Tuesday, March 15, 2011

On cynicism and disasters

How can you get a message across?

As one of those involved in coordinating the planning and delivery of information during a disaster in our province, I'm always interested in how crisis communications are handled elsewhere.

While it's still early in the game, Japanese officials, from the government and private utilities, are drawing some fire about how and how much information they have been releasing to their citizens.

We know there a a few obstacles in the age of social convergence to clear messaging resonating with audiences in the way wished for by authorities. They range from having to be heard among a multitude of conversations on social media, the conveyance of an unimaginable number of falsehoods and rumours, rampant media hype and in many cases, a very cynical view of government and authorities.

Although the latter may not be the case in Japan as the following tweet indicates:

ascottwhite‎ Japanese people still believe in their social and civil institutions. They lack the pervasive cynicism that I have come to see as normal.
Twitter - 8 hours ago

And this excerpt amplify’d from www.foreignpolicy.com
As I was trolling through coverage of the Japanese earthquake disaster,
I came across a revealing vox pop. A man
named Takayuki Sato was talking to Reuters in Fukushima, the town that's home
to the nuclear power plant damaged by the quake and the ensuing tsunami. "What
they're saying on the news is that even if you're exposed, it's only about
one-fourth of the level of getting a stomach X-ray," said Sato. "If
it was really bad, I don't think they would cover it, so I guess it will
probably be all right."

Let's parse that for a second. Sato was saying that he was reassured
that the problems at the stricken reactors aren't all that bad because the
government doled out a teaspoon of information --
whereas a total blackout would mean that something really scary is going on.
Doesn't exactly sound like a vote of confidence in the Japanese government or
media, does it?
Read more at www.foreignpolicy.com
I believe that cynicism is also making gains in Japan, especially when it comes to the nuclear industry.

A key factor here is risk perception. In most instances, public perception of risk from nuclear energy is much greater than what risk analysis reveals to emergency managers. As communicators though, we have to take this difference in risk assessment by the public vs officials, into account when preparing key messages. This discrepancy is amped up when events show that the risks might not be that "remote".

Adjusting the message, when TV and other media outlets show images of explosions at nuclear stations, while authorities are saying there's no danger, is very difficult because the mental pictures in our collective minds don't match the words we're hearing from official sources.

Do you minimize the impact? Do you adopt an overcautious approach? Or do you trust residents to do what's best for themselves and their families and be as open as operational and security considerations allow you to be?

Mental barriers come in many forms: information overload, cognitive bias being just two. To overcome that you really have to do a sound environmental scan to craft the right message.

Here's what you may encounter.

Are there easy solutions other then being as prepared as you can to reassure your audiences and calm their fears. Convince them that you have plans to deal with the incident and that competent people are in charge?

Here's where it often gets blurry. What should be the role of elected officials who are more often then not distrusted by the people? Not all of them are Rudy Giulani.

It's more than a little bit of a paradox that while people don't have much trust in politicians, they still want to hear from the top guy/gal when a crisis occurs ...

We will all learn much from the tragic events underway in Japan.

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