communication is a "resource multiplier" during a crisis,
disaster, or emergency. For example, during a crisis you may find yourself
overwhelmed with requests for information from the media and the public,
managing misinformation, and conflicting messages being sent by other
agencies. Use of effective communication techniques allows you to avoid
resource over-utilization or misuse by managing or eliminating as many
of these issues as possible.
the expected negative individual and community behaviors can be mitigated
with effective emergency and risk communication. Each crisis will carry
its own psychological baggage. The practitioner must anticipate the
mental stresses that the population will be experiencing and apply appropriate
risk communication strategies to attempt to manage these stresses in
the population. Risk communication is a fully legitimate tool of response
and recovery, just like any other resource applied to a disaster. It
is not an attempt at mass mental therapy. It is a reasoned and mature
communication approach to the selection of message, messenger, and method
of delivery for intended audiences. In this section, we will look at
the different ways that people may react in an emergency or crisis.
important for the communicator to understand that in crisis, people
the following psychological reactions:
hopelessness, and helplessness
experience has shown that people farther away (by distance or relationship)
from the threat may actually exercise less reasonable reactions than
those who are facing the real crisis. The communication age allows some
people to vicariously participate in a crisis which they have no danger
of actually experiencing and "try on" the courses of action
presented to them. Because these "armchair" victims have the
luxury of time to decide their chosen course of action among the possibilities,
they may be much more critical about its value to them. In some cases,
these people may reject the proposed course of action, choose another,
or insist that they too are at risk and need the recommended remedy,
such as a vaccination or a visit to an emergency room. In its most troublesome
form, these "worried well" will heavily tax the recovery and
of the community will experience denial. The following are some
ways people experience denial. Some people:
getting the warnings or action recommendations
become agitated or confused by the warning
not believe the threat is real
- May not believe the threat is real to them.
experiencing denial may not take recommended steps to ensure their safety
until the absolute last moments, sometimes, perhaps, when it is too
late. This maladaptive crisis response is often associated with people
suddenly and deeply feeling that the universe is no longer a rational
and orderly system.
instances, victims may be stigmatized by their communities and refused
services or public access. Stigma, the fear and isolation of a group
perceived to be contaminated or risky to be associated with, will hamper
community recovery and affect evacuation and relocation efforts. In
a disease outbreak, a community is more likely to separate from those
perceived to be infected.
an important psychological consideration in the response to a crisis.
The fear of the unknown or the fear of uncertainty may be the most debilitating
of the psychological responses to disaster. With fear at the core, an
individual may act in extreme, and sometimes irrational, ways to avoid
the perceived or real threat.
hopelessness, and helplessness
can accept that the threat is real, but the threat looms so large that
they feel that the situation is hopeless. They feel helpless to protect
themselves and so, instead, they withdraw.
on the range of emotional reactions that a crisis can provoke, and ways
to deal with these various emotions, see Dr. Peter Sandman's chapter
Panic Prevention: Addressing Emotion in Emergency Communication.
seven recommendations can help public health officials to communicate
in a crisis. These recommendations, selected by the CDC Office of Communication,
are a subset of 26 Recommendations developed by Dr. Peter Sandman
the wake of the anthrax crisis. http://www.psandman.com/col/part1.htm
summary of Dr. Sandman's recommendations on these seven issues intersperses
his words with those of the ERC CDCynergy authors.
1: Be careful with risk comparisons
risk and perceived risk can be quite different. The source of the risk
can be as troubling as the degree of risk. People do not like injustice.
If they perceive that the risk has been imposed on them, that they have
been unfairly singled out to experience the risk, or that a fellow human
being deliberately put them in the position to be exposed to the risk,
they are likely to perceive the risk with more concern or outrage. Dr.
Peter Sandman cautions about risk comparisons in the following way by
exploring both the true risk and the perception of that risk. He defines
"hazard" as the seriousness of a risk from a technical
is the seriousness of the risk in nontechnical terms. Experts
view risk in terms of hazard; the rest of us view it in terms of outrage.
