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4.4: Risk Communication During the Continuing Hazard Phase

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    3936
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    As noted at the beginning of this chapter, there are theoretical and practical reasons for distinguishing between risk communication activities undertaken during the continuing hazard phase (which are directed toward long-term hazard adjustment) and those taken during an escalating crisis or emergency response (which are directed toward disaster response to avoid personal exposure or minimize personal consequences). The continuing hazard phase involves a stable probability (usually low) that a catastrophic incident will threaten public safety, property, and the environment. This phase is characterized principally by hazard mitigation and emergency preparedness activities, although preparedness for disaster recovery also should be undertaken at this time (Schwab, et al., 1997; Wu & Lindell, 2004).

    There are five basic functions that should be addressed in the continuing hazard phase. Table 4-2 identifies these as strategic analysis, operational analysis, resource mobilization, program development, and program implementation. These five functions and the tasks associated with them are listed in the table as if they form a simple linear sequence but, in fact, some tasks will be performed concurrently. In addition, the process will frequently be iterative. For example, some resource mobilization tasks might take place concurrently with the operational analysis, or tasks conducted during the operational analysis phase might be suspended temporarily in order to return to the strategic analysis and refine it.

    Strategic Analysis

    Task 1: Conduct a community hazard/vulnerability analysis.

    As will be discussed in Chapter 6, emergency managers need to understand the hazards to which their communities are exposed and the geographic areas at risk. Knowing the characteristics of the most significant hazards makes it possible to identify the most appropriate hazard adjustments. Identifying the geographic areas at greatest risk makes it possible to identify the most vulnerable population segments and types of businesses. In turn, this knowledge about vulnerable population segments and types of businesses provides information about how to target the risk communication program and also suggests which incentives and sanctions might be best suited to increasing hazard adjustment adoption (see Lindell & Perry, 2004, for a further discussion of the roles of risk communication, incentives, and sanctions).

    Table 4-2. Tasks for the Continuing Hazard Phase.

    Strategic analysis
    Conduct a community hazard/vulnerability analysis
    Analyze the community context
    Identify the community’s prevailing perceptions of the hazards and hazard adjustments
    Set appropriate goals for the risk communication program

    Operational analysis
    Identify and assess feasible hazard adjustments for the community and its households/businesses
    Identify ways to provide incentives, sanctions, and technological innovations
    Identify the available risk communication sources in the community
    Identify the available risk communication channels in the community
    Identify specific audience segments

    Resource mobilization
    Obtain the support of senior appointed and elected officials
    Enlist the participation of other government agencies
    Enlist the participation of nongovernmental (nonprofit) and private sector organizations
    Work with the mass media
    Work with neighborhood associations and service organizations

    Program development for all phases
    Staff, train, and exercise a crisis communications team
    Establish procedures for maintaining an effective communication flow in an escalating crisis and in emergency response
    Develop a comprehensive risk communication program
    Plan to make use of informal communication networks
    Establish procedures for obtaining feedback from the news media and the public

    Program implementation for the continuing hazard phase
    Build source credibility by increasing perceptions of expertise and trustworthiness
    Use a variety of channels to disseminate hazard information
    Describe community or facility hazard adjustments being planned or implemented
    Describe feasible household hazard adjustments
    Evaluate program effectiveness

    Source: Lindell & Perry (2004).

    Task 2: Analyze the community context.

    As noted in Chapter 3, the most comprehensive research on the practice of local environmental hazard management is that undertaken by Drabek (1987, 1990), whose careful analysis of the problem has identified many effective managerial strategies. In particular, he has emphasized the need for emergency managers to continually study their communities’ ethnic composition, communication channels, perceptions of authorities, levels of education, and income distribution.

    If environmental hazards are not high on the community’s priorities, as usually is the case (Rossi, Wright, Webber-Burdin, Peitras & Diggins, 1982), emergency managers need to begin with small programs, demonstrate their effectiveness, and build constituencies for environmental hazard management (Lindell, 1994b). In developing a risk communication program, emergency managers need to realistically assess the resources the community can afford to allocate to this activity, but should not limit their assessment to the resources of a single agency. Instead, they should explore the ways in which a variety of different organizations (e.g., LEMA, police department, fire department, watershed management authority, and public health department) might collaborate in developing a comprehensive program. As noted in Chapter 3, the LEMC provides an excellent framework within which to achieve this collaboration.

    Task 3: Identify the community’s prevailing perceptions of hazards and hazard adjustments.

    Of the many hazards that are prevalent in modern society, the ones that seem to produce the greatest conflict are those having a potential for inflicting significant harm on bystanders such as the residents of areas near technological facilities. The general public perceives the risks of nuclear power plants and chemical facilities as being greater than those of other technologies and natural hazards (Lindell & Earle, 1983; Slovic, 1987). In addition, they differ from technologists by considering what Hance, Chess, and Sandman (1988) call “outrage” dimensions, including a risk’s (un)naturalness, (un)familiarity, (lack of) understanding by science, (lack of) detectability, (un)trustworthiness of information sources, (lack of) controllability by those exposed, (lack of) voluntariness in exposure, (un)fairness in the distribution of risks and benefits, and dread. Thus, this line of research suggests residents of most communities are likely to consider the risks of technological facilities to be greater than those of natural hazards, even if the annual fatality rate is the same for the two types of hazards (Slovic, 1987).

