Effectively Communicating Forecasts and Risks

Some of the hardest things you can do in effectively influencing behaviour in emergencies is to find the balance between risk, forecast, and actual impacts.  This has been heavily impacted by the rise of social media, and the ability for people to access products they’ve never seen before, and without interpretation, or a weighing of accuracy, can lead to undue concern or complacency.

A perfect example is looking at the Qualitative Precipitation Forecast (QPF) models from the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center.  The forecasts are helpful if you understand that they aren’t gospel, especially when you get to the 5 or 7 day forecasts.  These can be helpful in determining the possibility of heavy rainfall, and even provide some clarity as to heavy concentrations, but shouldn’t be taken as a true representation of actual risk.  What we’ve also seen is that depending on the nature of the meteorological conditions creating the potential rainfall, they can be incredibly hard to predict.  This tweet from Dan Reilly, the Warning Coordination Meterologist for NWS Houston/Galveston shows a perfect example:

Leaders in meteorology, emergency management, and media need to be cautious with the power they hold.  Sharing these images without concurrent interpretation can cause a mis-balance of truth v. possibility.  A better strategy is to post a video where the image cannot be separated from the interpretation…

What are good ways to balance forecast with modeling?  How can we make messages actionable without causing undue concern?

Planning for the next attack, how France stood ready to meet information needs following the attack in Nice.

Planning for the next attack, how France stood ready to meet information needs following the attack in Nice.

Sitting here absorbing the news of another  brutal, disgusting attack on sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, and friends in Nice, France, I can’t fathom what it would be like to be in the middle of it.  In these types of situations, I find myself truly mourning for those who are suffering loss, and also feeling a deep sense of camaraderie with those who are charged with jumping into the chaos, confusion and pain and delivery life-saving and heart-soothing information.

What I’ve seen from my colleagues in France has been an incredible amount of preparation, coordination and service provided through the various communication mediums.

It looks like steps taken following the Paris attacks have resulted in a more prepared communication structure in French response.

One of the things we always have to communicate is what the government is doing, and explaining processes to the public that we live with and understand every day, but are brand new to them in a crisis.

The  Ministère des Affaires étrangères et du Développement international  (Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development) tweeted this graphic yesterday to show each of the roles that federal departments play in an attack response.

It’s clear that this graphic wasn’t developed in the heat of the battle.  Having this type of information developed ahead of time limits the stress on your public affairs staff when tragedy strikes.

Rumour Control

One of the key elements of JIC/JIS operations is monitoring and countering rumors.  I don’t think anyone has ever suggested an approach that works to prevent rumors from starting in the first place.  The French Government posted this graphic (again, pre-designed) which discourages the sharing of rumors related to the incident.

Rough Google Translation: “”Act in a Responsible Way; during the crisis/ Avoid spreading rumors/ Only relay messages from accounts that you know and you trust, including the official accounts. Disseminating unconfirmed, potentially inaccurate  information and may slow deployment of relief and put lives in danger. Check your sources rather than hastily  relay information. This may help the emergency services”

Victim Identification and Maintaining Human Decency

In our social media-infused world, especially in high-emotion times, peoples’ sense of right, wrong and appropriate can become skewed.  At a recent seminar our region hosted on mass casulaty events, we discussed the importance of limiting victim information until next of kin could be notified in an appropriate, respectful way.  Unforutantely, in some cases, family members and friends have been “notified’ of the death of someone through social media.

To counter this, the French National Police issued the following tweet, which I translated and re-tweeted:

Additionally, we know the toll that these types of events, and the graphic images generated from them can cause on the mental health of victims and even those unassociated with the event.  As a father, I’m seeing images of children’s bodies covered in a blanket on a street and having to hold back tears and rage.   We must also remember, that as a society, we need to shield our children from the horrors of the brokenness of this world until they are mature enough to process what they are seeing.  This was something that the National Police had thought of, and even produced an English-language graphic to detail it:

Crowdsourced Suspicious Activity Reporting

One of the things I think is an excellent tool is to open up social media SAR (Suspcisious Activity Reporting) to the public.  We often tell folks that if they “See Something, Say Something (R)”.  This is often in the context of physical security, and suspicious physical or economic activity.  The French government has set up a website that allows people who may have seen something suspicious on social media, the opportunity to report it to French authorities. This may be a best practice to implement here.

Consistency and Credibility

imagerep01The French government already has a pretty robust graphic identity, which uses the revolutionary symbol of Marianne to convey a consistent, unified image across the government.  Throughout the response, I’ve also seen a very simple concept in place.  The use of a pre-determined template for phone numbers and other key information to be shared with citizens that reflects the existing branding which french citizens can recognize.

Some may argue that it a crisis is not the time to be thinking of branding and identity.  I would argue that it is the perfect time to put your brand to work.  In the straw heap that is social media when a disaster strikes, a user sifting through feeds and information should be able to quickly discern between official and unofficial sources.  If you’ve worked on establishing your brand ahead of time with your citizenry – they will likely recognize your message as official, and will place more trust that the information you provided is accurate.
That being said, it requires you to 1) have a brand and 2) use consistent branding techniques to establish your organization as a key player and/or authority in the community.


Moving Forward

This will, unfortunately, not be the last terrorist attack we see, and the reality is that the next one could be here.  As public communicators, we have a role and responsibility to share information that helps empower people in these types of tragedies, and help guide the broader, societal response in a way that limits the mental and emotional stress on the people we serve.

It would be smart of us to prepare now for the worst, and be ready to fill that gap when its needed.