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The selection of contents in emergency communication

What are the new sources of information? How to choose news and data to communicate in an emergency, when the pace is imposed by circumstances? The selection of contents in emergency communication is a delicate issue and full of responsibility.

Our guest, Clara Attene, journalist, educator and specialist in data visualization, possesses precisely the dynamics and tools to train for this purpose. In this interview, she starts with the identification of authoritative sources and arrives at practical suggestions and useful precautions to be adopted by emergency communicators.

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What are the factors that an emergency communicator must consider?

An emergency is an exceptional event, which requires timely responses since it puts a system in crisis. The involvement of the individual, a community, a territory, together with gravity, requires that evolution be carefully monitored to limit the negative effects. So what are the factors that an emergency communicator must consider?

Since these are processes with clear characteristics that determine the various relative actions, including the transmission of information flows, effective emergency communication must take into account:

  • the characteristics of the target group, starting by identifying the categories of stakeholders
  • the source of the information, to determine the authoritativeness of what is transmitted
  • the content and form of communication , since everything contributes to the reduction of further risks and can encourage virtuous behaviour for risk containment
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Symbolism and metaphors in emergency communication

What is contained in the narrative of an emergency operated by the mass media, which draws so much from the imagination? What is the role of language in this communication and what are the limits of the symbolic and metaphors in emergency communication, so as to avoid being rhetorical? “Angeli del fango”, “eroi delle macerie”, “bomba d’acqua”, “guerra al virus” (angels of the mud, heroes of the ruins, cloudburst (lit. ‘water bomb’), war against the virus): why do we often use war-derived metaphors and what are the alternatives?

In this interview, he talks exclusively to About Emergency the illustrious Matteo Adamoli, Professor of Pedagogy of Communication and Digital Storytelling at the IUSVE Salesian University Institute .

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The issue of preventive communication must be addressed now (statement without deadline)

There is never a wrong time to tackle the issue of preventive communication. To be even more precise, ideally, it would be started from when an emergency gets past the peak of the crisis: this is the precise moment in which to start working to optimize future responses.

Indeed, this is the phase in which the critical issues are still very evident and this is when these issues must be marked, put down in black and white, in order to come back and examine them during the de-briefing, first of all, but also in order to start thinking about the future. The role of good emergency communication in the preventive phase is to allow people to equip themselves with ready mental defences in case a critical event should occur. In this event, these defences are activated, promoting the resilience that is so widely discussed, i.e. a flexible mechanism that enables easier recovery by individuals and the whole community.

Responsibility for preventive emergency communication

What is the responsibility of those in charge of communication? Let's start from the very nature of the matter: it foresees that information, notions and protocols that guide a society must be shared when an emergency occurs. Since this breaks with ordinariness and puts the very cornerstones of mental and physical survival at risk, having acquired, absorbed guideline allows them to be followed at a time when panic could take over.

This is not the place to talk about the various and many defence mechanisms activated by the human mind in the event of trauma, such as that inevitably generated by an emergency. But this is the place to understand how to create a suitable defence mechanism, i.e. not lacking and not based on ‘common sense’ and ‘hearsay’. This form of accumulation of noise in our brain, day after day, will in fact only generate confusion at the time of actual exposure to an emergency. Without considering that it could cause further trauma and lead to us needing help, precisely because we find ourselves unprepared.

What is pre-emergency preventive communication?

It is one of the non-structural prevention activities defined by the Legislative Decree no 1 of 2 January 2018: Civil Protection Code. The underlying logic is that, by taking advantage of the ordinary period, we can take care of training and information within the population. The relative normality enables the application of different didactic approaches, which can range from citizens’ courses to practical training for volunteers (to cite some examples), and the continued and incessant research to optimize the responses to possible and future emergencies.

In essence, the basic purposes of this phase are:

  • to prevent risk as far as possible
  • to provide information on how to manage and deal with risk

Those in charge of pre-emergency communication must provide secure information, above all scientifically proven, on the risks to which the target group is exposed. This last factor is indeed the central element that determines how severely an emergency will hit a territory. Knowing the risks and knowing how to behave in the event of an emergency are therefore fundamental factors for triggering those defence mechanisms that we mentioned at the beginning of this article. Another important aspect to remember in this phase is to make public the warning signs relating to that specific risk and the territory in which it can occur. The third and final aspect is to provide information on the actions to be taken or those definitely not to be taken, should the emergency occur and the warning signals be issued.

Why train people when there is no emergency?

Training as many people as possible in good practices to be implemented before an event occurs and the behaviour to be adopted if it occurs is today a necessity. Just think of how many environmental emergencies the Italian peninsula is exposed to. Here in the pre-emergency phase, communication must be planned in an ongoing and thorough manner. It is a factor that thus involves time, as it requires continuity, but also space, as it requires reaching as many people as possible. We will deal with the public issue of emergency communication separately; certainly, if a preschooler learns how to call an emergency number or an elderly person learns how to minimize the dangers to which he risks being exposed, not only will there be two fewer people needing help, but they will potentially be able to help their community.

To understand fully how to warn of risk and, therefore, how to operate in a preventive way, it is only right to cite in conclusion the example of the national communication campaign IO NON RISCHIO (I DON’T TAKE RISKS) . Dedicated to good civil protection practices, as is clear from the name chosen, it is an invitation to declare in a loud voice our firm intention to do everything in our power to reduce the risks to which we are exposed. It is a demonstration of how good preventive communication ahead of an emergency always starts out with the individual awareness in protection of a whole community.

