Effective communication of hazard and risk information

Written by: Efrath Silver MSc.
September 2014

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NB: Views expressed in this paper are solely those of the author’s and not necessarily those of VSO, EU ECHO or project NOAH.

1 Summary

  • Local government units (LGUs), national government agencies and other organisations in the Philippines communicate with the public about hazards and risks to mitigate devastation by disasters. The challenge for these organisations to reach more people with this vital information lies in effective communication. A framework[1] for communicating technical information to a non-technical public consists of six steps that need to be defined before the communication activity:
  1. Who is my target audience?
  2. What do I want my audience to do?
  3. What information do they need to do that?
  4. What do they already know – and what’s missing?
  5. How am I going to tell them?
  6. How am I going to check that the communication has worked?
  • Of all recommendations for communication about hazard and risk information, the most important one is: place the user in the center of your communication. Especially important is to know your audience and users and be responsive to their needs, wishes and level of knowledge. This knowledge will guide all communication activities. Plan your communication goals, audience, methods and activities in a communication strategy. For successful communication of hazard and risk information remember that people are emotional and that they can have different perceptions of risk, influenced by societal and cultural factors. Be open about what you have to offer a specific audience. And finally, always (!) ask yourself: what’s in it for them?

2 Introduction

The Philippines is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change and disasters. Many branches of the Philippine government are tasked with addressing some aspect of disaster prevention, preparedness, recovery and rehabilitation and climate change adaptation. Agencies under the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) generate hazard and risk information that can be used for planning disaster prevention activities and for disseminating warnings prior to impending hazards. Local government units are the key stakeholders in disaster risk reduction and management and the first responders when a disaster strikes. They both receive (e.g. from the national agencies) and disseminate (to their communities) hazard and risk information.

Often, hazard and risk information (e.g. in the form of maps) are perceived as very technical. The drawback of communicating technical information is the lack of understanding of the message and lack of willingness to take action upon it or not having the knowledge of what to do with it. If recipients are being overwhelmed with technical terms and information, they soon drop out. In the end, what the public wants to know is: are we safe?

This paper provides a framework for planning communication activities with a non-technical audience, followed by specific recommendations for structuring communication activities and tips and tricks for ways to interest people in hazard information and warnings, including creative examples. These examples and recommendations are based on information derived from social media experts fora and comparative analysis of communication efforts done by related ‘disaster organizations’ nationally and internationally.

Through this paper I wish to contribute to efforts of government agencies, local governments and other organisations involved with communication of hazard and risk information and to provide recommendations for ways to increase effectiveness of the communication.

3 Framework for communicating technical information

Lack of understanding technical information is an interesting issue that should be given consideration if the communicating organisation wants to reach more direct stakeholders and the general public. The question of how to communicate a technical message in an effective way can be approached in a systematic way. In this paragraph I provide a theoretical framework for communicating technical information with a non-technical audience.

Career blogger Kate Thompson describes a helpful framework[1] for technical experts who want to communicate with a non-technical audience in a way that the audience can really understand the message. Basically, it consists of five steps for planning your communication activity, assuming that you know who your audience is. Because defining the target audience is a very important step, I have added this question to the framework. The result is a list of six questions you need to ask yourself before starting your communication.

  1. Who is my target audience?

The audience is the starting point for any communication. Your goal, message and method of communication all depend on the audience. Define who you want to communicate with and why.

  1. What do I want my audience to do?

What do you want from the audience – are you just imparting information, are you asking for support, or are you looking for a decision or action?  This will determine the level of detail and how you communicate.

  1. What information do they need to do that?

Be clear about what your audience actually needs to know – and what they don’t.  Technical detail may be less fascinating to them than you! Use data or examples where they are needed to illustrate a point or facilitate a decision – not simply to show that you’ve done the work.

