4.5: Risk Communication During an Escalating Crisis or Emergency Response
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There is an important difference between a state of chronic hazard and an escalating crisis, but the time at which the transition takes place is rarely well defined. It helps to consider the definition of an escalating crisis—a situation in which there is a significantly increased probability of an incident occurring that will threaten the public’s health, safety, or property. Unfortunately, the problem is that the probability of occurrence is at least partially subjective. Thus, the determination of whether a crisis exists will also be subjective. As a practical matter, a crisis exists if authorities (including technological facility operators), or the news media, or a significant proportion of those in the community believe that there is an increased risk. Asserting that a crisis exists if any of these groups defines the situation as such follows from the basic principle that “perception is reality”. If the news media or local residents believe there is a crisis, then there is a crisis unless authorities can convince them otherwise. This might make it seem as if any abnormal situation will inevitably become an escalating crisis, but such is not necessarily the case. The crucial point is that authorities must be prepared to explain specifically why a situation is or is not a crisis.
Classify the Situation
Authorities can exert some control over other people’s definition of a situation by establishing specific criteria in advance of an incident that systematically define elevated conditions of threat. For example, the National Weather Service has established an emergency classification system that consists of watches and warnings, whereas the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (1980) classifies an incident as an Unusual Event, an Alert, a Site Area Emergency, or a General Emergency. The number of categories in the emergency classification system should correspond to meaningful differences in the levels of response by local authorities (and facility personnel, in the case of technological facilities), but the number of categories is less important than that the fact that the emergency classification system has been established in advance, is defined as objectively as possible, and is agreed to by all responding organizations (Lindell & Perry, 1992). By establishing a set of objective indicators of environmental or plant conditions that are linked to specific response actions, authorities commit themselves in advance to take those actions under those conditions—a situation indicating decisions are being made on the basis of rational scientific considerations rather than the exigencies of the moment.
Program Implementation During an Escalating Crisis or Emergency Response
Once authorities have determined that environmental conditions have exceeded the criteria listed in the emergency classification system, they need to implement the predetermined response actions. Many of these actions will include further emergency assessment, property protection, population protection, and incident management. One of the most important incident management actions is risk communication, and this will consist of six tasks:
- Activate the crisis communication team promptly,
- Determine the appropriate time to release sensitive information ,
- Select the communication channels appropriate to the situation,
- Maintain source credibility with the news media and the public,
- Provide timely and accurate information to the news media and the public, and
- Evaluate performance through post-incident critiques.
Task 1: Activate the crisis communication team promptly.
When the criteria in the emergency classification system have been exceeded, the crisis communication team should activate promptly and prepare to disseminate information even if it does not need to release that information immediately. Members of the team should contact all appropriate authorities and open all necessary communication links to ensure all sources of information and expertise are brought to bear on the situation. It is essential that all organizations be aware of the information being disseminated by other organizations so they can identify any disagreement and prepare appropriate explanations before they are contacted by the news media to explain the discrepancies.
Emergency managers should review the information in press kits and any background materials they have prepared for briefing the news media in press conferences or community groups in public hearings. They should also contact personnel in their agencies who are peripherally related to the crisis (e.g., plant workers and clerical support staff) to brief them about the situation. Such personnel might otherwise have only incomplete or outdated information to provide about the situation if they are queried by the news media and peers.
During the initial stages of an escalating crisis or emergency response, emergency managers should take care to review their communication objectives (Churchill, 1997). These objectives should become the criteria according to which all later press releases, press conferences, and public meetings are evaluated. In most environmental emergencies, the principal objectives will be to promote appropriate protective action by those whom the authorities believe to be in the most immediate danger and also to promote active monitoring of the situation by those who might later be determined to be at risk. The objectives should not be to prevent panic, which disaster researchers have found to be extremely rare (Drabek, 1986; Lindell & Perry, 1992). Nor should authorities ridicule what they consider to be unnecessary protective action by those who think they are at risk, as long as such actions do not impede the protection of those whom the authorities believe are at risk. It is especially important for authorities to avoid attempting to promote one protective action by criticizing another. For example, some misguided attempts have been made to promote sheltering in-place by asserting that people are exposing themselves to major traffic accident risks if they evacuate. Not only is this incorrect (the accident risks in evacuation appear to be no greater than those of normal driving; Lindell & Perry, 1992), but it is likely to lead those at risk to believe that there is nothing they can do to protect themselves.
Task 2: Determine the appropriate time to release sensitive information.
When emergency managers, but not others, can detect the subtle environmental cues that indicate the onset of an emergency, they must determine when to alert others of the danger. Thus, the crisis communication team needs to be guided by procedures that define when information is to be released, but there are no universal rules for determining when to release information because even experts disagree (Kasperson, 1987). On the one hand, early releases of information often are characterized by a significant degree of uncertainty, so there is a possibility that crisis conditions might never materialize or will be less severe than initially expected. Consequently, authorities frequently withhold information in order to avoid unnecessary disruption. The disadvantage of delaying the release of information is that this can be misinterpreted as a cover-up if the data are leaked (Hance, et al., 1988) and there are many ways in which such leaks can occur. It also is important to respond appropriately to reporters’ questions when they become aware that something important is happening. Statements of “no comment” are almost certain to be interpreted as meaning that authorities have important information that is being withheld.
