How often is criticism given? When we are frequently criticized for the same actions by different people, there’s a good chance the criticism is legitimate and appropriate action should be taken. In emergency management we are often criticized by the media, without them fully understanding our situation. This shows the importance of good relations and communicating one and another’s needs.
For rapid emergency information delivery demands proficiency in collecting, authenticating and disseminating information. The very nature of emergencies means performing in amazingly difficult and demanding conditions. Local emergencies and disasters are distinguished by disruptions in normal operations, impediments within communication systems and problems with transportation systems and routes. In addition the human factor of victims, responders, managers and policy makers who may be astonished, stressed and even terrified or confused.
The highest priority should always be given to meeting the needs of the public, as they are the reason that public safety and emergency management exist. The public demands and is entitled to information that will help them to mitigate, prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters. In order to accomplish this task we need to first gain credibility with the local media. How can we do this?In the paper Introduction to Emergency Public Information it is stated:
To achieve any measure of credibility in media relations, the PIO (or emergency manager in our case) must first establish credibility with all of the players and participants in the local media. To do this, you must know the media, be able to meet their needs, and be able to explain your needs to them.
Include the media in day-to-day activities, on disaster exercises, and in training events. It goes without saying that this “proactive” approach to dealing with the media will serve both your needs and those of the media.
We also need to have the following six basic skills:
- public speaking
- audio-visual skills
- community relations
- media relations
- computer skills
In addition to the six basic skills we need to be competent in the following community relations areas:
- interpersonal communication and people skills
- awareness of the community demographics, values, and concerns
- attitudes about emergency preparedness
- citizen-community involvement in government
- social and religious activities
- working understanding of organizational relations
A solid working relationship with the media will enhance our image and help in delivering our message to the public. This is done by meeting the needs of community, media, and other government agencies within our jurisdiction. Disasters don’t occur every day so it is a real challenge to prepare individual citizens, and agencies for an event(s) that may happen only once in a lifetime. The support of elected officials is a tremendous asset in the enormous endeavor to promote emergency preparedness within the community.
An example of what can happen when there is not a working relationship with the media is the Chernobyl nuclear accident. The Russians acknowledged their errors and recognized that additional damage to their relations with the West was caused by lack of communications. At an international conference Professor Yassen Zassoursky, dean of the faculty of journalism at Moscow University said:
We are to blame we didn’t let people in the world know what was happening and that included neighbouring [sic] nations. It was only two weeks after the explosion that a press conference was called to try and make up for some loss credibility.
We were not good at communications and this delay meant a lot of speculation in the Western media … (Wilkinson, p63)
On the other hand, Occidental International Oil’s handling of the Piper Alpha catastrophe was characterized as being a “textbook” case of crisis communications management. The press office was operational within 14 minutes after receiving notification via telex of the Piper incident and building statement went out immediately. The first press conference was taking place within minutes, and a team of 35 specially trained office staff members were sent to a special crisis management unit, fielding media calls round the clock on a shift basis. Armand Hammer, president of Occidental flew in to Aberdeen, Scotland and was talking openly and honestly to the media. Nothing could detract from the media postmortem that Occidental faced, but they were not exposed to the “mauling” that companies less open in comparable positions, have grieved.
The above examples illustrate the importance of the eight areas of communications, the areas are:
- Truthfulness and openness – give the good news as well as the bad, respond to request for further information where confidentiality allows, respond to criticism and suggestions.
- Inclusiveness of information – a fleeting response, or a snappy turn-off to views we don’t like cause boundless harm.
- Simplification of information – we need to have simplified to a stage where one sentence, almost a slogan, will describe what we believe, and what we can accept. . . We haggle and argue over single words. But we know we have “got it,” and when we have got it, we believe it can work do it.
- Setting the overall direction of an organization – a company should be developed from both ends at once in order to gain the commitment of those who will have to follow the direction and “make it happen” … understanding of both where the ultimate goal is and the process by which the decisions regarding the goal have been reached.
- Decision making – if the right decisions are to be taken, it is essential that conflicting views are heard and thrashed out. The fact that you are up at the top of a business hierarchy does not confer all-seeing wisdom.
- Initiation of action – in a good organization, the objectives that have to be achieved are decided with considerable interaction between those who are going to carry them out, and those who ultimately have responsibility for leadership.
- Bad news / Good news – bad news in organizations is seldom received with much enthusiasm. The reality of life is, of course, that it is the bad news man who should be the most prized. It is all to easy to get people who will tell us nice things, and after all there is not a lot we can do about that. But who will stand up without fear or favor and tell us hopefully tactfully, that things are not really the way that everybody else thinks they are; are pearls beyond price.
- External versus the internal perspective – the needs of one person is great. They wish to feel that they are doing a worthwhile job, which makes some contributions to society.
By following these rules when communicating with the media, other response organizations, elected officials, and the general public our credibility will increase by these people knowing that we mean what we say. Our objectives and goals as leaders will be achieved more easily because of good communications.
Original essay by MWR, 1994.
The Communications Challenge. edited by Theon Wilkinson. London. Institute of Personal Management, 1989.
Communicating for Managerial Effectiveness. by Phillip G. Clampitt, Newbury Park. Sage Publications, 1991.
The eight areas were based on information from The Communications Challenge also.