Like any good virtue, trust doesn’t develop overnight. It takes time, effort, and people putting in the work to mould strong relationships.
In emergency management, trust means everything.
When emergency management authorities collectively work with local residents and other government agencies to build inter-organizational reliability, the risks associated with disasters significantly reduce.
Trust within the EM sector can improve risk communication and transform the way communities coordinate disruptive change, making them ever more resilient. Here are some industry insights to fortify trust within emergency management.
Why isn’t trust simply a given
“People don’t just trust you just because you say they should,” remarks Perron Goodyear, Director of Emergency Disaster Services at The Salvation Army.
Trust in emergency management is built on the tenets of cooperation and the willingness to share information. How effectively you communicate information can determine the speed and quality in preventing illness and injury, reducing anxiety, and facilitating relief efforts.
However, when mistrust occurs between displaced populations and institutions, the exchange of information decreases along with people’s confidence in those carrying out the actions. Scott Davis, Director and Vice President of Readiness and Response at Community Disaster Response Ontario, recalls an important lesson on repairing broken trust:
“It’s okay to admit when you’re wrong,” reveals Davis. “I can think of many times in my career where I’ve had to change direction. When you receive new information, you need to have the emotional intelligence to determine what is the right way to go, and sometimes that means changing your mind.”
Although Davis confesses to taking the heat for changing the course when the public relied on other actions communicated to them, he stresses the importance of being honest and explaining to people what changed and why.
While gaining trust isn’t easy, it tests the strength of your relationships and how you can learn to communicate to your audience effectively.
“We know that in times of crisis, communications is always the first to fail and lack of communication is always prevalent,” adds Scott Roberts, President of International Association of Emergency Managers Canada (IAEM).
“But we’re seeing a better job today in the disaster context by governments being more timely with their communications, and part of that is driven by citizen journalists where the spread of information is instant. But even though receiving communications is instant, sometimes citizen journalism gets it wrong, whether it’s intentional or not.”
That’s why it’s crucial to leverage experts in the field to respond directly to an incident or emergency. Trust ultimately comes down to effective communication and a solid foundational relationship between those communicating and those receiving.
The work to build trust is ongoing
“Credibility is defined by who you know, what your experience is, your relationship with the public, how frequently citizens hear from you, and your level of engagement with them,” states Goodyear.
Trust is interpersonal and underpinned by a sense of familiarity. When first responders, emergency management agencies, and policymakers show up for their communities, the public grows more receptive to what they have to say.
According to Darby Allen, a retired fire chief from Fort MacMurray, people look to those in positions of authority for direction when an emergency arises and will generally follow the rules given.
This sentiment aligns with the Trust Determination Theory, which Ben Morgan, the Principal and Managing Director of often cites as the foundation of successful risk communication.
Based on this theory, Morgan substantiates how audiences naturally assign a level of trust with spokespeople who exhibit authority due to society’s built-in expectations around those in uniform or branded identities such as law enforcement, first responders, and politicians. Even though trust is intrinsically given to these individuals, there is still much work to generate and improve trust so that it arises consistently.
How to strengthen trust in your communications
After hearty discussions with a dozen leading industry experts, here are their insights to reinforce trust in your communications.
1) Lead with emotional intelligence
According to Roberts, leadership and emotional intelligence (EI) need to be a collaborative process across all phases of emergency management to bolster foundational trust. He insists that the more interpersonal and self-aware EMs are, the stronger their interactions with others become.
“EMs who are self-aware, empathetic, and want to engage in relationship building form the basis of strong emotional interactions, which is a core competency in our industry,” adds Roberts.
The desire to genuinely engage in relationship building with community members and other professionals in the EM sector reduces the barrier to entry to understanding each other. It levels the playing field to holistic decision-making.
According to Roberts, “a strong leader shouldn’t be afraid to ask what others think in a crisis. It’s a show of strength and commitment to admit when you don’t have all the answers and instead leverage an expert in the field who does.”
He asserts that community consultation and exercise can fortify trust that much more by showing your face and voice in the places that need to be seen and heard.
“Trust is built on community and some type of fellowship or engagement, whether that’s going for coffee, having a one-on-one meeting, or publicly addressing a community on foot,” continues Roberts.
“There’s no hidden secret or earth-shattering insight to building trust,” he says. “It’s just realizing that we’re all human, we each have idiosyncrasies, and need to get to know one another. Trust is built on relationships. It’s simply the act of engaging in conversation and getting to know the person in front of you.”
2) Demonstrate care, ethics, and consideration
Emotional intelligent leadership is bred by empathy, and the motivation to help others naturally grows trust. Roberts advises demonstrating care in your messaging by putting yourself in others’ shoes, addressing people’s concerns, and forging a plan that prepares the community for what’s to come next.
According to Davis, professionals in the EM sector have an obligation to recognize a hazard, educate people about it, and do their best to mitigate or remove the threat. These behaviours are what instil confidence.
