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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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.

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