Emergency communication at municipal level

Emergency communication at municipal level: the subject for today is a hot topic. The testimony, which we have the honour of welcoming at About Emergency, is even more so.

So THANK YOU to Francesco Alleva, spokesman for the municipal administration of Bergamo.

In these 30 minutes, he tells us how they managed the Covid-19 emergency in the two most violent months for the community, how they operated on and offline and about the role played by volunteers.

See the whole interview here!

Covid-19 emergency: crisis communication for businesses

Opinion leaders, influencers and different kinds of communicators have made plenty of contributions since the Covid-19 emergency first began. More than a month after the start of the pandemic, few of them have actually proven to be significant, with one example, however, being the paper written by Scott Kronick. This name may not mean much to most people, but if we mention the name of the advertising agency for which he is Managing Director in Asia, then it’s perhaps easier to understand his authority on the subject: we're talking about Ogilvy, the historic international advertising giant, for which he created the vade mecum on "How to communicate in turbulent times".

Commonly used words during the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 infection of viral origin, caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, better known as the (new) Coronavirus ... such a complex sentence which can lead to so much confusion, with more or less awareness. This article talks about emergency communications, dealing with the words involved with the pandemic. Some were predominant at the start, others have been used more by the media waiting for the number of infections to peak and others are still on the horizon. This article was written during the days when the total number of contagions was presumed to have peaked in Italy, so it will be interesting to find out together if the future will hold other details, in addition to those identified so far.

Communication styles of media figures during the Covid-19 emergency

"One cannot not communicate" states the first communication axiom of the Palo Alto School (California), of which Paul Watzlawick was one of the greatest exponents. We wanted to put this theory to the test by analysing a number of media figures during the Covid-19 emergency. In fact, on the one hand, you’ll find institutional contexts as sources, where speeches are written, viewpoints are measured and there is plenty of time to choose the right outfit, but, on the other, we have attempted to define the communication styles that have emerged in five of the most prominent media figures during this emergency, making use of a topic in psychology called "Neuro-Linguistic Programming" (NLP) .

Storm Vaia and the role of volunteers in the Belluno area

Storm Vaia, which raged through Italy's Eastern Alps in October 2018, highlighted how vulnerable a territory can be, the tangibility of climate change and the importance of weather warnings. The violence of this storm forced authorities to critically review protocols and time frames, but once again shone a positive light on volunteers. Their responsiveness meant they took the leading role in the delicate process of emergency communication. Storm Vaia is a good example because it affected areas where organised volunteering is increasingly becoming an institution, also due to the evident requirements of such a complex geomorphology.

The Belluno Fire Brigade

The Belluno Fire Brigade is exemplary, having probably the most detachments of volunteers in Italy, spread across the area: in fact, there are twenty one of them, evenly distributed throughout the province. In this area, the first phase of the emergency was tackled by these fire brigade volunteers. Where there is often difficult terrain, being an active member of the community is part of an innate sense of responsibility, representing a value that characterises mountain communities. The Chief of the Belluno Fire Brigade, Girolamo Bentivoglio Fiandra, defined this virtue as follows: “It is a sort of tradition and culture of self-protection, which characterises mountain environments. They are always ready for action right from the start." An innate and widespread rescue culture which, in the context of Vaia, when many roads were blocked by falling trees, allowed for first aid to arrive to areas that would otherwise have remained isolated for a number of hours, due to the need to cut through the trees and clear the roads. So, the volunteers were the first to bring both technical and psychological support to people, often elderly and finding themselves isolated. "Organised volunteering" of course refers to something that goes well beyond improvisation and that feeling of momentum experienced when, faced with an emergency, people feel the need to be useful.

The importance of training

First of all, it means that the volunteers have been trained, which is challenging considering that these people often have professions that have nothing to do with civil protection or healthcare volunteering.
After training, volunteers are assigned a role to play in the rescue process, but before this they are also given a "communication" role when an emergency arises. In the case of the volunteers for the Belluno Fire Brigade, the local command unit is in charge of both training and activating the Operations Room.
"When they are called upon to add to the local rescue effort, - the Chief reiterated - they are firefighters to all intents and purposes.” As is the case in other areas, there are detachments that are operational, organised in shifts at their relative bases and who are ready to go in a matter of minutes. Other detachments, on the other hand, provide support by being on call, meaning they have more time than those on shift to become a member of the permanent team.
Since these are people who work and have their own private life, volunteers are obviously most operational at weekends. This passion requires commitment and awareness, an added value that is a must for rescue professionals, considering that they represent 50% of operators who intervene in an emergency. Just think of the figures from the Belluno area: the 250 professional firefighters there can count on 450 volunteers.
What could have been done better? As is so often the case, to answer this question, the requests for help and the damages caused by the emergency (in the case of storm Vaia, these were very limited in terms of people but devastating for the environment) must be the starting point for a post-emergency situation that can act as a prelude to the next. The very reason behind post-emergency communication is to provide an element to work on for effective pre-emergency communication, should this be required in the future.

The full interview with the Chief of the Belluno Fire Brigade, Girolamo Bentivoglio Fiandra is available at this link.

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