    As noted earlier, technological hazards generate a level of risk perception exceeding what experts consider to be warranted, whereas natural hazards seem to elicit the opposite pattern. Emergency managers can begin to address this problem by explaining the community hazard/vulnerability analysis and their resulting assessments of risk area residents’ personal likelihood and consequences of disaster impact. A major impediment to effective risk communication is the difficulty in explaining small probabilities of occurrence and small numbers of expected casualties per year. This has led some experts to propose risk comparisons that list the annual death rate (Morrall, 1986), loss of life expectancy (Cohen & Lee, 1979), and the time to increase risk by one chance in a million (Crouch & Wilson, 1982). Unfortunately, these solutions seem to produce more problems than they solve (Covello, 1991). Specifically, such risk comparisons typically ignore the uncertainties in the estimates (which could differ significantly from one hazard to another). Moreover, by comparing hazards only in terms of casualties, these risk comparisons equate hazards having what many people consider to be very different types of consequences. The problem is compounded when the experts presume that if people “have voluntarily accepted” risks having higher fatality rates (often these are a lifestyle risks such as automobile driving), they also “should accept” another risk having a lower fatality rate (often this is the risk of a technological facility that someone is proposing to build and operate). Of course, this argument ignores the fact that the facility risk will be added to the lifestyle risk, not substituted for it, and that the facility risk often is estimated from analytical models whereas the lifestyle risk is computed actuarially from a very large database. Even local residents who cannot articulate these distinctions explicitly often seem to be aware of them implicitly and, thus, reject these arguments.

    Task 4: Set appropriate goals for the risk communication program.

    As indicated earlier, hazard awareness is an important first step in the process of hazard adjustment, so people need to be informed about the hazards to which their community is exposed. This could include information about physical science, engineering, public health, social science, and planning perspectives on environmental hazards. In addition, people need to be informed about the likelihood that events of different magnitudes will occur at their locations. In the case of hurricanes, emergency managers should ensure residents of coastal communities understand the basic atmospheric processes that cause hurricanes, the long-term probabilities of their community being struck by hurricanes in Saffir-Simpson Categories 1-5 over the next ten years, and the different types of threats caused by hurricanes (wind, tornadoes, storm surge, and inland flooding). However, it also is necessary to ensure local residents personalize the risk of casualties to themselves and their families, damage to their property, and disruption to daily activities such as work, school, and shopping. To help people personalize the risk, local emergency managers should provide detailed maps showing areas at risk from wind, storm surge, and inland flooding, as well as the vulnerability of different types of structures in the community to these threats. For example, hurricane vulnerability can be assessed by defining the areas that would be affected by hurricanes in Saffir-Simpson Categories 1-5 and displaying these risk areas on large-scale maps. Such maps should indicate streets, rivers, political boundaries, and other local landmarks that will help people to identify the risk areas in which their homes and workplaces are located. These maps could be supplemented by drawings of different types of structures (e.g., mobile homes, typical single family residences, and typical multifamily structures) showing the level of damage expected for each hurricane category. Such information needs to be developed and pretested thoroughly because recent studies have shown only one- to two-thirds of coastal residents can accurately identify their hurricane risk areas, even when shown a risk area map (Arlikatti, et al., in press; Zhang, Prater & Lindell, 2004).

    In addition, emergency managers must foster people’s sense of personal responsibility for self-protection to achieve high levels of household hazard adjustment adoption. Thus, it is important to remind local residents of the limits to what local government and industry can do in mitigating environmental hazards. Moreover, as the PADM indicates, risk communication programs should ensure people are aware of the available hazard adjustments and have accurate beliefs about the efficacy and resource requirements of these hazard adjustments. Indeed, there is theoretical and empirical support for the proposition that the probability of hazard adjustment adoption is higher if messages address attitudes toward the hazard adjustments themselves as well as addressing the hazard (Lindell & Whitney, 2000). That is, emergency managers should provide information about the personal consequences of hazard impact to arouse protection motivation but also identify feasible protective actions, describe the effectiveness of those actions, and help people to meet the resource requirements needed for implementation.

    Finally, the risk communication program should be structured as a progressive, long-term process but emergency managers should recognize that even the most scientifically sound and effectively implemented risk communication programs will not produce very high levels of household adoptions of hazard adjustments. A long-term perspective will not demonstrate immediate results, but it can put environmental hazards on the political agenda, which can reinforce the results achieved at the household level (Birkland, 1997; Prater & Lindell, 2000).

    Operational Analysis

    Task 1: Identify and assess feasible hazard adjustments for the community and its households/businesses.

    The purpose of this task is to address the problem that many people who know about their exposure to environmental hazards often don’t know what to do to reduce their vulnerability (Lindell & Perry, 2000). To identify feasible hazard adjustments, local emergency managers could access resources such as the American Red Cross web site at www.redcross.org/services/disaster/beprepared, where they can find information about recommended household adjustments for a wide range of hazards. These can be evaluated in terms of resource requirements such as financial cost, time and effort, knowledge and skill, tools and equipment, and required cooperation with others.

    Task 2: Identify ways to provide incentives, sanctions, and technological innovations.

