Thursday, November 24, 2011

Of emergency warnings and being convincing.

I've finally gotten around to reading Amanda Ripley's fantastic book on how people react to disasters and crises. Her work, "The Unthinkable: who survives when disasters strikes - and why" is one of the best reads I've had in a while.

With gripping anecdotes punctuating scientific fact, it's both entertaining and educational. Her analysis of risk perception and how it affects behaviour highlights the many considerations we must evaluate when planning how we'll communicate during a crisis. 

One section really struck a chord with me as a former broadcast journalist and now, as someone involved in emergency information planning and delivery:
"After 9/11, studies showed that the more hours of coverage adults and children watched, the more stress they experienced. In general, TV makes us worry about the wrong things. Your brain is better at filtering media hype when it is reading. Words have less emotional salience than images."
Now, i'm not neuroscientist, but I always thought that establishing an emotional connection was a better way to get through your audience. Maybe I've been wrong all those years. 

I also wonder how you transfer that notion in today's world where social media are become part of more and more public alerting and warning strategies. Do you go for the logical tone in your messaging? Do you adopt a more engaging vocabulary? Do you want to stimulate a dialog? Even when warning people of an impending danger?

A 2008 Australian federal government document offers tips on how to craft efficient emergency warnings.
It identifies the following as your objectives (and there is nothing wrong with these ...):

Emergency warnings are intended to achieve two outcomes:
1 Inform the community of an impending or current threat.
2 Promote appropriate responsive actions.
 Be very clear about whether you need to achieve one or both of these outcomes when writing an emergency warning. 

 The document goes on to talk about the different steps people go through to process and digest the information you're putting out. A key is finding the right tone:

It is a dialogue with the community, not a command situation. In most cases you are seeking co-operation with a suggested action, not compliance with an ‘order’. This is best achieved through recipients being convinced by the information they get that a course of action is the best one for them to take.
Your role is not that of a ‘King’ to issue orders – a better analogy is to be a marketer who is selling the product of ‘appropriate action’ and needs to convince the audience to accept the advice. 

Now, to go back to my earlier point on the role of emotions, how can we best use them to ensure we're heard and acted upon in the vast social media sphere where many conversations are ongoing? How are you heard above the din?

I can remember with vividness the immense (to my mind anyways) change of tone just before Hurricane Ike in 2008. A few years after Hurricane Katrina, it seemed that things were not as before and that authorities were doing all they could to ensure that the "hardliners" opposed to any mandatory evacuation heeded some pretty dire warnings. Listen to NBC's Brian Wiliams at the very beginning: 

Do these very dire warning work? Well, studies conducted after Hurricane Ike hit the Galveston area indicated some mixed results, let's just say ...

It's an interesting question: why do people chose to stay, notwithstanding what type of warning you give them? Might humour be a better tool? 

I'm really interested to see how various jurisdictions handle this conundrum.

Comments welcome! 

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