Disaster communications in China–and some lessons learned

May 17, 2008

The natural disasters in Myanmar and China stagger the imagination. The scale of human suffering–all too much of it needless because of mindless, heartless men who only think of themselves and maintaining their power–is gratefully unimaginable–I say gratefully because I think if we truly grasped it I’m not sure we could live or function.

I was sent this link by one of our staff people (thanks Ana!) about the only website in China that was providing information. It is a fascinating study in how people rely on the web for communication.

Some critical lessons here for those involved in crisis communication and emergency response.

Planners tend to separate communication as in public information from the response itself. Anyone who has been through a real event knows this is not realistic. If those responsible for providing fast accurate information are doing their job (and not hindered too much by incident commanders) that information serves not only the public but a much broader group including the responders themselves. The China site provides an example of that as to how the information it provided helped guide resource deployment.

In any substantial event there is an insatiable thirst for information. And the void will be filled. In this case, not an authorized or planned voice for the event at all. In your case, if you do not provide the information for the event don’t be fooled into thinking that no one will. Information abhors a vaccuum, and an event insures a vaccuum. It will be filled. That is why it is critical for those responsible to be prepared very quickly to fill that void or the ability to do that may very well be forever compromised.

Crisis capable websites are a must. Seems few planners of major events understand this. I am amazed at the lack of realization that if you are the source of information for a major event, your website will sustain millions and millions of hits. The China site went down frequently. The special web system used by the forest service specifically for handling communications in large scale fires could not handle the traffic during last October’s California wildfires and crashed frequently. The standard now is likely to exceed 20 million unique visits a day and could be considerably higher. That takes some serious horsepower–particularly if you are using that crisis site to deliver images and videos–an increasingly stringent requirement for effective crisis communication.

China is going through an industrial revolution and an information revolution as the same time. We have been observing the world’s most populace country and one of the most ancient civilizations concentrate 250 years of development in a decade or two. This story about a sole news website attempting to meet the global instant news world demands demonstrates first how far they have come, and second, how far they have to come.

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One Response to “Disaster communications in China–and some lessons learned”


  1. China’s disaster response this time around was, in my opinion, FAR better than it has been in the past. They are learning, albeit slowly, about the need for rapid communications as well as the need to have an infrastructure that allows for rapid operational response. Certainly instant communications systems (like PIER System) could bring them further along in a hurry.


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