Monday, October 17, 2016

Between the apocalypse and crying wolf: finding the right tone

It now seems every major storm comes with dire warnings ... sometimes even mentioning impending death. That plays well in the media ... grabs attention .,.. but just how effective is it really? 

My good friends Gerald Baron (@gbaron) and retired fire chief Bill Boyd (@chiefb2) brought this issue to my attention. Gerald in a tweet ...
@patricecloutier @chiefb2 turned out to be quite a bust. Very little wind. Concerned about the "cry wolf" effect.
And Bill Boyd through a series of funny Instagam posts ... including this one.
So, where to draw the line between crying wolf and calling for the end of times?

OK, you'll tell me this is on FOX News ... The same people who made a Trump candidacy viable ..
But, they weren't the only ones predicting the coming apocalypse that was supposed to be Hurricane Matthew in Florida:
The Weather Channel people also relied on very strongly worded public warnings.
Now, add the voices of senior elected and emergency management officials and you had a chorus of voices calling for caution and mandatory evacuations and using very strong language. Yet, many chose to stay ... There are many good reasons why people make that choice. A great article recently looked at that issue.
Predicting weather events has its challenges, leading to alarm fatigue ... as does predicting earthquakes ... technology is improving and making warnings about seismic event a real thing ... such as what happened in California a couple of weeks ago. ... causing some fear and uneasiness.

This is not without consequences:
Does this potentially translate to more injuries and deaths? According to a study published in Weather, Climate and Society, “tornadoes that occur in an area with a higher false-alarm ratio kill and injure more people, everything else being constant.” Why? Because when people live through enough warnings in situations where tornadoes never actually materialize, they start to ignore them.
So, false alarms come at a cost ...they create apathy and complacency that can kill. But it's kind of a lose-lose situation ... don't warn ... people may die ... warn too often ... people may not care ...those who do and evacuated can face other difficulties that can add to the alerting conundrum later.
Some people are actually disappointed when carnage and destruction don't follow dire warnings ... adding to the cacophony of conflicting messages. So what are possible solutions to this dilemma?
  • stricter criteria for sending out warnings ... especially those that include words such as death, catastrophic, or other dire messages
  • more effective use of a variety of channels (social media + mobile technologies) to reach a very specific set of audiences ... (although WEA/IPAWS come with their own issues too .... ) ... people trust their friends/family more on social networks than they do official agencies ... influencing that info flow on social networks is critical.
  • Monitoring social media during crises gauge the effectiveness of emergency information and adjust according to needs and the behavior observed on the ground. A vital crisis comms imperative.
  • focusing on risk communications and public education prior to events ... so that warnings convey the right meaning to populations at risk ...

Combating human nature is never easy ... finding the right tone will be hard ... reaching the right audience even harder if you only rely on traditional media.

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