger. If crisis communication isn’t comprehensible and thorough, people may even wonder if authorities are intentionally withholding information.
Strategies for Successful Crisis Communication
Emergency and crisis management experts can employ various strategies when communicating with communities. Consider the following crisis communication strategies and practical advice.
Keep Messaging Clear and Concise
During crises, communities need information they can easily understand. Trauma and fear may affect their ability to process and respond to what they read, see and hear. That’s why emergency and crisis management officials must keep messages clear and concise.
To that end, communications in times of crisis should adhere to the following best practices:
- Highlight the ‘need to know’ information
- Use easy to understand terminology and avoid technical jargon
- Utilize visuals strategically
- Identify a spokesperson the community trusts
- Communicate with empathy and concern
- Provide timely updates
Audiences should not have to struggle to understand communication during crises. If they do, they may not act on the given advice and may even lose trust in emergency and crisis management officials.
Other ways to keep messaging clear and concise include:
Focus on Desired Outcomes
When composing crisis communication, focus on desired outcomes, such as specific steps communities should take before, during, and after a crisis.
Break Information Into Sections
Identify and present the most important points of a message first. Break up lengthy, complex information into brief, straightforward sections.
Leverage Social Media
According to the Pew Research Center, 55% of U.S. citizens turn to social media for their news. To reach the widest possible audience, emergency and crisis management officials must leverage this avenue of communication.
Emergency and crisis management officials may use Twitter, for example, to communicate quickly until further information that’s been cleared for accuracy can be released. Facebook, on the other hand, can be used to post detailed information, such as infographics or step-by-step instructions.
Additionally, emergency and crisis management officials must monitor social media platforms during crises. This allows them to stay informed about people’s needs and counter misinformation. It also allows them to answer questions and provide clarification.
Customize Communication for the Audience
In today’s diverse communities, Crisis communication must adapt to their audiences. Emergency and crisis managers must consider the kind of communication suitable for different groups and customize their messaging accordingly.
For example, many communities include individuals whose first language is not English. As a result, emergency and crisis management officials must tailor their crisis communication to incorporate the diverse languages represented in their communities.
For a community under a wildfire threat, emergency and crisis management experts might create crisis communication content addressing the needs of homeowners and renters differently than those who are homeless.
Effectively customizing communication means considering factors that may lead to vulnerability for specific populations, such as age (children and elderly), geographic risks, language, and abilities and more. Emergency and crisis management officials must craft messages based on a culturally competent awareness of how diverse backgrounds and beliefs impact crisis communication.
Ensure Accessible Communication
To stay safe during a crisis and respond accordingly, communities need accessible crisis communication. What’s accessible varies from person to person. While large portions of a community may rely on social media for their news, other community members may not own a smartphone or computer. Additionally, communities may require communication to be presented in different languages or formats, such as braille.
Emergency and crisis management officials must consider the information channels their communities use. Information channels, such as print, broadcast media, social media, hotlines, and radio each have varying levels of reach and influence. Some people may find certain channels suspect and not rely on them. Others may rely on those same channels entirely. For this reason, using a strategic mix of information channels is key to ensuring the accessibility of crisis communication.
In addition to leveraging social media, emergency management experts can use television, radio and websites to deliver critical information. Regularly updated crisis-specific web pages that use vivid graphics, familiar symbols and clear text can serve as valuable tools during crises.
These webpages should strategically order communications, highlight priority topics and provide more detailed information in hyperlinks or at the bottom of the page.
Deliver Timely Communication
Emergency and crisis management officials must communicate quickly. Regular updates help establish stability and build trust with communication officials. They also counteract any misinformation that can make the fallout of a crisis worse. When people have the crisis communication they need — when they need it — they can make informed decisions for their safety.
Additionally, emergency and crisis management officials can strategically utilize press conferences through a range of media outlets to assist in timely updates.
Finally, by planning, creating, and practicing crisis communication strategies for various platforms and diverse crises before they occur, emergency and crisis management officials are better prepared to deliver information before, during, and after a crisis.
Develop Crisis Communication Expertise
Successful emergency and crisis management requires a well-informed and coordinated response. Strategic crisis communication mitigates the damage of disasters and increases the resilience of communities during challenging times. With education and training, emergency and crisis management officials can save lives and mitigate any negative impacts to their communities.
Learn more about how the Online Master of Arts in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness from Virginia Commonwealth University prepares graduates for thriving careers in emergency and crisis management.
The Conversation, “Good Communication Is a Key Part of Disaster Response”
FEMA, Disaster Emergency Communications
Hootsuite, “How to Use Social Media for Crisis Communications and Emergency Management”
Ready.gov, “Crisis Communications Plan”
Pew Research Center, “Americans Are Wary of the Role Social Media Sites Play in Delivering the News”
U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “Countering False Information on Social Media in Disasters and Emergencies: Social Media Working Group for Emergency Services and Disaster Management”