  1. What do they already know – and what’s missing?

It can be helpful to assume the lowest level of knowledge and, if your audience are still with you after a while, start to build up. But this is about more than not telling people what they already know.  For communication to really work, information needs to be given in context.  Explain why you have undertaken this work and what it will mean for them. By allowing your audience to make clear links to their own situation, you will engage their interest and get their understanding.

  1. How am I going to tell them?

The medium you use to communicate with your audience will depend largely on the answer to the second question – what do you want them to do.  However, whether written or verbal, long or short, there are a few golden rules:

  • Make it clear – avoid jargon, write or speak clearly, keep to the point. (see also paragraph 4.2.1)
  • Make it real – use examples or data to illustrate, tie information to your audience’s situation, consider storytelling to bring your information to life (see also paragraph 4.2.2).
  • Keep it relevant – keep asking yourself ‘Does my audience need to know this?’

6.            How am I going to check that the communication has worked?

Your audience’s reaction may be enough to tell you if your communication has worked – e.g. a decision is taken.  If not, it’s worth taking time to check – for instance by asking for feedback after a presentation – not least because it also gives you the chance to clear up any misunderstanding or confusion.  Planning this checking process into your schedule will make sure it actually happens.

Overall, you need to be realistic in terms of how far you can move your audience (each individual member of an audience) in any session. In planning your communication strategy, for more complex areas (e.g. if you want to bring about change to people’s way of doing things), you will need to hold regular meetings, plan key stages and ensure there is plenty of time for feedback. Moving an audience – whether a group or an individual – takes time and is often incremental.  And when change of any kind is involved, it’s often the emotive rather than the complex issues which meet the most resistance (see also paragraph 4.2.2).

The general recommendation is to always put yourself in your audience’s shoes. Focus on the recipient (user), not on the product or message itself. When planning your communication, always remember to ask yourself this key question: what’s in it for them?

4 Recommendations and examples

This paragraph elaborates on different elements of the framework above in the context of Philippine organisations and government agencies communicating hazard and risk information to the public. Paragraph 4.1 provides recommendations for bringing more structure in the communication activities (why do we do the things we do?). This is followed in paragraph 4.2 with recommendations for the way organisations communicate.

4.1    Structuring communication activities

4.1.1 Who is my target audience and how do I reach them?

To assess the effectiveness of communication efforts, it is important to know who receives the hazard information that is being disseminated. Agencies and organisations working on disaster risk reduction have to draft a communication strategy that defines the target audience and methods to approach that specific audience.

Communities are at the center of disaster risk reduction and need to be empowered to tackle their vulnerabilities.[1] Climate change and disasters often hit poor people and poor countries hardest.[2] Knowing this, it would be most effective for disaster prevention and mitigation if the Philippine authorities reach those poor communities most at risk. In my opinion, these poor people are the “right” public to hazard and risk information. Disaster risk reduction is most effective if poor people are empowered with this information.

The questions for warning agencies and local governments is: are poor communities which are prone to disasters being reached with your existing communication methods and efforts?

In the Philippines, most people get their hazard information through radio and television. Television is the primary information source for weather-related information. This is however one-way communication and the recipient is invisible to the sender. Therefore it is difficult to estimate the reach of your message when using television and radio, let alone it’s impact.

Information disseminated via websites, mobile applications and online tools can have a large reach, however, in more remote areas of the Philippines communities have less access to a reliable internet connection. Moreover, the question is if the poorer public possesses the mobile phones to be able to use mobile applications.

A dialogue with the poor and vulnerable communities is probably the most effective way to get the hazard information at the right place and to the right people. This is a time consuming method and should be planned carefully, taking into account the community’s specific context, e.g. its risk profile and familiarity with disasters (see also paragraph 4.2.6). When the target audience has been defined and communication methods are tailored to this audience, then another important aspect is timing of the message. Does communication take place at times of impending hazards only or also during quiet times? This issue is further discussed in paragraph 4.2.3.

