Crises can assault a community in an instant or creep into it gradually, wreaking random havoc until the community is firmly in its grip. Conventional explosions, category-five hurricanes, chemical releases (accidental or intentional), shooting sprees, deadly disease outbreaks, 500-year floods, dirty bombs, earthquakes, and raging tornadoes – these are just some of the disasters the American people have directly experienced or have been warned about in recent years.

In almost any scenario involving public-health emergencies and crises, there are only two common denominators – suffering people who are in need of health-risk information; and officials who are expected to provide an appropriate response. All too often, unfortunately, a failure on the part of the official responders to “be first,” “be right,” and “be credible” – and deliver an empathetic message at the same time – interferes with what otherwise would be a well planned and executed response to the crisis.  However, by integrating what are called CERC (crisis and emergency-risk communications) strategies into the planning and initial disaster-response stages of an incident, operations will be improved and recovery will be hastened.

Empathy is most effective in the first 30 seconds of the larger message. To wait any longer is usually a waste of time.

In these situations, the public basically wants to know: first, what has happened; and second, as much information as possible about how to protect themselves, their families, and their communities. The challenge for communicators, therefore, is to give the public what most citizens need and want to know, but without making the fog of chaos even more dense – and without creating an information overload.  Essentially, the public wants to be given the information they need: (a) to protect themselves and their loved ones from the dangers they are facing; (b) to make well-informed decisions in light of the information currently available to them; (c) to play an active participatory role in the response and recovery phases of an incident; (d) to act as volunteer watchdogs over the expenditure of resources (both public and donated funds); and (e) in the end, to recover and/or preserve well-being, normalcy, and economic security.

In turn, the objectives for information released to the public by responding authorities in the early stages of a crisis are to prevent further illness, injury, or death; to maintain or restore calm; and to engender confidence in the operational responses being taken. In a public-health crisis or emergency, effective communication to and with the public is a necessity, not a luxury, because the public needs information from its leaders and, conversely, those leaders need support and cooperation from the public.

The Principles of Tool Management

Many predictable and possibly harmful individual and community behaviors can be mitigated through the use of effective crisis and emergency-risk communications.  However, CERC is not an attempt at mass mental therapy. It is a reasoned and mature communication approach to the selection of message, messenger, and method of delivery.  As such, CERC offers responders communications tools as legitimate and as helpful, when used properly, as any other resource used in the aftermath of a disaster.

CERC principles stress that simplicity, credibility, verifiability, consistency, and speed all count when communicating in an emergency.  An effective message must come from a legitimate source. It also must be specific to the emergency being experienced, must offer a positive course of action, and in most cases must be repeated and/or updated as frequently as needed and as the situation dictates. Communication experts – and leaders who have faced actual disasters – are virtually unanimous in describing the numerous ways to cripple or even destroy the success of a disaster-response operation. High on that list are the following five mistakes:

  1. The sending of mixed messages by multiple experts;
  2. Information released late;
  3. Paternalistic attitudes;
  4. The failure to counter rumors and myths as soon as possible; and
  5. Public power struggles and other confusing actions.


Fortunately, considerable research in the history of successful communications, especially crisis communications, substantiates the conclusion that these mistakes, including those made during a crisis, can be overcome. The following five steps are the key to communication success:

  • Execute a solid communication plan;
  • Be the first source for information;
  • Express empathy early;
  • Demonstrate competence and expertise; and
  • Remain honest and open at all times.

Empathy is the ability to understand what another human being is feeling. Empathy does not require one to actually feel what the other person is feeling, or even to agree that what the other person is feeling is appropriate to the situation. It is, rather, the ability to be able at the very least to understand and describe what the other person is feeling. In its best form, empathy is “talking from the heart” and relating to fellow human beings as just that: fellow human beings – not as victims, or casualties, or as evacuees or refugees or, more generally, “the public,” but as individual human beings who, in a crisis, are hurting not only physically but also emotionally, and probably even more so.

Empathy First, the How-To Information Later

Other research shows that an expression of empathy is most effective when given in the first 30 seconds of the larger message. To wait any longer is usually a waste of time, because the public will be waiting to hear whether or not the speaker really “gets it” – in other words, whether he or she truly understands that they are frightened, anxious, and confused.  If officials do not articulate what the public is actually feeling at the moment, the audience’s minds will be consumed with the question “Do they get it?” and not hear anything else that the officials are saying. A sincere expression of empathy early in the communication will allow people to answer the question uppermost in their minds and actually hear, and understand, the more substantive information those same officials will be giving them later in the message.

To achieve honesty and openness in crisis communication, however, means facing the realities of the situation and responding accordingly. It means not being paternalistic but, rather, participatory – giving people not only choices, if possible, but also enough of the substantive information they need to make appropriate decisions. In situations of great uncertainty, the public should be told why additional information may not be available for release at that time. To build trust, the public also should be allowed to observe the process, insofar as possible – while at the same time being reminded that following the process is what determines the quality and effectiveness of the emergency response.

Finally, trust (built upon expressed empathy and demonstrated competence, honesty, commitment, and accountability) is the foundation of effective crisis and emergency-risk communication. Therefore, building a reputation for effective risk management – undertaken well in advance of a crisis situation – is critical if an organization hopes to successfully practice crisis and emergency-risk communication. Put simply, if an organization and its leaders are not willing to put enough advance effort into building and maintaining trust – not only with its stakeholders but also with the public in general – then executing other elements of the communication plan is a wasted effort.

None of the preceding should be considered an implied promise that a community faced with a potential public health emergency or crisis will overcome its challenges solely through application of effective communication principles. However, it should be clearly understood that an organization can quickly and easily compound its problems during an emergency if it has neglected sound crisis and emergency-risk communication planning.

With current communication capabilities and the experience of numerous recent disasters to draw on, it is possible, therefore: (a) to predict, with reasonable certitude, both the types of disasters the nation and/or individual communities are likely to face in the foreseeable future; and (b) to anticipate, with the same certitude, the questions the public probably will ask during a disaster. In that context, the best course of action for decision makers at all levels of government to follow is to plan now – not only with their communication and public-information professionals, but also with their disaster-response partners – including the people they serve.

Barbara Reynolds

Barbara Reynolds, an internationally known writer in the fields of communications and health-care matters, has been a crisis-communication consultant on health issues for Australia, Canada, France, Hong Kong, former Soviet Union nations, NATO, and the World Health Organization. Her work at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been used in the planning for and/or response to pandemic influenza, vaccine safety, emerging disease outbreaks, and bioterrorism. She is the author of, among other publications, the 2002 book Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication, CDC's Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication course, and the 2006 Pandemic Influenza Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication course. Prior to her affiliation with CDC in 1991 she served as a senior press officer specializing in infectious diseases and vaccine safety issues.

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