The risks we overestimate are high-outrage and low-hazard. The risks
we underestimate are high-hazard and low-outrage.
people try to explain that a high-outrage, low-hazard risk is not very
serious, they normally compare it to a high-hazard, low-outrage risk.
"This is less serious than that," the experts tell us, "so
if you are comfortable with that, you ought to be comfortable with this."
In hazard terms, the comparison is valid. But the audience is thinking
in outrage terms, and viewed in outrage terms the comparison appears
false. Although "this" is lower hazard than "that,"
it is still higher outrage.
is high-outrage and (for most of us, so far) low-hazard. You cannot
effectively compare it to a low-outrage, high-hazard risk, such as driving
a car - which is voluntary, familiar, less dreaded, and mostly under
our own control. Even naturally acquired anthrax fails to persuade as
a basis for comparison. People are justifiably more angry and frightened
about terrorist anthrax attacks than about other natural outbreaks,
even if the number of people attacked is low.
risk comparison can work if it is clear that you are trying to inform
the public's judgment, not coerce it. If you are trying to inform the
public about a risk, the most effective thing to do would be to bracket
the risk: bigger than "X," smaller than "Y." If
you only report that the risk is smaller than "Y," your audience
can tell that they are being coerced.
risks for comparison, they should be similar in the type and level of
emotion they would generate. Here is a risk comparison that can work:
indicates that a person is 10 times more likely to be killed by brain
damage from a falling coconut than to be killed by a shark. In this
case, the risks are both natural in origin, fairly distributed, exotic,
and outside the control of the individual. Although being killed by
a shark may cause greater terror or emotion, its comparison to being
killed by a coconut helps the individual to see that they may be perceiving
the risk as greater than it is. Most people have never considered their
risk of dying by coconut.
that all risks are not accepted equally. The following are examples:
personally vs. controlled by others
vs. unfairly distributed
children vs. affecting adults.
use risk comparisons, be sure to tell people how confident you are.
Acknowledge uncertainty, especially beforehand (talking about
future possible risks), but also in mid-crisis. The worst thing about
risk comparison is the implication that you actually know how big
risk is, and thus can compare it to another risk. For more on Dr. Sandman's
argument against over reassuring, see the section "Being alarming
versus being reassuring...," of his article Dilemmas
in Emergency Communication.
2: Do not over reassure
high outrage if an emergency event is catastrophic, unknowable, dreaded,
unfamiliar, in someone else's control, morally relevant, and memorable.
Too much reassurance can backfire. For example, when people are in outrage,
reassurance can increase their outrage because their perception is that
you are either not telling them the truth or you are not taking their
concerns seriously. An example
of this is the CDC's experience in Puerto Rico.
Instead, tell people how scary the situation is, even though the actual
numbers are small, and watch them get calmer.
reassurance worked, which it does not, it is important to remember that
an over-reassured public is not your goal. You want people to be concerned,
vigilant, and even hyper vigilant at first. You want people to take
reasonable precautions: feel the fear, misery, and other emotions that
the situation justifies.
a crisis, if you have to amend the estimate of damage or victims, it's
better to have to amend down, not up. It is "less serious than
we thought" is better tolerated by the public than "it is
more serious than we thought."
is important to note that the recommendation to "not over reassure"
is considered controversial and is not universally accepted.)
3: Sensitive syntax: put the good news in subordinate clauses
section does not mean that you shouldn't give people reassuring
Of course you should! But do not emphasize it. Especially do not emphasize
that it is "reassuring," or you will trigger the other
side of your audience's ambivalence.
to avoid this is to use "sensitive syntax." Sensitive syntax
means putting the good news in subordinate clauses, with the more alarming
information in the main clause. Here is an example of using sensitive
we have not seen a new anthrax case in X days (subordinate clause
with good news), It is too soon to say we are out of the woods"
(main clause with cautioning news).
clause is how seriously you are taking the situation or how aggressively
you are responding to every false alarm.
