Local Government Magazine
Elizabeth Hughes

Disasters R Us

Disasters R Us - LG Local Government June 2017

Elizabeth Hughes discusses three ways councils could improve emergency communication.

Imagine a natural or civil disaster where afterwards the affected people say, “The communication was outstanding.” Or this: “I always took a pretty cynical view of what people were saying on Facebook because I trusted what the council was telling me.” Well it ain’t gonna happen….
But that doesn’t mean councils and Civil Defence can’t get a “B” instead of a “D” for their work. From my observation, the consistent negative feedback that emerges in the days and weeks following a natural disaster is always about communication.
There’s never enough, it’s inconsistent, people don’t feel they are being listened to, it lacks credibility or it’s too slow. Why?

  1. People are under immense stress; often frightened and totally dislocated after disaster strikes. This brings with it a significantly higher bar when it comes to their need for personal, relevant and caring communication. And, sadly, this is not something at which public sector institutions of any sort have a lot of practice.
  2. The media – traditionally a source of trusted communication for many people – might be helpful during the event to some extent. But it quite quickly needs to feed its appetite for fresh and new things. This begins a focus on stories that may inflame rather than inform.
  3. The sheer volume of messages and number of ways of communicating overwhelms and confuses.
  4. The bureaucracy of CYA (look it up). This usually means messages have to go through so many approvals that they end up being lame or late. It can also stop staff and those working directly with affected people being human, open and helpful.

Since councils are the most visible institution in the initial and recovery stages of a disaster (they are, in fact, “civil defence”) and are actually doing the hard yards, it is generally they who get the flak about communication.
In my experience, one of the biggest problems councils face (and the smaller you are the worse it gets) is the myriad of well-intentioned government agencies, organisations and ministers trying to achieve what may euphemistically be called delusions of relevance.
It is almost impossible for local government to deliver effective, consistent and clear communication to their local community when central government treats them like a branch office.
So, what might councils do to improve communication through a disastrous event and the recovery period that follows?

  1. Prioritise communication. Every council would say they do this. But they don’t. Make every meeting and every decision, before you leave the room, address the question – how does this affect our people and how will we communicate it? Don’t leave communication to the last thing you do, once everything is perfect and the quotes in the media release are “approved”. Just get the information out there. Believe in yourselves, your staff and the naturalness of common sense. Ironically, actual belief about the primacy of communication requires action – not words.
  2. Stop it with the silos. Effective communication, based around the needs of people, does not happen when information is presented in a silo. There may well be elements of a military-style chain-of-command approach needed in a disaster and recovery situation. But that does not mean your communication has to be siloed as well. Start with the people. Build your response around them and the places in which they live (or lived). For example, ask, “What does the group of people who live in this street, suburb or town need to know from us?” Don’t work from the premise, “We’re organised this way and therefore will communicate to you in ways that suit us.” Bad move.
  3. Take charge. Be assertive about what your community needs and be very determined about who they should hear it from. Every disaster or recovery is an opportunity for your council to demonstrate one of the clearest reasons why you matter. They are your people after all.

This article was first published in the June 2017 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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