    Some hazard adjustments require a significant amount of household resources for implementation, so the level of adoption could be increased by supplementing risk communication with sanctions, incentives, or technological innovations. As noted in Chapter 1, sanctions are appealing because they avoid the obvious costs associated with incentives and have been shown to be effective in situations such as the use of seat belts in automobiles (Escobedo, Chorba & Remmington, 1992). However, sanctions are less useful than they might seem because they require constant monitoring for enforcement, even in the workplace (Lindell, 1994a). By contrast, the financial cost of a hazard adjustment can be reduced by providing incentives such as grants, loans at subsidized interest rates, or tax credits. An alternative incentive is for emergency managers to reduce resource requirements such as knowledge and skill by providing specific plans or checklists for hazard adjustment implementation. For example, providing plans for homeowners to bolt their houses to their foundations makes this hazard adjustment feasible for do-it-yourselfers with only a modest level of construction experience, but adding a community tool bank also makes this hazard adjustment feasible for those who lack the tools and equipment that are needed.

    Task 3: Identify the available risk communication sources in the community.

    As noted earlier, sources can be categorized as authorities (local, state, and federal government agencies, facility operators, and scientists), news media, (especially newspapers, television, and radio) and peers (friends, relatives, neighbors, and coworkers). These sources are judged in terms of their credibility, which primarily comprises perceived expertise and trustworthiness, but these credibility perceptions are likely to vary depending upon whether a source is speaking about hazards or hazard adjustments. Within the latter category, sources are likely to be differentiated with respect to their credibility regarding disaster responses and long-term hazard adjustments and, within each of these categories, with respect to hazard adjustment efficacy and hazard adjustment resource requirements (Lindell, 1994c).

    The best risk information sources will be credible because of their expertise regarding multiple hazards and their trustworthiness to multiple community groups. Previous hazard research has documented that official sources are generally the most credible, and message recipients infer credibility from the source's credentials (e.g., job title and educational degrees), acceptance by other sources of known credibility, or previous history of job performance (Perry & Lindell, 1990b). Lindell and Perry (1992) found the degree of expertise attributed to different sources varies from one hazard to another and there is evidence that perceptions of source characteristics vary by gender, ethnicity, and other demographic characteristics (Nigg, 1982; Perry, 1987; Perry & Nelson, 1991).

    Source credibility has special implications among ethnic minorities, but most research on ethnicity has focused on Mexican Americans, African Americans, and Whites. The results of these studies indicate authorities (particularly firefighters and police) tend to be regarded as credible by the majority of all three ethnic groups, except under special circumstances (Lindell & Perry, 1992). African Americans and Whites tended to be more skeptical of the mass media than Mexican Americans. In general, Mexican Americans are more likely than African Americans or Whites to consider peers (friends, relatives, neighbors, or coworkers) to be the most credible sources. There is evidence, however, that the results vary by community, which appears to reflect historical differences in relationships between ethnic groups and authorities in these specific communities.

    The practical implication of these differences in source credibility is that each emergency manager must identify the patterns of credibility attribution in his or her own community. There is no substitute for knowing which minority groups live and work in the community, if they are geographically concentrated (and where), and how they view alternative sources of information about environmental hazards and hazard adjustments. Such information can be gained from census data, informants, and personal observation. Census data can be used to identify those census tracts having a greater than average percentage of ethnic minorities. These data can be supplemented by informants, who can describe the nature of credibility attributions among the ethnic groups located in those areas. It is particularly important to identify opinion leaders, who are individuals that are recognized as especially credible by particular ethnic groups, that might be recruited to participate as additional sources of risk information. In this regard, they play the role of social influentials, as was discussed in Chapter 2, and intermediate information sources, as represented in Figure 4-2. Finally, the best information comes from emergency managers’ active outreach programs employed over a long period of time—for example, speaking at meetings of neighborhood associations and civic organizations, and involving a diverse group of citizens in advisory committees. Not only does such community involvement provide emergency managers with information about citizens’ credibility attributions, but it also enhances authorities’ visibility, fosters dialogue, and facilitates citizens’ access to accurate risk information.

    Task 4: Identify the available risk communication channels in the community.

    The primary risk communication channels available in most communities are electronic media such as radio and television (and, increasingly, Web sites) and print media such as local newspapers and magazines. Other print media that have been used in hazard awareness programs include brochures, posters, newsletters, telephone book inserts, comic/coloring books, reports and scientific journal articles. Additional communication channels include informal face-to-face conversations (drop-in hours at local libraries and information booths at local events and shopping malls) and formal meetings with or without audiovisual presentations such as computer simulations, slide shows and films (Hance, et al., 1988; Mileti, Fitzpatrick & Farhar, 1990). Even though emergency managers have access to all of these channels in principle, access to some of them is limited in practice because their costs exceed agency budgets. To gain access to low-cost opportunities for publicity, emergency managers must establish contacts with local media personnel. In addition, collaboration with private sector organizations can sometimes yield financial contributions that can be used to pay for low cost items such as brochures and posters.

    Task 5: Identify specific audience segments.

    Emergency managers face a significant dilemma when designing their hazard awareness programs. On the one hand, most risk communication programs have assumed a very homogeneous “public” and have done little to tailor information materials to different groups. One obvious reason for this strategy is that it is easier and cheaper to provide a generic program; another reason is that existing research can barely provide a basis for what to say to the “typical” person, let alone guidance on how to tailor messages to specific demographic groups. On the other hand, individuals with different demographic characteristics are likely to have different interests and concerns, distinct motives for undertaking hazard adjustments, and varying media preferences, so different approaches must be used.