In sum, for effective disaster prevention, organisations should first of all define their target recipients. Most effective disaster prevention will be achieved when targeting poor, disaster prone communities. In addition, communication methods and the timing of the communication has to be considered. In other words: the communication needs to be planned!

4.1.2 Start with the end in mind

It’s not just the target audience that you want to determine in advance. Before you start with communications, keep in mind what you’d like to achieve in the end. If you have no communication objectives, target audience and strategy defined in the first place, the number of people you’ve reached says nothing about effectiveness of the communication.

Thus, come up with goals for your communication and indicators to measure results. Monitor and evaluate the effectiveness and impact after a determined period of time. Ask yourself the question: are we providing the right messages and products to the right people through the right channel at the right moment? If the answer is not what you hoped for, reconsider your strategy.

For tips and tricks on how to monitor and evaluate communication activities, you may have a look at this concise overview by EU-Interact: http://admin.interact-eu.net/downloads/3087/Presentation_Evaluation_and_communication_INTERACT.pdf.

Learning cycle of monitoring and evaluation

Learning cycle of monitoring and evaluation

4.2    Communication tips and tricks

4.2.1 In plain language

Step five of the framework for communicating technical information is: How am I going to tell them? There are two simple rules of thumb to be kept in mind each time you are communicating technical information:

  1. Keep it simple.
    Be clear, brief, avoid jargon and detailed technical explanations.
  1. What’s in it for them?
    Ask yourself this question and put yourself in the shoes of your audience.

Most disaster victims are not well-versed and well-attuned to highly scientific and English terms. Also, Filipinos appreciate quick and bite-sized information, so communication on websites, presentations, brochures and social media messages should contain information that is easy to comprehend.

Avoid jargon and consider separate information for the general public on the one hand, and the professional users on the other, with accustomed level of information. The general public is less interested in risk maps or the technique used to make them. Make that information available, e.g. through a separate web page for professionals who are requesting background information. Remember that the public only wants to know: is my house safe?

Use simple language, like in a childrens' book (ang pagong at ang matsing)

Use simple language, like in a childrens’ book (ang pagong at ang matsing)

A recently launched website by the Dutch ministry of Infrastructure and Environment uses an easy way to inform people about flood risks and their safety. A visitor to the website can enter his zip code and the website will tell this person how high the water level at his house will be (using an image) in the case of an extreme flood event. Scrolling down, the visitor will see a flood map and can choose between evacuation or staying at home. Both options provide a to do-list depending on the person’s choice. There is also a button to find more background information. The website looks attractive and is very understandable: www.overstroomik.nl (meaning: will-I-flood).

4.2.2 Emotion is the trend

The current trend with a large impact on communication (especially in times of crisis) is the prevalence of emotion in society, instead of ratio.[1] People are more likely to share messages if the content of the message is something they care about or worry about. Emotional issues are often shared with family, friends and the outside world. The theme of the message, whether it be health, politics or technology, is less important, as long as it triggers emotion in the reader.[2]

Organisations can use this knowledge to their advantage. Here are a few recommendations of how to include emotion in disaster management related communication activities.

  • Tone of message

Knowing that people communicate about emotional issues rather that rational messages, what does this mean for the way you deliver a message to the public, with the intention to reach as many people as possible? Agencies generating hazard and risk information will be inclined to communicate technical, objective messages. However, these may not be picked up and shared by the public as much as you would like.

One option to solve this, is to make a distinction between times of peace (no hazard or weather disturbance) and times of crisis (impending hazard). In times of peace adopt a ‘friendly, personal’ tone, whereas in times of crisis it is important to switch to a pragmatic and formal tone of message and communicate understandable information with a clear action plan for people.[1]

  • Storytelling

People like stories. Make your message more personal by delivering good stories, preferably about real people with a real story, but imaginary stories with a real feel could also work. The story should be recognizable for the greater public (depict reality). This way the public will be able to understand and recall the message.[2]

Beside a story, the message should have practical value as well. People like to help other people. If the message is practical and shows what to do, recipients will share it with the ones around them.[3]

  • The face of your organisation

Why not give your agency or organisation a face? Post a blog post every week with a short interview of one of your employees and his or her motivation to work for disaster risk reduction. This will put the human element in the center of the communication strategy and will narrow the gap between the technical disaster scientists and the general public. Your staff will inspire others with their own story.