By contrast, early release of information tends to enhance the credibility of the information source and to increase a source’s control over the agenda. In particular, being the first to break bad news provides an opportunity to put the information into an appropriate context. In addition, controlling the timing of a press release can have a significant impact on the amount of attention it receives. A press release distributed on a slow news day might receive substantially more coverage in the news media than the same information released on a busy day or late on a Friday afternoon preceding a three day weekend.
Task 3: Select the communication channels that are appropriate to the situation.
One of the most significant differences between a continuing hazard and an escalating crisis is that the latter is “newsworthy”, so emergency managers will generally have little difficulty in obtaining the news media coverage they sought, usually unsuccessfully, during the continuing hazard phase. As always, news media coverage needs to be monitored to ensure reporters are accurately disseminating the information released by emergency managers, yet this procedure alone cannot ensure those at risk are receiving, heeding, and comprehending the information they need. Thus, emergency managers need to promote dialogue through two-way communication, preferably in small groups rather than massive public hearings. This will help them to understand public risk perceptions and explain risks more effectively (Hance, et al., 1988).
Even though an escalating crisis or an emergency response will prompt the news media to seek information, emergency managers should not rely only on reporters’ requests for interviews to determine when and what information to disseminate. Instead, they should initiate communication with reporters through press releases and press conferences. Typically, press releases afford the most control over the agenda, whereas interviews provide the least control.
Task 4: Maintain source credibility with the news media and the public.
During an escalating crisis or emergency response, emergency managers should obtain timely and accurate data from within their own and other agencies and make their recommended actions consistent with the analyses. If the available data are incomplete, they should be honest about what is and is not known. A candid confession of ignorance might be uncomfortable at the time, but it is less dangerous to one’s credibility than making up an answer that is later found out to be incorrect.
A related principle is that emergency managers should recognize the news media have many sources of information in addition to authorities. Consequently, it is important to respond to reporters when they need information for an imminent deadline because they will obtain the best information they can from whatever sources are available at the time that they need to file their stories (Churchill, 1997). Accordingly, it is often better to explain that data have been or are being collected, describe how they are being or will be analyzed, and indicate the date on which the results of the analyses will be released. Hance, et al. (1988) note that agencies should present some management options when the data reveal environmental problems, but practitioners differ in their beliefs about the balance between analyzing these options thoroughly and presenting tentative options that provide a starting point for input from the community.
Trust is a major issue because there tends to be so little of it to begin with and what there is can be lost so easily. As Kasperson (1987) noted, trust in institutions has been decreasing for some time and television anchors tend to be among the few people other than independent scientists that are generally trusted. Television anchors are trusted because they are familiar, authoritative, and have developed a track record of accuracy over time. Frequently, those who must communicate information about environmental risks are stereotyped as representatives of their organizations and, unless the stereotype is positive at the outset, it can be difficult to build trust during a crisis. This is the reason why it is so important for emergency managers to forestall public stereotypes about their agencies, and thus themselves, by working with community groups on multiple environmental issues before crises arise and publicizing the accomplishments of their agencies in handling these problems.
Task 5: Provide timely and accurate information about the hazard to the news media and the public.
News releases should be no longer than two pages with simple short sentences in plain English (Churchill, 1997). They should contain a dateline (date and location of release), the organizational source (including point of contact) for the information, a summary lead that provides a one sentence abstract of the press release, the text of the press release, and a brief description of any attachments. These should be supplemented by fact sheets that contain basic background information appropriate to any incident. There should be attachments including information such as a biographical summary about the spokesperson and other pertinent details about the hazard and official responses.
In deciding how to present risk information, it is important to assess the audience’s level of technical sophistication so the presentation can avoid being too technical for people to understand, yet not so simplistic the audience is insulted. In general, it is important to presume the average member of the audience is intelligent but uninformed about environmental risks. Thus, emergency managers should avoid acronyms and use ordinary English words rather than technical jargon to explain basic concepts. They also should anticipate the possibility of confrontational tactics by the news media or some members of the public. If confronted with differing interpretations from other experts, emergency managers should be prepared to calmly reiterate their own scientific qualifications, repeat the rationale for their own position on the dispute, and explain what they believe are the weaknesses in alternative positions.
Emergency managers should be prepared to describe the process by which risks were assessed (including ways in which cautious estimates were used in different steps of the analysis), and what the risks are (in terms of quantities released, ambient concentrations, individual exposures via different pathways, probabilities of adverse effects, and expected levels of impact over different time periods). They also should be prepared to acknowledge uncertainties in hazard data and even be ready to acknowledge they don’t know the answer to a question when this is the case. However, they also should be prepared to state what will be done to obtain an answer to the question and when the answer will be forthcoming.
Task 6: Evaluate performance through post-incident critiques.
To improve their performance, organizations must learn from their experience. Thus, each incident in which emergency managers must disseminate risk information to the news media or the public should be followed by a thorough critique of performance (Lindell & Perry, 1992; National Response Team, 1987). All members of the crisis communication team should review the goals of the risk communication program, the event logs kept during the incident, and other available documentation to identify deficiencies in organizational performance. Experience in drills, exercises, and incidents has demonstrated the importance of focusing on the performance of the organization rather than the performance of individuals because this enhances a spirit of cooperation. Thus, each participant should be encouraged to follow up on any deficiencies by identifying the ways in which these can be corrected by improvements in plans, procedures, training, facilities, equipment, or materials and supplies.