    A variety of sources have emphasized the importance of tailoring information to the characteristics of each audience segment (Expert Review Committee, 1987; Hance, et al., 1988; Nelson & Perry, 1991; Olson, Lagono & Scott, 1990). Accordingly, the design of these audience segmentation strategies should be based upon local assessments of receiver characteristics, which we have defined broadly in terms of geographic (e.g., recency and frequency of hazard experience, and proximity to the impact area) and demographic (e.g., age, sex, education, income, and ethnicity) attributes. Emergency managers should assess each audience segment’s channel access and channel preference to identify the types of media (e.g., radio) and, more specifically, the channels used (e.g., specific radio stations). Next, emergency managers need to ensure recipients heed and comprehend the messages, which can be facilitated by determining each population segment’s and business sector’s perceptions of different information sources to assess their credibility.

    Message comprehension can be improved if emergency managers determine whether there are any audience segments for whom there are language barriers. These are less likely to arise among more acculturated ethnic groups (except perhaps among Native Americans) or among ethnic groups whose socioeconomic status is similar to that of the majority population. However, language tends to be a very important issue for recent immigrants and for minority groups who either have resisted acculturation (which is most likely when there is a high level of ethnic identity) or who have experienced sufficient prejudice and discrimination to preclude acculturation. Thus, information about environmental hazards and hazard adjustments often needs to be presented in multilingual format, preferably across multiple channels. In jurisdictions with small minority populations, the number of channels will be quite limited—perhaps not including mass media at all—but the emergency managers who know their communities should be able to identify some (even informal) mechanisms of native language communication.

    Moreover, emergency managers should assess the information needs of each population segment to determine what message content should be transmitted to them. Specific questions include whether local residents have adequate information about the hazards to which they are vulnerable, appropriate hazard adjustments, and the efficacy and resource requirements of those hazard adjustments. Finally, emergency managers need to identify any audience segments that lack a sense of personal responsibility or self-efficacy for adopting hazard adjustments. Any groups that are low on these characteristics should be targeted for special attention during the implementation of the risk communication program.

    Resource Mobilization

    Task 1: Obtain the support of senior appointed and elected officials.

    The research literature from a wide range of settings indicates successful implementation of a new program in any type of organization needs the support of higher level management (Lindell, 1994b). In the public sector, obtaining the support of senior appointed and elected officials is an important step toward obtaining the participation of other government agencies, as well. Organizational support can be increased when middle managers recognize they must effectively “sell” the issues that they believe should have a high priority. This means emergency managers must successfully identify community hazard vulnerability as an important issue and propose hazard mitigation, emergency preparedness, and recovery preparedness as effective solutions.

    Task 2: Enlist the participation of other government agencies.

    No matter how supportive senior appointed and elected officials would like to be, they are almost certain to have few additional resources to allocate to environmental hazard management, let alone to environmental risk communication. Consequently, emergency managers should adopt an interorganizational approach, the first stage of which is to be certain each agency is aware of the risk communication programs being planned and implemented by other governmental (city, county, state and federal) agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and hazardous technological facilities. The second stage of this interorganizational approach is to develop a coalition that pools the resources of multiple agencies within local government (Drabek, 1990; Gillespie, et al., 1993; Lindell, et al., 1996a). To elicit the active support of other government agencies, emergency managers should identify ways in which collaboration can achieve the goals of both organizations. For example, emergency managers could work with the police to ensure that Block Watch (also known as Neighborhood Watch) groups are provided with information about environmental hazards.

    Task 3: Enlist the participation of nongovernmental and private sector organizations.

    Nongovernmental organizations such as the American Red Cross and religious organizations such as the Salvation Army are active in household emergency preparedness and, especially, disaster recovery. Some of these organizations routinely work with needy families and can identify the geographic areas in which there is a high concentration of population segments that are most likely to be vulnerable to disaster impact. These organizations can also help to identify methods of assisting households to prepare for emergencies, reduce the vulnerability of the structures in which they live, or to find safer places to which they can move.

    In addition, there are many disaster-relevant infrastructure organizations such as water, wastewater, fuel, and electric power utilities that can play a significant role in promoting the adoption of hazard adjustments. Most of these respond to more routine emergencies such as severe thunderstorms and winter storms, so they are aware of the demands that disasters can place on a community. In addition, these organizations routinely send bills to all of the residents of their service areas, a situation which provides emergency managers with an opportunity to disseminate notices about sources and channels for obtaining further information about hazards and hazard adjustments.

    Task 4. Work with the mass media.

    Collectively, the mass media comprise a variety of channels that routinely reach a large number of community residents. Consequently, a knowledge of media goals and operations, as well as familiarity with specific news media personnel, can set the stage for relationships in which information about environmental hazards adjustment can be disseminated. At the same time, the visibility and credibility of local environmental hazard management agencies can be enhanced. In particular, contact with reporters and editors can allow emergency managers access to channels with which citizens are familiar and routinely use for information. Cultivation of a cooperative relationship with the mass media through these mechanisms serves to diversify channels for the dissemination of risk information, as well as to increase the visibility of the environmental hazard management function in the community. Finally, reporters are often aware of their specialized audiences and tend to target them directly. This aspect of media coverage creates opportunities for emergency managers to target messages to specific audience segments defined by gender, age, ethnicity (and language groups), and socioeconomic status.