“Have you done the planning?” asks Davis. “Have you checked off all the steps pre-incident, during, and after? Are you considering life safety and environmental decisions? And are you making the right decisions for the right reasons?”
Davis maintains that competent leadership must be accompanied by strong ethics and morals that transcend your roles and puts the people you serve first.
3) Lay down all the facts
From a principal risk communication standpoint, Morgan encourages EMs to provide their audiences with factual data so that the public can draw their own conclusions. Rather than telling a story or over-colouring the context of an event, he argues it’s much more effective to present the public with irrefutable evidence.
Tim Riecker, Partner with Emergency Preparedness Solutions, echoes the same sentiment about referencing factual information and emphasizes that brevity establishes trust.
“Communications should be short, cogent, and rapid-fire so that if people are interested, they’ll click and read more,” he says. “A big mistake is having a laundry list of communications. No one wants to read all of that.”
Instead, Riecker recommends drilling your message down to the top three things your audience needs to know about the hazard or else they’ll glaze over it and move on to something else.
“Rumour control also certainly helps to build or regain trust,” Riecker adds. Whether misinformation spreads through negligence or wilful intent, he advises actively addressing it, no matter how damaging it may be since it’s your reputation on the line. “You can’t get everyone to like you all the time,” he adds. “But you have to spend the effort, time, and resources to earn people’s trust.”
4) Keep lines of communication open
Equally detrimental as poor communication is lack of communication. Authorities cannot afford to go radio silent during any phase of EM, but especially not during an emergency.
“One of the biggest mistakes we made during the fires in 2016 was dealing with it ourselves,” admits Allen.
“We relied on our rural department, and it wasn’t until the third day in that we engaged the province for additional help. And when help did come, we failed to communicate it to our staff properly. Our firefighters had gone days without sleep but didn’t want to leave their post. Now imagine some guy they’ve never seen before shows up and says ‘we’ve got this’…naturally, it didn’t go over well.”
Communications need to be maintained on all fronts, not just with the public and external partners but also with internal team members.
What to consider when communicating with diverse groups to build trust
When communicating with distinct groups within a population, Morgan stresses that the principles of effective communication stay the same in that EMs should still harness logic, emotion, and authority in their messaging. However, he specifies that the resources and familiarity with the audience will vary.
Vulnerable populations require building trust beforehand
Disasters impact distinct groups differently, so what works for one may not work for all. Often minorities and at-risk communities require building trust beforehand, and those engagements need to be culturally relevant.
“To build trust, you need to listen. You have two ears and one mouth to figure it out,” comments Mike Crawford, Director of Emergency Management at Stoney Nakoda First Nations. “That’s one of the big things,” he continues. “Not coming in and taking the outside world’s point of view, but considering the Stoney and Indigenous ways of doing things.”
Having also engaged with First Nations groups, Morgan similarly recalls the specific needs of these communities.
“You can’t copy and paste a provincial COVID-19 message about self-isolation or social distancing for Stoney Nakoda,” he explains. “These groups often have up to three generations of family living together in a three-storey house, so communicating that message doesn’t help them.”
Instead, Morgan advises communications staff to work through their understanding of their audience to make a significant impact. Similarly, Riecker warns against using cookie-cutter communications. He asserts that the most effective connections with different populations come from the partnerships formed ahead of time.
Davis echoes similar advice from his own experience with different populations: “Some languages in First Nations communities are spoken but not written, so translation may not always work. You need to find individuals who can help you, whether it’s a trusted elder or culture broker.”
Tap into partnership networks
Establishing trust becomes much easier when you have an “in” with a particular portion of the population you’re trying to connect with. According to Riecker, his idea of successfully reaching diverse communities is through partner agencies that regularly work with the public.
“Entities such as NGOs or government agencies that provide services and communicate with diverse populations–whether it’s faith-based, service-based, or what have you–already regularly engage with them,” explains Riecker.
“So leaning on these established relationships can better foster your trust with these people. They have an established presence, rapport, and reputation. Given that agencies and organizations have different audiences, it’s best to engage more than one to ensure the best coverage throughout the community.”
Tailor relevant messages for key audiences
“Who’s your audience or stakeholder, and why do they matter?” asks Roberts. “You have to understand who you’re crafting your message for, how they want to be reached, how often they want to hear from you, and who they even prefer to hear messages from.”
All of this matters when you want your communications to build trust and incite action or support from the public.
Build an empowered community
“Our job in emergency management is to get alignment with the community,” exclaims Ken Letander, Policy, Branding, and Public Engagement Advisor and Emergency Management Coordinator. “Find out what their strengths are, their needs, and where they want to go as a community.”
