After a webinar I presented to emergency managers on crisis and risk communications during recovery from disaster I was asked, “Do you have a communication strategy for long term recovery?” To which I responded, (and I’m paraphrasing here,) “Yes. I do.”
I used more words, but that was the gist.
Now, I can’t say for sure, but I believe the person asking the question was hoping for more of a two-part response, which might have included what that strategy would look like. That would make sense at least. Unfortunately, I legitimately thought she was asking if I had a strategy and nothing more … as if she were simply curious.
While I may never be able to deliver a better response to this particular individual, in her honor, I thought I’d turn the response she was likely hoping for into a post.
The strategy I use is simple and largely the same regardless of the nature of the catastrophe or event. The tactics and tools vary based on community makeup and preferences, but the goal remains the same:
For professional communicators this means ensuring the community continues to understand their role and your role in preventing future loss of life, protecting property, safeguarding the environment, rebuilding and maintaining infrastructure and getting back to normal.
Here are the main elements of my strategy:
Be consistent: I can’t remember writing a comms plan, or a blog post about comms plans, without these two words being near the top of the “how to” list. While you won’t need to communicate with the same level of intensity as you may have during the event, you need to maintain a consistent level, frequency and volume of communication. The simple act of communicating consistently will, in and of itself, send a message of commitment to the community about its well-being. Consistency is also comforting to people who have endured a chaotic time of uncertainty. Anything that contributes to a sense of order and routine will help. Regular engagement on your social media platforms, scheduled open houses, speaking or providing a presence at local community events; all are part of being consistent.
Apply risk communication practices: There are a collection of strategies, tools and tactics specifically designed for communicating information when concern is high, people feel threatened and/or there is a low level of trust. Ultimately, the practice recognizes that people in a stressful situation, like that of a community in recovery, don’t process information the same way they might during routine circumstances. Risk comms principles dictate you keep information exchange simple, digestible and mutually beneficial.
Strive for transparency: It seems at some point many emergency managers start to think the community can’t handle any more truth, uncertainty or bad news. Or they worry too much about how the public might process what they’re seeing and hearing; they might overreact, they may blow it out of proportion, they’ll get in the way. I’ve seen managers simply get weary of engaging the community or exposing their operations to a critical or “irrational” public. Depending on where they are in their recovery and how they feel about your agency’s response, they may very well react that way. Nevertheless, trying to put too fine a filter on what you think people should or shouldn’t know can only damage long term recovery efforts. it’s essential that you continue to communicate the facts and provide access to your operations and processes. It’s essential because it builds and maintains credibility and trust. In any long term recovery effort, your credibility and the communities trust make a huge difference.
Foster a sense of partnership/ownership: An underlying principle of risk communication practice is finding ways to help impacted communities get a sense for how they are partners in recovery efforts. Human nature reveals we do better in chaotic situations when we at least have a sense we have some input or control over what happens to us. Sincerely seeking community input, suggestions and/or assistance via social media, public meetings, door-to-door surveys, etc., will bring the community into the “inner circle,” as it were. It allows them to feel some ownership of their recovery.
Turn that frown upside down: The ultimate goal is to recover quickly and get back to a sense of normalcy. That’s the essence of a resilient community. To support that goal in your communication it’s important to seek and share stories that reflect the community’s success during recovery, stories that illustrate how far everyone has come, stories that offer proof, not just hope, that life will return to normal.