    It is important for emergency managers to recognize that, even though they consider environmental hazards to be a topic of vital concern for the community, reporters and editors will not automatically consider this information to be “newsworthy” during the continuing hazard phase. In order to increase the priority of this topic for the news media, many federal agencies such as the National Weather Service urge government officials to “declare” weeks for hazards such as tornadoes and hurricanes. Local emergency managers can take advantage of the publicity generated by these agencies to contact their local media. In addition, emergency managers can collaborate with the news media by working with them to develop the background materials reporters will need in an escalating crisis, emergency response, or disaster recovery. Thus, emergency managers need to anticipate what types of information reporters are likely to seek during these events and to prepare fact sheets and other “boilerplate” that can be used no matter what specific conditions occur during an emergency.

    Task 5: Work with neighborhood associations and civic organizations.

    Most communities have many neighborhood associations and civic organizations whose members participate when they perceive social and environmental problems in their community that they expect the organization to be successful in mitigating (Chavis & Wandersman, 1990; Florin & Wandersman, 1984). Such studies have found group members’ sense of individual and collective self-efficacy is enhanced when these organizations are empowered by successfully influencing actions taken by the community (Prestby, et al., 1990). As noted in Chapter 3, emergency managers can help the leaders of these groups to increase members’ organizational commitment by increasing leader initiating structure (explaining what tasks to perform and how to perform them), leader consideration (recognizing the needs and limitations of each person), and perceived reward opportunities, and by reducing role conflict (differing expectations regarding members’ duties). In addition, emergency managers can work with these organizations by providing them with opportunities to learn about environmental hazards and feasible adjustments to those hazards. Time is frequently available for this purpose during organizational meetings because most of these organizations meet regularly, but are not always able to fill their meeting agendas.

    Program Development

    Task 1. Staff and train a crisis communication team.

    One important principle of risk communication is to establish a crisis communication team as part of a broader emergency preparedness program (Churchill, 1997; Fink, 1986). The crisis communication team forms a critical link between technical experts and the population at risk, so it must be able to communicate effectively with both groups. In addition, the crisis communication team should be represented by a spokesperson who is technically competent to explain the situation clearly. As noted earlier, spokespersons will be perceived as credible if they have relevant credentials (e.g., job title and educational degrees), are accepted by other sources of known credibility, or have a demonstrated history of job performance that has enhanced their credibility (Lindell & Perry, 1992; Perry & Lindell, 1990). It also will be helpful if they receive training from public relations experts (Hance, et al., 1988).

    As is the case with any other emergency response organization, the crisis communication team should have written operating procedures to guide its activation and initial contacts with the news media. The crisis communication team’s procedures should include documentation of all emergency response related activities, especially an event log recording the information that was available and the criteria that were used to guide critical decisions such as those involving protective actions for the public. The crisis communication team should also prepare to monitor information being disseminated by the news media and should designate a rumor control center that will be staffed by operators who are frequently updated on the status of the incident and the response to it.

    The crisis communication team should recognize that reporters are taught to describe events in terms of stories that are framed by five questions—who, what, when, where, and why (Churchill, 1997). Specifically, they will want to know what happened and what were the specific causes of the event. Other questions include who was (or will be) affected—including casualties, property damage, and economic disruption—and what authorities have done (and will do) to respond to the situation. It frequently is difficult to answer one or more of these questions because information is lacking. In such cases, it is important for the spokesperson to avoid speculation (and especially premature blame), but rather to admit he or she does not know the answer and will find out as soon as possible. This should not be interpreted as a license to plead ignorance even when you are reasonably confident about your assessment of the situation. It is important to strike a balance between avoiding speculation and withholding information.

    When providing information to the news media, it is important to remember few reporters have scientific backgrounds, so technical details might not only be unnecessary but potentially confusing and thus counterproductive. To distinguish material that is informative from that which is useless or confusing requires advance preparation—especially advance contact with local reporters. This will not solve all problems; major crises such as the 911 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina draw reporters from around the country and even around the world. Reporters from national or international newspapers and television networks will not cover stories in exactly the same way as local reporters, but most of the important information needs will be common to all categories of reporters.

    Despite their limited knowledge about scientific and technological processes, reporters should be treated with respect because they have a difficult job to do. Specifically, they must translate complex scientific concepts in terms that can be understood by any reasonably intelligent and literate citizen. Thus, emergency managers who prepare briefing materials that facilitate this process will have a far better chance of getting their message to the public than those who continue to speak in technical jargon (McCallum & Anderson, 1991). Just as officials should translate warnings from English to minority languages in order to ensure the warning messages are transmitted correctly, agency officials also should translate their assessment of a situation from technical jargon to ordinary English to ensure this message is also transmitted correctly. It is important to provide reporters with the best available information when they face a deadline, even if that information is less reliable or current than one might prefer.

    Finally, the crisis communication plan and procedures should be evaluated using drills that test the crisis communication team alone and also by means of full scale exercises that test the integration of the crisis communication function into the overall emergency response organization. Each drill or exercise should be followed by a critique that evaluates the adequacy of the crisis communication plan and procedures, as well as the staffing, training, and materials used.

    Task 2: Establish procedures for maintaining an effective communication flow during an escalating crisis or emergency response.

    All organizations participating in the risk communication program should establish procedures for coordinating the information they disseminate during crises and emergencies. It is especially important to routinize the flow of information among these organizations to ensure each organization receives all the information it needs as promptly as possible. The types of information needed in an escalating crisis will depend upon the circumstances, but recommendations regarding the content of incident notifications can be found in guidance for chemical (National Response Team, 1987) and nuclear (US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 1980) facilities, and are summarized in Table 4-3. It is advisable that this table be adopted as a template because it is based upon long experience with escalating crises and disaster responses. It is essential that facility operators and local emergency managers discuss their information capabilities and needs and agree in advance what information will be exchanged when the need arises.