4: Acknowledge uncertainty
uncertainty is most effective when the communicator both shows his or
her distress and acknowledges the audience's distress: "How I wish
I could give you a definite answer on that . . ." "It must
be awful for people to hear how tentative and qualified we have to be,
because there is still so much we do not know . . .." More information
on acknowledging uncertainty can be found in Yellow Flags: The Acid
Test of Transparency (http://www.psandman.com/col/yellow.htm)
and in the section "Tentativeness vs confidence...," of Dr.
Sandman's article Dilemmas
in Emergency Communication.
5: Give people things to do 1
helps with fear, outrage, panic and even denial. If you have things
to do, you can tolerate more fear.
emergency, some actions communicated are directed at victims, persons
persons who have the potential to be exposed. However, those who do
not need to take immediate action will be engaging in "vicarious
rehearsal" regarding those recommendations and may need to
substitute action of their own to ensure that they do not prematurely
act on recommendations
not meant for them. In an emergency, simple actions will give people
back a sense of control and will help to keep them motivated to
tuned to what is happening (versus denial, where they refuse to acknowledge
the possible danger to themselves and others) and prepare them
action when directed to do so.
people something to do, give them a choice of actions matched to their
level of concern. Give a range of responses: a minimum response, a maximum
response, and a recommended middle response. For example, when giving
a choice of actions for making drinking water safe, you could give the
following range of responses:
recommend boiling water for two minutes."
way of looking at this is a three-part action prescription:
must do X.
should do Y.
can do Z.
of clarity is very important in helping people cope with emergencies.
the "things to do" are different types of behaviors:
behaviors - things that don't really help externally, but help
people to cope (attending a community vigil)
behaviors - things to do now that will minimize your risk if bad
then" behaviors - things to do not now, but only if bad things
happen (implementing a family
"Democracy and individual control vs. expert decision-making"
of Dr. Peter Sandman's article, Dilemmas
in Emergency Communication, provides further information on these
6: Stop trying to allay panic
much less common than we imagine. The literature on disaster communication
is replete with unfulfilled expectations of panicking "publics."
Actually, people nearly always behave extremely well in crisis.
most conducive to panic is not bad news; it is double messages from
those in authority. People are the likeliest to panic (though still
not very likely) when they feel that they can not trust what those in
authority are telling them; when they feel misled or abandoned in dangerous
territory. When authorities start hedging or hiding bad news in order
to prevent panic, they are likely to exacerbate the risk of panic in
shows that in a true emergency (matter of life and death) people do
respond exceptionally well. However, it also seems that the inverse
is true; that the further away the public is from the real danger (in
place and time), the more likely they are to allow their emotions full
range. This vicarious rehearsal ("How would I feel in an emergency?
What would I do? Does this advice work for me?") can be over burdening
in an emergency. Therefore, the communicator must recognize the differences
among audiences. The person anticipating the "bad risk" is
much more likely to respond inappropriately than the person "in
the heat of the battle" who is primed to act on the information
and does not have quite the same amount of time to mull it over.
"Planning for denial and misery vs. planning for panic" of
Dr. Peter Sandman's article Dilemmas
in Emergency Communication provides further discussion of these
7: Acknowledge people's fears
are afraid, the worst thing to do is to pretend they are not. The second
worst thing to do is to tell them they should not be afraid. Both responses
leave people alone with their fears.
their fear is totally unjustified, people do not respond well to being
ignored; nor do they respond well to criticism, mockery, or statistics.
And when the fear has some basis, these approaches are still less effective.
Instead, you can acknowledge people's fears even while giving them the
information they need to put those fears into context. Giving people
permission to be excessively alarmed about a terrorist threat while
still telling them why they need not worry, is far more likely to reassure
healthy psychological responses to terrorism. A good summary
of these can be found in the International Journal of Emergency Mental