In addition to face-to-face engagement, which industry experts agree is the most effective mode of communication in relationship-building, you can encourage further community feedback by utilizing surveys and polls to detect the wellness and satisfaction of a population
“The key is to ensure that these channels are mobile-friendly, not overly complicated to use, and provide both a yes or no response and a section to provide additional notes or feedback,” adds Letander.
While listening to the needs of an audience is an integral part of building an empowered community, it also requires educated action. According to Crawford, you need to consider the lived experiences of those who’ve been affected by incidents and who may still be impacted today.
In the context of First Nations communities, Crawford explains how in the past, the Morley reserve utilized prescribed burns–a practice where you burn off a portion of the forest in a controlled manner to eliminate underbrush–to help control forest fires.
Although these burning practices proved successful for the First Nations, government agencies and partner networks have no longer implemented them. And First Nations leaders have continually advocated for their return since.
Crawford insists that when government agencies tune into the First Nations’ past experiences, there’s more to gain collectively.
“If the BC wildfires were listed, they could have been avoided,” he voices. “Hundreds of years ago, we didn’t have this problem, but now we do because we’re not using prescribed burns. No one was listening to what Indigenous people had to say, and now we’re getting these massive fires that cost a lot of money–money that could have been better spent by preventing the fires in the first place.”
Ensure you reach everyone
Disasters have a proportionally more significant effect on poor and ethnically and racially diverse minorities across the world. Cultural biases, socioeconomic status (SES), and other factors can determine how effective or ineffective emergency response can be.
Access is limited on nearly all dimensions
Residents of low SES and racial minorities tend to be more vulnerable or at risk of having fewer resources than their counterparts before, during, and after an emergency. These individuals typically experience a lower likelihood of receiving warnings of disasters, evacuating in response to disasters, and lack access to post-disaster aid.
While it may be true that financially insecure households may struggle to buffer against the negative impacts of a disaster event, it’s not as simple as determining if an audience can afford an emergency kit.
To effectively garner trust in your communications, Goodyear recommends addressing vulnerable groups’ missing resources and opportunities.
“It’s not necessarily about buying an AC unit, but about other ways of educating low-income individuals, such as an infographic that teaches them how to beat the heat when they can’t afford AC,” he explains.
In addition, Roberts reveals the importance of considering the information source when crafting and distributing messages to vulnerable groups. “As we’ve seen with COVID, communities at higher risk are even less trusting of government,” he says.
Consider which communication channels are trustworthy to your audience
Think twice before choosing “the right channels” for low-income and racially diverse groups. According to Goodyear, these populations generally afford greater trust to non-governmental organizations and local emergency aid groups over politicians and elected government officials.
Sarah Cowan, an Emergency Preparedness Intern and master’s student of Disaster and Emergency Management at York University, advises making yourself available and connecting with a diverse range of religious and community leaders.
“Make it publicly known where your office is located, how you can be reached, and what exactly you do that can help them now and in the future,” she says.
In addition to increasing cultural relevance in communications and participation in vulnerable communities, Goodyear underscores the power of empathy and acknowledgement.
“People are worried about today, not tomorrow,” he explains. “They’re thinking about survival and how to put food on the table, even though tomorrow may very well present its challenges too. To build trust, you have to know what their biggest concerns are, look at the communication channels they use, and develop an active presence in their community.”
Develop a presence in their community beyond emergencies
Show up even when they don’t need you. Goodyear advocates creating a recognized presence in vulnerable communities to gain people’s trust, not just when disaster strikes.
The regular cadence of EM involvement allows time to foster trust, recognition, reliability, and the opportunity to build on existing relationships.
“When you understand what challenges they face, you start to build empathy and understanding, and create relationships that can benefit you both,” adds Roberts.
Crawford also reinforces the necessity of community outreach and work beyond emergency contexts. “The community can really see that you are there for them and not just providing a service,” he says.
The social glue that empowers community success
Without trust, communication fails. And without good communication, it’s challenging to build trust. The same is true in the emergency management sector, where a breakdown in either can result in increased distress, injuries, and casualties.
However, when we take the time to build the capacity for trust between colleagues, stakeholders, and community members, we open up new opportunities to better connect and understand each other.
By demonstrating genuine and continuous care, factual evidence, and culturally relevant considerations, leaders can help meet the needs of their residents to build a resilient and empowered community.
SPECIAL THANKS TO OUR INDUSTRY EXPERTS FEATURED IN THIS ARTICLE
Scott Roberts, President, International Association of Emergency Managers – Canada (IAEM)
Scott Davis, Director and Vice President, Readiness and Response at Community Disaster Response Ontario
Sarah Cowan, Emergency Preparedness Intern, Masters Student of Disaster and Emergency Management at York University
Ben Morgan, Principal & Managing Director, Centre for Crisis and Risk Communications
Perron Goodyear, Director, Emergency Disaster Services, The Salvation Army
Mike Crawford, Director of Emergency Management, Stoney Nakoda First Nations
Tim Riecker, Partner, Emergency Preparedness Solutions
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