An example from the Netherlands is the case of a huge tunnel project in the center of Amsterdam. They received a lot of negative publicity, due to several problems occurring with the construction of the tunnel. Then they adopted a completely different communication strategy, giving it a more human face and open approach to the outside world and especially towards the people living in the area of the building site. Instead of promoting the complexity of the project they showed the people working on the project and went that extra mile to minimize inconvenience. They maintain an attractive web page with photos, a simple layout and easy navigation: http://www.amsterdam.nl/noordzuidlijn/.

4.2.3 Peace time activities: twice an advantage

Most people search for hazard and risk information during times of weather disturbance. Regardless of the method of communication, it would be useful and important to attract the attention of the public also during “peace time”. This has two reasons:

  1. Your organisation aims to enhance disaster prevention and preparedness of the Filipinos. And this is best done under normal circumstances.
  2. Reaching out to the public during peace time will keep your organisation ‘in the picture’.

For the larger public it is most effective to engage them in hazard and risk information using several methods of communication, like social media (see more on social media in paragraph 4.2.4) as well as television and radio. Ideally, these methods are complemented with activities on the ground, such as community preparedness training.

A way to structurally communicate about hazards and risks to the general public during quiet times (weather-wise) is to do campaigning. Campaigning can be defined as ‘organised actions around a specific issue seeking to bring about changes in the policy and behaviours of institutions and/or specific public groups…the mobilising of forces by organisations and individuals to influence others in order to effect an identified and desired social, economic, environmental or political change.’[1] A campaign can focus on a specific theme or issue (e.g. ‘what is a storm surge’) but there are other types of campaigns as well.[2]

It is important to plan your campaigns ahead. Brainstorm about the theme, length, budget, target group, method and period of the different campaigns you like to implement throughout the year. Keep other scheduled activities into account, for example IECs. Make sure campaigns and other activities enforce each other, keep consistency and cohesion in mind. Perhaps engage celebrities in these campaigns as ambassadors of your message to attract more attention.

Consider, as part of a campaign or separately, to organize fun and informative events. These are two examples of events from abroad:

US: National Prepareathon Day
America’s PrepareAthon! is an opportunity for individuals, organizations, and communities to prepare for specific hazards through drills, group discussions, and exercises. In the Philippines an event like this could for example be part of the Disaster Consciousness Month and encourage people to be proactive in preparation. See more information on http://www.community.fema.gov/connect.ti/AmericasPrepareathon.

Disaster readiness selfie competition
Philippines is the selfie capital of the world. Organize a selfie competition in which people show how they prepare for potential hazards. It’s fun and inspires others to do the same. The municipality of Utrecht in the Netherlands for example wanted tourists to discover the best locations in town by using the knowledge of locals. They asked locals to upload a selfie taken at their favourite restaurant, park, shop or other location. See the website http://echtutrecht.nl/.

4.2.4 Social media to the max

To reach the younger generation use social media as much as possible. Below are some recommendations to be more effective in the use of social media.

  • Link on website

On the homepage of your organisation’s website there should be a button that directly links to your social media pages. This way users can access Facebook and Twitter straight from the web page.

Example: homepage of US Environmental Protection Agency

Example: homepage of US Environmental Protection Agency

  • Encourage interaction

Try to make social media posts interactive, e.g. ask recipients questions to initiate dialogue. This way you can get to know your recipients better and if necessary, redirect your strategy if you discover that your messages do not reach the target audience.

