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Establishing Public Confidence Through Communications

In times of crisis, effective communication with your community is vital, but it’s often cited in after-action reports as an area the needs the most work.  

Emergency alerts, mass media, and social media can help instruct the public on what to do, where to go, and information about the event that influences their decision-making to increase public safety and accelerate emergency response efforts.

However, to get the public to adopt the actions you want, they must have confidence in your ability to keep them safe and resolve the incident. All this comes down to how you communicate with them.

Here are some tactics to consider and integrate into your communications to gain public confidence.

How to communicate effectively to an audience

Although saying the right thing at the right time to the right people may seem simple enough, it’s much harder to accomplish when put to the test.

Below are 4 industry insights on how to deliver accurate messaging that resonates.

1. Follow the 3:1 rule of sandwiching your message

“When people are stressed, it’s natural human behaviour to assign more value or weight to the negative feelings we have than the positive,” remarks Ben Morgan, Principal & Managing Director of the Centre for Crisis and Risk Communications.

Because humans can’t help but grow more concerned during stressful situations, it’s important that you avoid assigning greater value to negative words or communications and instead counteract the bad with neutral or good news.

Based on the Negative Dominance Theory, Morgan reveals that it will take three times the amount of positive messages to negate one negative message to allay people’s fears.

These positive sentiments should be communicated regularly and diversified beyond emergencies. Alongside feel-good stories, communications can include informational notices relevant to a region or municipality, such as recycling and garbage collection schedules or boil water advisories.

The idea is to consistently “make positive deposits in people’s sentiment bank,” articulates Morgan. “The more you can create positive messaging and relationships ahead of time, especially in the social media space, it will help you earn trust and gain cooperation when you’re under fire.”

“Variety in messaging also lends to greater credibility and can reduce the perception of being a biased source,” he explains. “Suppose an audience only hears from an organization once and they provide a negative message. In that case, people will likely associate a negative impression of that organization and are less inclined to turn to them as an authority.”

2. Distill your communications into three distinct parts

The Mental Noise Theory maintains that the average human brain can generally recall and process up to seven pieces of information. But according to Morgan, the rules of communication change when people are under high stress: only three pieces of information are retained during high-risk situations.

So to cut through the noise and ensure your message sticks, Morgan recommends focusing your communications on three types of messages:

Message of Care

Demonstrate genuine care and empathy for residents and how incidents may impact their well-being, safety, and livelihood.

Message of Conviction

Supplement your message with facts and scientific data so people can arrive at their own decisions. Don’t tell them what you think they want to hear–just present them with actual data.

Message of Optimism

Communicate how your community can band together to overcome hardship and provide people with tangible action items and direction to reflect a desired behavioral outcome.

3. Appeal to your audience with logic, emotion, and authority

Connection has just as much to do with what you say as what you don’t say. When asked about tactics on resonating with an audience, Morgan reveals how his communications are rooted in the Trust Determination Theory by Dr. Vincent Covello. This theory maintains that an audience will successfully connect with a spokesperson if they express these three qualities:

  • Credibility
  • Empathy
  • Authority

Be Credible

According to Morgan, sharing continual event updates and stating specifics about evolving situations can help maintain public trust.

“For example, more credibility is assigned to a political party that delivers a news conference on the date and time they promised,” adds Morgan. “But that party can also lose credibility and public trust if the news event is delayed.”

Be Empathetic

Listen and speak from the heart. Morgan encourages people in EM to address the humanity of the situation and recognize the public’s fears, concerns, and struggles. There’s always something to be said about placing oneself in another’s shoes, and relationships only grow stronger when each party understands each other more.

Leverage Your Authority

Finally, Morgan insists that people in positions of public authority such as a CEO, fire chief, or police officer can earn other’s trust by having worked their way up, completing the necessary training, and having the experience behind them.

And while showing up in uniform doesn’t always put people at ease, Morgan admits there is a level of vetted public trust assigned to these authorities’ identity since society places ethical expectations on these individuals.

4. When in doubt, keep things simple

While there are core qualities and messages that are proven successful in emergency preparedness and management, it’s essential to remember not to overcomplicate things. 

“One major mistake that we’ve seen from large-scale events in North America is that authorities try to manufacture the message too much,” says Darby Allen, retired fire chief of Fort MacMurray.

“We sometimes get lost in our own messaging rather than just getting in front of the camera and saying exactly what’s happening and what people need to know. Just be clear, honest, and compassionate,” advises Allen.

Wildfire Communications: Best Practices

5 Lessons on gaining public cooperation

1. Know your audience

“As with any message, everything is about the audience,” remarks Tim Riecker, Partner with Emergency Preparedness Solutions. “All in all, most emergency managers are pretty good at interfacing and coordinating with organizations. However, it’s the public that we still struggle with.”

