Several times in the last few weeks I have been confronted with the reality that a great many intelligent people charged with notifying others of an urgent life or safety issue don’t understand the fundamental difference between notification and communication. I know I have blogged on this several times and all that means is that I, like many bloggers, tend to think that if I have spoken on it, everyone has heard, agreed, and now the issue is settled. Not so I must admit.
Emergency managers are trained to think in checklists. That is a very good thing because when all hell is breaking loose, they need to keep their cool, and like a pilot trying to land in a plane in a storm, they better remember the basics. So they use checklists. Did we do this, did we complete that, are we ready for the next step. That’s the way I write crisis communication plans and it is good. Many emergency management types have added emergency notification onto their checklists–particularly following Virginia Tech. That is a good thing, a very good thing. It shows that they recognize that the world is changing and individuals expect to hear DIRECTLY from those charged with their health and safety and not just turn on their radios to get all the relevant info. So, they run out and buy the lastest automated telephone messaging system and perhaps text messaging and check it off their list.
So now their check list in an emergency reads: Notify the public. Check. I sent them a text-to-voice phone message, and even sent a few text messages to those few who would actually sign up on my list and give me their cell phones. Check. Exercise complete. Job done.
No. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. Because during an event when the media are all over the place trying to find someone who will criticize the response, they will ask someone: Were you notified? The answer will inevitably be: NO, I never heard a word from them. The Incident
Commander will be put on the spot in the next news conference: “Your press release said you notified 70 gazillion people by telephone but we haven’t talked to a single one who actually got the message.” What will he or she say then?
The problem is challenging for several reasons:
– telephone systems are quickly and easily jammed and most operate on remarkably few lines. A university with thousands of students may only have a couple of hundred line capacity to manage calls at one time, and as soon as an emergency happens those lines are going to be jammed with students calling each other and calling home.
– text messages are much better, but still subject to limitations of the cell networks–but the real problem is very few have signed up to receive such calls and many are resistant to for privacy purposes.
– the means of communication are constantly changing–for example students have largely switched to social media sites such as Facebook and MySpace instead of email for their routine communications.
– the public in general and young people (more internet savvy) in particular have a “I want it how I want it and when I want it” mentality about information–in other words, they understand in the post-media internet age they have been given the controls and they want to control it. That makes it vitally important to have a website or series of websites that provided the level of detail that a variety of different audiences are looking for. It is also important that those websites have the interactive functionality that today’s audiences have become accustomed to–functions that will allow them to ask questions, make comments, engage in conversation with others coming to the site, respond to surveys, and do all those things they expect now to be offered.
– the media are still an important part of the mix. As important as it is to communicate directly, if the media is also not involved there are people who will miss the message. The key to this is timing. Get each part ahead or behind the others too much and you have problems.
The bottom line is we live in a multi-media and mixed media world where notifying people is not a simple answer. But if you think notifying them with a 140 character message (maximum text message) or 30 second phone message is sufficient, you simply don’t understand the dynamics of communication. Imagine if you get a message that says in effect: “Run for your life if you are anywhere near (address).” What impact will this have on you? Why? you will ask. What is the danger? What is going on? How much am I in danger? Are my friends and family ok? Where should I run? Do I have time to finish my Facebook post? How long and how far should I run? In other words, by sounding the siren you have created a huge demand for more information. Simply sounding the siren and not filling that demand will make that void of information more palpable and the urgency that much greater.
Sending a text message or a phone message is NOT communication. In fact, it may cause more harm than good–both in terms of public safety and in terms of reputation. Only the ability to meet a wide variety of communication needs in both notification, detailed supporting information, interactive inquiry management, delivery of appropriate information to a variety of different audiences will suffice when life and limb are on the line.
If you are interested in learning more about this topic, here is a white paper: Notification is Not Communication.