From Risk to Resilience: A Social Enterprise Model

Since Hurricane Katrina, extreme natural and man-made events have strongly influenced how the federal government – the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in particular – has responded to major and unusually complex disasters and threats. What has emerged in terms of lessons learned is the recognition that simply responding is not enough. Public expectations about what should happen, and when, have evolved at such a pace and level of sophistication that adaptability, agility, and community engagement have become central requirements in FEMA’s response policies, protocols, and lexicon.

A number of important forces and trends are already shaping how FEMA effectively communicates and engages key stakeholders by, among other actions:

  • Engaging audiences driven by a 24-hour news cycle and a social media environment in which FEMA’s performance is evaluated constantly and instantaneously;
  • Understanding the added complexity associated with the expansion of human-constructed environments and their interactions with the natural environment;
  • Optimizing the agency’s own social capital by building and sustaining strong working relationships prior to the start of various emergencies and disasters;
  • Adopting enterprise-wide methods for decentralizing and democratizing data – and making policy real by building networks based on trust, reciprocity, and inclusiveness;
  • Integrating new and proven leadership skills;
  • Understanding, valuing, and embracing the full potential of the “whole community” concept; and
  • Harnessing the power of resiliency as being more than just an improved operational response with an enhanced state of mind, belief in the mission, high level of confidence, and solid leadership.

The risk (or benefit) of anticipating, preparing, and responding to any of these trends can be significant. For example, in its response to Superstorm Sandy and its aftermath, FEMA’s situational awareness mindset significantly improved the agency’s capability to: (a) anticipate real and potential cascading or unexpected events that could lead to increased operational or communication failures or missteps; (b) leverage interdependencies across agencies; and (c) monitor and track the influence of the social media in shaping how audiences access, share, and act on information.

The Building Blocks of a True Social Enterprise

Social capital plays a critical role in building resilient communities and is rooted in a deep level of community trust and connectedness that fosters respect, cooperation, and collective action. In order to fully harness the power of social capital, the next logical step for FEMA is to adopt and integrate a forward-looking “Social Enterprise” approach in its outreach and engagement efforts. The principal building blocks of that approach would be social motivation and social marketing as well as use of social media, various social measures, and social models. Following is a brief summary of how each of those terms would fit into the overall social enterprise:

Social motivation – Communicating the “why” of mitigation and resilience: At the heart of nearly three decades of risk-science research and practice are well established social, cognitive, and behavioral theories and principles. That research would assist in many ways in identifying and informing the conditions, factors, and/or events needed if an individual or group is to be persuaded or dissuaded. For individuals, FEMA’s communications should help answer fundamental questions about how various actions – or, sometimes, the lack of action – can affect both the financial and human costs of a disaster as well as the ability to deal with uncertainties and consequences. At the community level, understanding the perceptions that motivate action or inaction can help inform FEMA’s own broader communications strategy.

Social marketing – Converting social awareness to social capital: Social marketing augments FEMA’s current public communication strategies primarily through the application of commercial marketing principles. The effective use of social marketing enhances social awareness, which in turn leads to optimizing social capital. The social marketing model has been used successfully over the past 30 years to create and promote social and behavior changes in such well known public awareness campaigns as the use of seatbelts and the application of sunscreen lotions. By applying social marketing to risk mitigation, FEMA can use what are called the “8 Ps” to reach target audiences and change behavior: Price (e.g., monetary and non-monetary costs); Product (e.g., information and materials); Place (e.g., communications channels); Promotion (e.g., techniques); Public (e.g., external/internal groups with a vested interest); Partnership (e.g., with credible like-minded associations and agencies); Policy (e.g., procedures and guidelines); and Purse Strings (e.g., grants, donations, gifts).

Social media – Sharing the right message with the right people at the right time: Effective media interaction and the use of social media tools and techniques help provide FEMA’s key stakeholders with timely, accurate, and consistent risk information. When optimally combined and deployed, the offline as well as online media can and should be integral to facilitating information exchanges aimed at promoting actions that include but are not limited to the following: building, maintaining, and/or restoring trust; improving consumer and media knowledge and understanding; guiding appropriate and protective attitudes, decisions, and actions; and encouraging collaboration and cooperation. All of these goals can be achieved through proactively engaging communities about risks that they themselves can control and/or by dissuading individual citizens, or groups, from actions and/or behaviors that increase risk.

Social measures – Harnessing strategic tools and techniques: By employing best practices, FEMA will ensure that its strategy aligns with its operational as well as communication objectives. New visualization and social media techniques help communicate the complex nature of risk and employ rigorous, reproducible, and repeatable methodologies and tools – and, by doing so, will improve situational awareness, real-time analytics, decision making, public and partner engagement, and both operations and information management.

Social models – Building and sustaining resilient communities: FEMA’s ongoing public outreach efforts have allowed a number of communities to better prepare for and respond to natural disasters. Applying social marketing and whole community models will help the agency further increase the community adoption of risk-prevention actions. In the short as well as long term, these measurable increases and improvements in actions taken will help FEMA better meet the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s overall stated objective to “strengthen nationwide preparedness and mitigation against natural disasters.”

Timothy Tinker

Timothy (Tim) Tinker, DrPH, a nationally recognized expert in risk and crisis communications, is a senior associate and director of Booz Allen Hamilton’s Center for Risk and Crisis Communication, which provides a broad knowledge base of best practices and tactics to effectively plan for, respond to, and recover from emergencies and disasters. Before joining BAH, he was senior vice president (2001-2007) of Widmeyer Communication, where he formed a national and global network of risk and crisis communication experts to assist such major federal agencies as the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Before entering the private sector, he had a long and distinguished government career, as chief of communications and research at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a sister agency of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, GA. He received his doctorate from University of Texas Health Sciences Center.



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