According to Riecker and several other industry leaders, an essential component to gaining public confidence lies in your ability to understand specific audiences and refine your messages to reflect their interests.

“It’s a matter of putting aside your priorities and getting to know theirs,” says Riecker. “Because their problems aren’t the same as yours.”

Sarah Cowan, Emergency Preparedness Intern and Disaster and Emergency Management master’s student at York University, reinforces this sentiment. “The information you communicate to an academic community will differ from a municipality,” she reveals. “Depending on the audience, you may provide more or less detailed or technical information.”

Additionally, vulnerable populations require different communication expectations and standards that can’t always be recycled from other audiences.

Having spent much of his career working with First Nations communities, Ken Letander, Policy, Branding, and Public Engagement Advisor and Emergency Management Coordinator, expresses how some Indigenous communities may not have house numbers on their reserves.

He states how challenging this can be when communicating the location of an emergency. Cultural differences must be taken into account and made relevant when addressing vulnerable or diverse audiences.

To instill long-term public confidence, Mike Crawford, Director of Emergency Management at Stoney Nakoda First Nations, advises relaying internal communications to local audiences, especially speaking with chiefs, councillors, and band managers in the context of Indigenous populations.

He reveals that at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, his organization met with First Nations groups weekly. “Now, we meet every six weeks while still sending out monthly updates.”

2. Break down messages to specific hazards

Today, the usual cookie-cutter communications of making a plan, building a kit, and getting involved doesn’t have the same effect as they used to. According to Riecker, we need to update this rhetoric as it’s growing stale, and the return on investment is extremely low. Instead, he suggests replacing it with messages that speak directly to the hazards at hand.

He reveals that the root of messaging in emergency management stems from the days of civil defence, a very different time and practice that focused primarily on the threat. So while making a plan or building a kit can be helpful in a general sense, these calls to action don’t inform citizens on what to do specifically when they face a fire, earthquake, or another kind of hazard.

“Yes, having a ‘plan’ is a call to action, but it’s too vague and high-level,” says Riecker.

“Should I plan to stay home? Should I plan to evacuate? Should I plan to get a three-week supply of bread and milk?”

“All this can be confusing because there isn’t really one thing where folks can immediately connect to,” continues Riecker. “We need to look at what we have for severe storms, fires, and whatever the hazard may be and develop messaging specific to those events so people can grasp onto a clear action.”

3. Provide clear direction

Like Riecker’s advice on specifying your message to the hazards, Morgan also praises the importance of providing clear and direct instructions to the public on handling escalating situations.

Communicating muster points, emergency shelter locations, and ongoing updates with the public can reduce panic and streamline critical decision-making when time is limited.

These informational messages not only convey precise instructions but also illuminate an order to the chaos. During stressful situations, clear and direct instructions can give the public a sense of relief in that the authorities have critically considered what may be the right responses.

Part of obtaining public confidence is knowing that you’re in capable hands. People naturally gravitate towards those who deliver on their actions to de-escalate crises.

“Most people will follow the rules if you just tell them what they need to do,” adds Allen, who helped lead the wildfire evacuations in 2016. So keeping people in the loop as hazards evolve can increase public situational awareness and evoke cooperation among the community.

4. Reveal shared interests

An effective tactic that’s proven successful for Letander is the idea of finding common ground. He recommends understanding the audience you’ll be addressing, considering the platforms they prefer to receive information, and providing them with tailored messages that communicate shared experiences or common goals to better resonate with them.

Similarly, Riecker expresses how cooperation stems from finding commonalities with not just your neighbours but with all levels of government, partners, and agencies. He maintains that collective interests can mitigate hazards.

Additionally, Crawford advises taking initiative with your communications as early as possible. “Say what you mean, articulate to residents what you have, and what you’ll do for them,” he explains.

“We had a wildfire west of Stoney Nakoda, and our Facebook exploded with questions. There was no threat to us, so we addressed what we knew and got the word out. One thing to take from that is to be more proactive, so people don’t get worried.”

5. Don’t bury information, make it clear and accessible

Part of building public confidence is having the information to show for it. According to Letander, the more accessible you make information, the easier it is for people to consume it, which can reduce confusion and scrutiny.

Additionally, Morgan reinforces this notion of clear messaging with the reminder that the rules of communication change for people under stressful circumstances. “That’s why we need to simplify our messages to the most basic, memorable points,” he says.

Moreover, attention spans wane after only a few seconds. According to Riecker, people will quickly glaze over information before moving on to something else that’s more interesting or relevant to them.