    Task 3: Develop a comprehensive risk communication program.

    As noted earlier, McGuire’s (1985) system for analyzing message content can be defined in terms of the amount of material, speed of presentation, number of arguments, repetition, style, clarity, ordering, forcefulness, and extremity of the position advocated. Some of these characteristics can be measured objectively; for example, the amount of material can be measured in terms of the number of words, the speed of presentation can be measured in words per minute, and the number of arguments can be counted. Other characteristics are more ambiguous—repetition can be measured either in terms of the number of verbatim duplications of the message or the number of times an idea or argument is presented. Finally, characteristics such as the clarity and extremity of the arguments must be measured subjectively. As one might expect, there often are significant individual differences in receivers’ perceptions of the subjective message characteristics as well as in their reactions to all of these message characteristics.

    Table 4-3. Essential incident data.

    Date and time of report
    Name, affiliation, and telephone number of information source
    Location, type and current status of the incident

    • Derailment, containment failure, fire, explosion, liquid spill, gaseous release
    • Hazardous material name, physical properties (gas, liquid, solid), environmental cues (sights, sounds, smells), and potential health effects
    • Hazardous material release duration and quantity released
    • Casualties and damage already incurred

    Incident prognosis

    • Potential for fire or explosion at site
    • Potential for fire or explosion affecting residential, commercial, or industrial areas
    • Hazardous material quantity available for release and expected release duration
    • Locations and populations requiring protective action
    • Types of protective actions recommended: evacuation, sheltering in-place, expedient respiratory protection, interdiction of food/water

    Weather conditions (current and forecast wind speed and direction)
    Chronology of important events in the development of the incident
    Current status of response

    • Facility/shipper/carrier actions: assessment, preventive, corrective, population protective actions
    • Local/state/federal agency actions: assessment, preventive, corrective, population protective actions

    Source: Lindell & Perry (2004).

    At a somewhat broader level, Mileti and his colleagues (Mileti, et al., 1992; Mileti & Peek, 2000; Mileti & Sorensen, 1987) have defined warning message content in terms of information about the information source, the nature of the hazard, the impact location and time, guidance about recommended protective action, and frequency of repetition. Messages can be further characterized in terms of stylistic characteristics, which include message specificity (the level of information detail), consistency (compatibility of information within and between messages), and certainty (the stated or implied probability of an event’s occurrence, as well as sources’ apparent confidence in what they are saying). The stylistic characteristics also include clarity (simplicity of the words used in the message), accuracy (the degree to which a source’s statements are proven to be correct over time), sufficiency (adequacy of the amount of information provided—neither too much nor too little), and channel (electronic, print, face-to-face).

    In evaluating the suitability of message content, the primary concern is that it should take into account the protective action decision process that determines the adoption of household hazard adjustments. Although adjustment adoption intentions and actual adoption depend upon many additional variables, the four key message content factors are personal risk, personal responsibility for action (when this is necessary during the continuing hazard phase), guidance for protective action (including information about an action’s efficacy and resource requirements), and sources of further information. These factors should become important themes during risk communication and should be addressed in designing messages that are most likely to have an impact.

    There are several implications of the PADM for the construction of risk communication messages. First, information about hazards and hazard adjustments should be presented in a form that attracts attention and is easily understood and retained but, even then, it will require periodic repetition over time.

    Second, risk communication programs should address risk perception but should not over-emphasize it. Risk perception should be addressed because probabilities are difficult for most people to understand. In particular, the statement that “there is a 1% probability of a damaging earthquake within the next year” might have little impact on people’s behavior, but cumulating probabilities over time by making the mathematically equivalent statement that there is a 20% chance of an earthquake in the next twenty years does seem to make more of a difference in risk perception (Kunreuther, 2001). However, even communication programs that succeed in increasing the accuracy of people’s risk perceptions are of no consequence if risk area residents fail to act on these risk perceptions by adopting effective hazard adjustments. In the case of warnings, it is especially important to describe what the risk is, where it is going to happen, when it is going to happen, and what the effects will be (Mileti, 1993). Beyond this, however, detailed explanations of risk assessment processes and hazard agent dynamics might be unnecessary or even counterproductive if such information displaces a discussion of the other three issues—personal responsibility for action, guidance for protective action (including information about a hazard adjustment’s efficacy and resource requirements), and sources of further information (Mileti, 1993).

    Explicitly addressing personal responsibility for action is important because research suggests repeated officials statements regarding the need for households struck by earthquakes to be self sufficient for 72 hours have increased citizens’ sense of personal responsibility for self protection (Lindell & Perry, 2004). Thus, a frank acknowledgement of the limits to governmental assistance might be useful in other contexts as well. Moreover, self sufficiency is likely to increase when emergency managers describe the ways in which households can protect themselves, together with specific descriptions of the resource requirements to implement these hazard adjustments. In addition, emergency managers should work with NGOs in their communities to ensure households with low incomes and other disadvantages are able, as well as willing, to take personal responsibility for self protection.

    As noted earlier in this chapter, guidance for protective action during an emergency response often requires nothing more than stating what is the recommended protective action and when to implement it (e.g., evacuate now). In other cases, such as the continuing hazard phase, guidance would include information about a hazard adjustment’s efficacy and resource requirements (e.g., bolting water heaters to the foundation).

