What 2020 has taught us about communicating in a crisis

Jonathan Ryan – March 19, 2020

This year, a summer of flame and fury descended upon Australia. Residents in many communities were caught in the path of historically large fire fronts and found themselves relying on communication from the State Rural Fire Services and Government agencies. The information they received would help them make the critical decision of whether to evacuate from their homes and seek safety or stay in place and continue to prepare their homes for the potential onslaught.

But as the fires were slowly brought under control thanks to the heroic efforts of volunteer and professional firefighters, torrential rain in New South Wales and Queensland brought with it the threat of flash flooding.

As these complex natural disaster situations evolved, many people looked to their phones for the answer. In Victoria, authorities sent 250,000 text messages to people in affected shires and urged them to evacuate as East Gippsland burned, and the mobile messaging became one of the few safe and reliable ways of reaching people in threatened areas with critical information to protect them.

Clear communications

Communication is an essential part of every emergency strategy, and in cases where there’s cause for panic, it’s important that the messaging is clear, succinct and not open for misinterpretation. This was highlighted by the bushfire crisis, as well as recent quarantining actions following the Coronavirus outbreak. In China, where the pandemic began, drones have been brought in to fight the spread of infection. Equipped with speakers, they fly around villages and cities instructing residents to put their masks back on or to return home. While this is one way to communicate clearly, it may ultimately cause more panic compared to a friendly but firm reminder message that communicates the same thing. In Australia, the communications from government, health organisations and media has been conflicting, leading to confusion and anxiety. The need for a single, clear message is huge.

Reliable technology

When a natural disaster such as a bushfire, tsunami or earthquake occurs, damage to communications infrastructure is almost a given. Internet services are sure to be spotty thanks to widespread destruction, leaving SMS the best way to reach those affected.

The Australian Government relies on a telephone warning system called Emergency Alert. It uses the last known location of a phone handset to determine if someone is in an area affected by disaster and communicates critical information to them via SMS.  It’s one of the ways that the police, fire and emergency services can warn a community of an impending or actual emergency.

Text messages are also less load heavy on networks, so they avoid congestion and delays in sending vital alerts. With a very high open rate and no need to download anything, they make it quick to digest the information, so it’s a more effective form of communication than an app or website that relies on fast internet access.

Clarity as necessity

Panic in a crisis is an all too human trait, and it’s often fed by a lack of reliable information from people in the know. Since Coronavirus made its way to our shores, we’ve seen instances of panic buying in Australia – toilet paper, rice and pasta are nowhere to be found in most supermarkets. In many cases this is due to fear and a lack of understanding about what’s happening or may happen.

Messaging needs to be concise, informative and time critical so that everyone gets the information they need, at the same time. This applies to business messaging too, particularly as companies globally move to remote models of working or need to monitor employee safety closely. Organisations can use Emergency Alert Services – a combination of two-way texting and Interactive Voice Response to contact employees in affected regions – to ensure employee safety and escalate any issues immediately.

Certainty in uncertain times

The world finds itself in challenging circumstances, and all too often we receive an avalanche of conflicting information from multiple sources about what to do, when to do it and how to go about it.

Now more than ever, clear messaging in a crisis is critical. Relevant and reassuring messaging from the authorities needs to cut through the distortion effect of social media or potential bias media. This can help to avoid scenes of mass panic, stop the spread of misinformation and keep people safe in dangerous situations.

The best bet is reliable mobile messaging that reaches people wherever they are, gets essential info across quickly, and offers equal access for anyone with a mobile phone, no matter what model or make it is.

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