One of the biggest mistakes, in his opinion, is developing communications that are too long and detailed. Instead, he recommends adding links to additional sources and drilling down your message to the top three things people want to know about the hazard.

“We are making community emergency guides, little books that people can flip through with steps, emergency phone numbers, and emergency kits,” adds Crawford, who advocates for clear and concise communications.

He admits that the Stoney Nakoda region has fewer resources than a big city like Calgary, so it’s vital to leverage timely communications to stay on top of emergencies and the public’s awareness of community plans, shelters, and evacuation locations.

How technology changes the way we communicate to the public

“Having cellphone access during times of distress helps save lives,” exclaims Letander.

The rate at which the world is adopting technology into everyday life signals a dramatic change in lifestyle behaviour and disruptions across all industries of work.

Digital transformation has reimagined the way people connect, educate, and consume products, information, and experiences.

And emergency management is no exception.

Increased speed and access

News travels fast, and people won’t want it unless it comes directly to them. EMs rely on the speed and access of technology to broadcast urgent messages and reach a wide selection of public.

Among sending quick, transparent, and personalized messages, government agencies are expected to make the first move every time.

“Emergency alerts are designed to be timely, which meets people’s expectations of being communicated to,” says Perron Goodyear, Director of Disaster and Emergency Services at The Salvation Army.

“Today, information needs to be instant and relevant, and it has to be told to people, rather than them seeking it out on their own,” he says.

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Likewise, Scott Davis, the Director and Vice President of Readiness and Response at Community Disaster Response Ontario reaffirms the benefits of using a mass notification system.

“Simplicity is the biggest advantage,” he says. “Getting messages out quickly and simplifying administration actions like pre-populating a script and having the ability to cut and paste particulars is extremely helpful.”

Additionally, Crawford maintains that there is no excuse for people not to be in the loop today with available technologies such as emergency alert networks and apps. One of the tech elements that excites him most is evacuation software that has the ability to track team members locations and for check-ins.

Precise locations

Knowing exactly where to go can help reduce the length of time to respond to an incident. According to Letander, GPS coordinates especially come in handy during times of distress with First Nations communities, which, as he reminds us, do not commonly place house numbers outside their properties.

He reinforces how challenging this can be for first responders and how they may depend on technology to map out clear directions or get the best possible description of the area made over the phone to find and assist the affected individuals.

Connectivity

“In times of disaster and emergency, everyone needs everything,” says Pascal Rodier, a Senior Emergency Management, Response and Continuity Leader.

Fortunately, technology can help EMs expedite and streamline logistics and public communications to address resource gaps. Rodier asserts that technology makes it easier to access critical information, such as municipality updates and real-time facts. This way, the public can stay informed even when they’re not directly impacted by the event, which can help reduce panic within a community.

The catch: all in moderation and good judgement

While technology can be beneficial for communicating with the public, Riecker warns not to rely exclusively on digital channels such as social media because you can risk alienating a sizeable proportion of your population who doesn’t utilize these tools.

“As a sender, you can’t control the receiver, but you can control your messaging,” he adds.

“Lots of entities make the mistake of only having a social media presence, but we still need to look at traditional media outlets to get the word out. Call your local radio station for a three-minute segment to talk about seasonal information tips, write articles, op-eds, or town newsletters to make people better aware of what they should be doing and what exactly an emergency management office does and the role we play.”

Recognize differences, celebrate collaboration

To gain the public’s confidence and cooperation, industry leaders advise keeping a pulse on community members through communication that’s clear, specific, and accessible to all.

Because perceptions vary widely, people respond to alerts and warnings differently depending on the source’s credibility, how the message is delivered, the information itself, and any additional details that help colour the context.

In recognizing different communication styles, audiences, and emergency contexts, the EM sector and the public can facilitate more efficient response efforts when it counts most.

SPECIAL THANKS TO OUR INDUSTRY EXPERTS FEATURED IN THIS ARTICLE

Ben Morgan, Principal & Managing Director, Centre for Crisis and Risk Communications  

Ken Letander, Policy, Branding, and Public Engagement Advisor, Emergency Management Coordinator  

Sarah Cowan, Emergency Preparedness Intern, Masters Student of Disaster and Emergency Management at York University

Pascal Rodier, Senior Emergency Management, Response and Continuity Leader, Mentor, Educator, and Consultant.

Perron Goodyear, Director, Emergency Disaster Services, The Salvation Army  

Darby Allen, Retired Fire Chief & Public Speaker

Tim Riecker, Partner, Emergency Preparedness Solutions

Mike Crawford, Director of Emergency Management, Stoney Nakoda First Nations

Scott Davis, Director and Vice President, Readiness and Response at Community Disaster Response Ontario

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