  • Find a balance

Prevent too many messages in too little time. You don’t want your recipients to drown in warnings and information. They will find it difficult to distinguish which message is truly important for them and which one isn’t. Find the right dose and tailor the messages for the intended target groups. Don’t try to put too much information in one message.

  • Crowdsourcing

Use the public as your wisdom: crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing can be used for example to optimize your message or warnings. US Geological Survey has for example used Twitter to ask the public to complete a survey about how early warning messages should be structured.

Crowdsourcing example by US Geological Survey

Crowdsourcing example by US Geological Survey

  • Optimizing Twitter and Facebook messages

Many agencies and organisations already communicate through their own Facebook page and through a Twitter account. Below are some tips and tricks to get more out of Twitter and Facebook messages.

  1. How to get more retweets?

If you use a Twitter account to disseminate typhoon warnings, satellite images and other hazard related information you should aim to generate many retweets. The more retweets of your message, the further this important information will be able to spread, the more people will receive it.

Research[1] by Twittercounter blog has identified what type of tweets people are more likely to retweet:

  1. News: tweets that are timely, news worthy and create a sort of urgency by containing the word “Breaking” get the most retweets.
  2. Tweets with images.
  3. Tweets with facts and figures.
  4. Tweets with calls to action.
  5. Tweets that are not too long, ideally between 100-115 characters.
  6. People are more likely to retweet information that is valuable to them. The more useful the information the more eager they are to share it with their followers.
  7. Humorous tweets.
  1. Tips for a better result through Facebook

If your organisation communicates through Facebook, these are five tips[2] that help to create the perfect Facebook message.

  1. A message with >80 words attracts more engagement.
  2. Messages with a photo attract more engagement.
  3. Messages posted after working hours, between 5-11pm generate more interaction.
  4. Messages posted during the weekend attract more engagement.
  5. If posting during the week, choose the Thursday before 1 PM.

It is worth applying these tips to your messages on social media and evaluate the results after a while.

4.2.5 Deliver what you promise

For all products, tools and other information material it is best to communicate about them at the moment they are actually of use to the target group. E.g. avoid promotion of hazards maps that are not yet available to the public or new tools that are online but largely ’empty’. You will look more professional if you communicate at the moment that you are certain the target recipients can access information specific for their area.

The first thing people will do, is search information for their own area. The communication about maps, information and tools should be customized to the public that you are addressing at the time of communication. When you are addressing a certain public, e.g. a community living in a specific area:

Show them the available information that applies to them and is therefore of use to them,

2. Or: explain when applicable information will be made available and how. After all, you want them to keep returning to your website, Facebook page, etc.

Better to be honest and open about what you not (yet) have than to disappoint your interested audience!

4.2.6 Model for Risk Communication

Does risk information require a different communication approach than hazard information? In my opinion, the difference lies in perception. Risk perception may differ from hazard perception in a way that individuals or communities may be aware of a hazard but do not consider themselves at risk, if they feel they are not vulnerable or exposed to the hazard. For example, a community may be living in a flood-prone area, but are not at risk because they have adapted their houses, they have a functioning early warning system, etc. Of course perception and reality may differ from one another and that’s where you need to be sensitive in your communication.

A study[1] by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security reveals that ‘effective communication must take into account how various publics perceive risk influenced by societal and cultural factors rather than just focusing on science.’ Additional factors that contribute to effective public warnings include information on how special needs publics respond differently than the general public to risks and the role of media in educating the public about risks. The degree of dread associated with a risk and the public’s familiarity with a risk have an impact on risk perceptions and behaviors. Degree and familiarity vary with the type of risk, e.g. risks related to natural hazards, risks related to terrorist attacks or diseases. Consequently, the type of risk makes a difference in people’s perception and behavior.

