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Communications in a crisis - Christchurch
Posted by Acumen Republic on Monday, 07 May 2012 0 Comments
Communication in a crisis strips messaging down to its clear, concise core. Critical information needs to be regularly updated and conveyed, across all media, 24-7 if it is a national state of emergency.
New Zealand's first ever national state of emergency (for a civil defence emergency) was declared by the then Minister of Civil Defence John Carter on 23 February 2011, in the wake of the 6.2 magnitude earthquake in Christchurch on 22 February. 185 people died in buildings that collapsed in that earthquake. The national state of emergency ran for nearly 10 weeks. It was lifted on 30 April 2011. The only previous national state of emergency in New Zealand was in relation to the 1951 waterfront dispute.
When dealing with a crisis keep messages tight and to the point. Keep the core team tight and focused. And keep a paper trail - you will be scrutinised.
In a crisis, communicate using short sentences. Stick to one idea per bulletin/release. Highly stressed people are incapable of processing too much detail at one time, but they want and need potentially life-saving information. You are communicating with a diverse group, including children and people with English as a second language. Wording needs to be literal.
Make sure your media front person is calm, measured and trustworthy - and adept at reading hand signals/mime and notes you hand them so you can update messages as they deliver them. Put out messages as fast as you can type them. This is about the only time it is OK to be directive, to tell people what they must do and what they absolutely cannot do.
Disaster response communication requires a particular personality type. You need to assemble a small and flexible team, capable of sustaining long hours for days or weeks on end. They need enough detachment to be able to do work that is sometimes gruesome and distressing, but have enough empathy to be able to consider all levels of response to the same. They cannot hesitate on hard calls and they have to keep the show rolling, no matter what is happening around them (people collapsing or having meltdowns, repeated earthquakes, etc). They will also need a lot of coffee and love - so it is essential to have some solid support people sorting out food, flights, clothing, coffee etc.
The paper trail
While most organisations prepare for a disaster - reality throws up plenty of curved balls. In the final analyses of the response, there will be brightly lit scrutiny. So it is important to keep a paper trail to back decisions made; remembering they were made with the best information available at the time and without the benefit of hind-sight. Make sure one of the team takes responsibility for the paper work and keeps the signed originals, as well as a copy.
While there are lessons to learn from every disaster response, they are mostly technical. People come through when the chips are down. I have witnessed the human response as closely as a person can. I can hand on heart say everyone working in a professional capacity - and many as concerned citizens - responded to the big earthquakes, particularly on 22 February 2011, with bravery, integrity, speed, strength and humanity.
(worked for the Government/Civil Defence Minister through the September 2010 and February 2011 Canterbury earthquakes)
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