    Finally, sources for further information should be addressed because message recipients vary in so many ways that they might need individualized information. This might include information about their personal risk (for those who are on the edge of the risk area), alternative protective actions (e.g., sheltering in-place rather than evacuation for those whose health status is too fragile to be moved safely), or sources of assistance (e.g., for those who have no personal vehicle and have not been able to leave with friends, relatives, neighbors, or coworkers).

    In addressing the four critical risk communication issues, emergency managers should pay attention to message style factors such as achieving clarity by choosing simple, nontechnical language. The essential information is simple and can be communicated quickly by the broadcast media or in a small space by the print media. For additional detail or elaboration, people can be referred to another specific channel or source. Messages should be short enough to avoid losing receivers’ attention because of seemingly irrelevant details that induce boredom. Conversely, long messages presenting many details have the potential for overloading receivers with so much information they are unable to determine what is centrally important and what is peripheral. That is, the provision of too much information is probably as dysfunctional as the provision of insufficient information. Nonetheless, emergency managers should recognize what is “too long” will vary from one community to another and even from one situation to another. In regard to the latter, people’s attention spans for emergency management information will be relatively short during the continuing hazard phase, but can be expected to increase significantly during an emerging crisis or emergency response. In the latter case, lengthy messages should be repeated frequently to ensure that people can obtain the information they need if they fail to attend to it or comprehend it the first time they receive it.

    In all multiethnic communities, the production of brochures or other official written information should be multilingual. It is important to note, as Lindell and Perry (1992) indicate, that translations should be professionally executed to avoid complications arising from dialect variations within the same language group. Furthermore, when providing hazard information to non-English outlets, it is appropriate to provide it in both English and the target language to minimize information distortion that might be introduced if employees of a radio or television station, newspaper, or magazine provide a “freelance” translation of the English version.

    Task 4: Plan to make effective use of informal communication networks.

    It is important for emergency managers to recognize peer communication takes place during all phases—the continuing hazard phase, the escalating crisis phase, and the emergency response phase. They should plan to use these informal networks to increase the level of hazard adjustment adoption in their communities and to alert peers to dangerous situations. However, even the best intended friends, relatives, neighbors and coworkers might misunderstand a message in the first place or inadvertently distort it through selective recall. One strategy for reducing distortion is to disseminate information through a range of official sources and channels, creating what Mileti (1993, p. 148) calls a “supplemental barrage of information”. The idea is to provide many opportunities for citizens to hear official messages via several channels in the expectation that people will retain the common elements of these messages.

    Task 5: Establish procedures for obtaining feedback from the news media and the public.

    As Figure 4-1 indicates, feedback is a critical part of any communication process because it provides receivers with an opportunity to confirm they have comprehended the message, to reconcile inconsistencies within or between messages, or to obtain information that is not available in the messages they have received. Feedback is an inherent part of some communication channels such as informal face-to-face discussions. It is somewhat more limited in public hearings where public comment might be limited to a few minutes at the end of a meeting (indeed, avoiding feedback is often a major objective of such “hearings”) and, in any event, individual speakers are typically limited to 3-5 minutes apiece. This need for feedback is precisely the reason why many scholars recommend informal channels of communication (e.g., Committee on Risk Perception and Communication, 1989; Covello, 1987; Hance, et al, 1988). Thus, if community or agency procedures require public hearings, these should be supplemented by less formal procedures such as advisory panels and meetings with neighborhood associations and civic organizations.

    During emerging crises, there often is pressure to disseminate information more rapidly via electronic and print media, so opportunities for monitoring the degree of message distortion are somewhat limited. One effective strategy for performing this function is to monitor the news media by obtaining copies of local newspapers, listening to radio, and viewing television broadcasts. In addition, emergency managers can obtain feedback from citizens via rumor control centers with a telephone number or a Web site that has been publicized in advance.

    Program Implementation During the Continuing Hazard Phase

    Task 1: Build source credibility by increasing perceptions of expertise and trustworthiness.

    As noted previously, disaster researchers have found those who think they are at risk from environmental hazards seek information from the news media (print and broadcast) and peers (friends, relatives, neighbors, and coworkers), as well as from authorities (federal, state and local government). In order to ensure local authorities are considered to be the most credible source, they must take steps during the continuing hazard phase to enhance perceptions of their expertise and trustworthiness. Accordingly, the members of the crisis communication team should ensure its procedures are coordinated with all relevant agencies’ emergency operations plans. This coordination can be verified by using joint training, drills, and full-scale exercises to produce joint messages, messages that reference each other or, at least, messages that are consistent with each other.

    It also is important for personnel from each agency to develop a demonstrated history of effective job performance that enhances their credibility. In part, this experience can be gained during minor incidents such as severe storms and minor floods that cause localized damage and disruption of normal activities. However, credibility can also be enhanced by effective performance in public hearings or in meetings with advisory committees, neighborhood associations, and civic organizations. Of course, expertise is only one component of credibility; trustworthiness is also essential. According to Renn and Levine (1991), trust develops when messages are perceived to be accurate, objective, and complete. This can be expected when a source is fair, unbiased, complete, and accurate (Meyer, 1988; Trumbo & McComas, 2003). Similarly, Maeda and Miyahara (2003) contend that a trustworthy source is competent, open and honest, caring and concerned, and sympathetic. Accordingly, emergency managers are advised to earn a community’s trust by being competent, caring, honorable, and considering outrage factors when working with the public (Covello, McCallum & Pavlova, 1988; Hance, et al., 1988). It also is important to promote meaningful public involvement by involving the community in the continuing hazard phase (or early in the decision process of a new facility), avoiding secret meetings, and explaining the agency’s procedures (especially what constraints on public participation are imposed by law and agency policy). Emergency managers also should provide accurate information that is responsive to people’s requests. In this regard, it is important to recognize the difference between the information people think they need and the information experts think is needed. Emergency managers must learn to respond to both sets of information needs.