Furthermore, communication is not the same during the preparedness, response and recovery phase. ‘Risk communication at the preparedness phase is designed to understand and address the public’s awareness and knowledge gaps related to risk events, to elicit desired preparedness behaviors through identifying and utilizing effective communication channels, to ensure adequate understanding, and to educate about what actions to take when messages are issued.’

The report by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security gives a general guidance for risk communication during the preparedness phase:

  1. Involve community members in disseminating preparedness messages;
  2. Ensure information comes from multiple channels and is repeated often;
  3. Understand how publics’ perceive risk prior to disseminating risk messages.

The report ‘Understanding Risk Communication Theory’ by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is a useful starting point for studying risk communication models.

4.2.7 Articles worth reading

These are some articles related to communication in general and hazards and risks in specific.

The nuts and bolts of a perfect Facebook Post (image in English)

 

 

References:

[1]             Based on a framework discussed on the following career forum: http://www.ion.icaew.com/Careersblog/post/How-can-I-communicate-technical-information-to-a-non-technical-audience–so-that-they-really-understand-what-I-m-saying- . Last accessed 29/09/2014.

[2]     Source: http://www.ion.icaew.com/Careersblog/post/How-can-I-communicate-technical-information-to-a-non-technical-audience–so-that-they-really-understand-what-I-m-saying- . Last accessed 29/09/2014.

[3]     The Disaster Risk Reduction and Management act of 2010 recognizes the importance of a bottom-up approach to reduce disaster risks.

[4]             Read for instance: UNISDR (2008), Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction. Briefing note 01.

[5]                   Source: http://www.communicatieonline.nl/blog/crisiscommunicatie-aan-reorganisatie-toe. Last accessed 29/09/2014.

[6]     Source:  http://www.marketingonline.nl/blog/buzzmarketing-de-6-principes-van-aanstekelijkheid#sthash.iiF5WruB.dpuf . Last accessed 29/09/2014.

[7]     Source: http://www.communicatieonline.nl/blog/mh17-dicteert-nieuwe-regels-voor-crisiscommunicatie-en-journalistiek. Last accessed 29/09/2014.

[8]     Source: https://www.marketingfacts.nl/berichten/een-goed-verhaal-zorgt-voor-een-onuitwisbare-indruk. Last accessed     29/09/2014.

[9]             Source: http://www.marketingonline.nl/blog/buzzmarketing-de-6-principes-van-aanstekelijkheid#sthash.iiF5WruB.dpuf . Last accessed 29/09/2014.

[10]     Source: http://knowhownonprofit.org/campaigns/campaigning/about-campaigning-and-lobbying/whatis. Last accessed 12/09/2014.

[11]     See: What is campaigning? http://knowhownonprofit.org/campaigns/campaigning/about-campaigning-and-lobbying/whatis. Last accessed 12/09/2014.

[12]     What do people love retweeting? http://twittercounter.com/blog/2014/07/people-love-retweeting/. Last accessed 12/09/2014.

[13]             The Nuts and Bolts of a perfect Facebook Post. http://www.dutchcowboys.nl/socialmedia/wat-heb-je-nodig-voor-het-perfecte-facebook-bericht. Last accessed 12/09/2014.

[14]     Understanding Risk Communication Theory: A Guide for Emergency Managers and Communicators. Report to Human Factors/Behavioral Sciences Division, Science and Technology Directorate, U.S. Department of Homeland Security (May 2012). http://www.start.umd.edu/sites/default/files/files/publications/UnderstandingRiskCommunicationTheory.pdf

4 thoughts on “Effective communication of hazard and risk information

  1. Pingback: Reducing Vulnerability of Disaster Risk in Leon, Iloilo by Communicating Climatic Data from Project Noah of DOST-PAGASA | DevCom Sheryzade Aligaen

  2. I am supporting the project NOAH. Filipinos really needs an advance technology to inform us about our unpredictable weather condition. Preparedness is the answer for the Philippines to prevent massive destruction of our property and save a lots of lives.

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