    Task 2: Use a variety of channels to disseminate hazard information.

    Information channels differ significantly with respect to the types of information most suited to them, so messages tend to be “channel-bound”. Radio, face-to-face conversations, and oral presentations are limited to verbal information, whereas television, print media, computer simulations, slide shows, and films can convey numeric and graphic information as well as verbal information. The fact that messages disseminated through different media inherently have different characteristics implies different channels could be selected to contribute to different stages of information processing. For example, radio or television “spots” might have their greatest impact in establishing initial hazard awareness (i.e., attracting attention to the problem) and maintaining its intrusiveness by means of frequent thought and discussion. By contrast, printed materials are most effective in providing the detailed information needed to establish a perception of threat and identifying suitable hazard adjustments. This function follows from their ability to be retained and re-read to enhance comprehension and memory for important information such as definitions and checklists.

    Still other channels include public meetings and interactive (listener or viewer call-in) broadcast programs, which provide opportunities for two-way communication that are effective for answering unresolved questions but have the disadvantage that communication is oral and thus less readily retained. The advantage of such interactive channels is that their use is likely to enhance the receiver's personalization of the message, but large public meetings are especially likely to elicit theatrical demonstrations of outrage rather than sincere questions. Thus, when agency policies or particular circumstances require large public meetings, Hance, et al. (1988) advocate considering the use of neutral moderators such as the League of Women Voters, structuring agendas so that public comment can be made before the end of the meeting (by which time most people have left), and breaking the meeting up into smaller working groups with specific topics to address.

    In addition to the channel boundedness of certain types of information (verbal, numeric, and graphic), environmental hazard mangers should recognize channel access is unevenly distributed in communities and can be compounded by variations in ethnicity and income. Typically, variation in resources and personal skills do not eliminate channel access altogether, but instead concentrate it on a narrower range of channels. Moreover, individual preferences also restrict the access each channel provides to different community groups, so cross-channel linkages might be required. If enough channels are used, emergency managers are likely to reach all members of a community that has even the most varied pattern of channel preferences.

    Task 3: Describe community or facility hazard adjustments being planned or implemented.

    In many communities, there are emergency management actions being planned or implemented by local government agencies or, in the case of some technological hazards, by hazardous facility operators. Local residents should be informed of any hazard mitigation actions being taken to reduce the probability of an incident so they will understand that their risk is being reduced. Of course, it is unlikely all of them will believe these measures will be wholly effective in protecting them and, indeed, emergency managers should acknowledge there is no mitigation action that can guarantee complete safety. That is, land use and building construction practices can reduce, but not eliminate, the threat of natural hazards. The same can be said about the use of land use practices and engineered safety features in connection with technological hazards. In addition, emergency managers should describe any emergency preparedness actions being taken to facilitate an active response to an incident and any recovery preparedness actions to support a rapid restoration of the community to normal patterns of social and economic functioning after an incident occurs.

    Task 4: Describe feasible household hazard adjustments.

    Even when hazard mitigation actions have been implemented to reduce the likelihood of incidents ranging from floods to accidental chemical releases, some local residents will not be satisfied that these actions will provide an adequate level of safety. In such cases, emergency managers should inform risk area residents of hazard adjustments they could take to protect themselves. For example, households can mitigate flood risk by adopting a variety of floodproofing measures (Federal Emergency Management Agency, 1986), prepare for airborne releases of toxic chemicals by reducing air infiltration in their homes (Lindell & Perry, 1992), or drink bottled or boiled water in the event of groundwater contamination of local wells.

    In some cases, the most cost-effective (and, sometimes, the only available) hazard adjustments are those taken by households. For example, earthquakes cannot be prevented (as engineered safety features can prevent chemical releases) or controlled (as levees can control floods). Consequently, the most effective methods for reducing earthquake casualties and damage is by household hazard adjustments, such as bolting heavy items with a high center of gravity (e.g., refrigerators, water heaters) to the walls. In such cases, emergency managers should promote the adoption of the most feasible hazard adjustments by beginning with the ones that are most effective, most generally useful, and lowest in resource requirements.

    Task 5: Evaluate program effectiveness.

    It is important to evaluate the effectiveness of any risk communication program by measuring the degree to which it has achieved its objectives (Stallen, 1991). An evaluation of program effectiveness is the logical complement to the goal setting activity undertaken in the strategic analysis. Thus, emergency managers should determine how to measure the goals that they have set, how to collect the data needed, and how to decide if the data indicate the goals have been achieved. This comparison process can then serve as the basis for determining whether changes need to be made in the risk communication program.

    As this chapter has indicated many times, a primary goal of environmental risk communication should be to promote household adoption of hazard adjustments. Thus, the first step in the program evaluation will usually be to identify the hazard adjustments whose adoption the program is seeking to increase. The remaining steps will depend upon the resources available.


    4.4: Risk Communication During the Continuing Hazard Phase is shared under a Public Domain license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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