Disaster Communication: Tips for Effective Communication

This article discusses the crucial issue of communicating information to the public. Communication is a key influence on the psychological responses of the public to a disaster incident. The public require information that is clear, trusted and timely; rumours will fill an information vacuum. The tensions between the need to communicate information to the public and the concerns raised by the release of information are also discussed. See also the article on Communication Problems in Disasters.

This article is an extract from my 82-page report "Psychological and Behavioural Responses to CBRN Disasters: Implications for emergency response, community, and business continuity" Get the full report...

Risk communication

Following any disaster, but particularly a CBRN incident, the public will be primarily concerned about safety. In particular, because many of the agents associated with a CBRN incident will be imperceptible without specialist equipment, the public will actively seek information to determine whether they are at risk and what measures they can take to protect themselves (Fullerton, Ursano, & Norwood, 2004).

The public will have legitimate concerns and many specific questions such as:

  • “How do I know if I’ve been exposed?”
  • “What is being done to protect us?”
  • “Where can I get help if I need it?”
  • “Where is safe and where is not?”

(Tinker & Vaughan, 2004).

The primary role of communication to the public should be to address these questions and to fill the information vacuum before rumours, myths and misinformation promulgate (Durodie & Wessely, 2002).

The release of inaccurate, confusing, or contradictory information has the potential to increase levels of demoralization, as well as discrediting the authorities concerned. Moreover, if risk communication is badly handled, the public may not follow the desired course of action set out by the authorities, resulting in greater problems (Tinker & Vaughan, 2004).

How the public receives warnings

The public do not respond to warnings or other messages from the authorities with unquestioning obedience. Instead, the response to any communication received involves a 3-stage process of hearing, perceiving (understanding, believing and personalising the message) and then responding (making decisions about alternative actions and performing them) (Mileti & Peek, 2000).

Moreover, highly stressful contexts are often characterised by decision-making that involves less systematic processing of information, in which the search for facts ends prematurely and attention is narrowed (Klein, 1996). Poor or delayed communication of statements that appear contradictory can serve to amplify these effects (Tinker & Vaughan, 2004).

The issue of effective communication between the authorities and the public emerges as a central issue affecting most aspects of public response to disaster, including warning responses, evacuation and health issues (Section 3.9 and is recognised by the literature as a crucial element in determining psychological and behavioural responses to a CBRN incident (Alexander & Klein, 2003; Holloway, Norwood, Fullerton, Engel, & Ursano, 1997; Mileti & Peek, 2000).

Tips for effective communication

Throughout the disaster literature, various recommendations have been put forward for how to effectively communicate risk, warnings and action plans to the public.

  • For communication to be effective the authorities should acknowledge public fears and concerns.
  • Promises should not be made that cannot be kept.
  • The use of jargon can lead to misunderstandings, as well as defining an ‘us and them’ situation, and should be minimised.
  • The public can be encouraged to feel empowered by informing them about what they can do proactively (Reynolds, 2003).
  • Crucially, communications should be consistent, accurate and specific in order to engender the trust of the public.
  • Honest appraisals of the situation and truthful answers about the severity and scope of the incident should be given from the outset.
  • The message should be specific about the steps taken by officials to minimise risk, treat victims and detect or monitor exposure; moreover, even if specificity is not possible for the entire content, the message itself need not be non-specific (Mileti & Peek, 2000).
  • Messages can be reassuring, but authorities should avoid issuing reassurances prematurely and the public should be made aware of the possibility of changing exposure and risk assessment information during early investigative stages of an incident (Moscrop, 2001; Tinker & Vaughan, 2004).
  • Attempts should also be made to ensure that information disseminated from different sources is consistent, and most importantly truthful, even if it is bad news (Fullerton, Ursano, & Norwood, 2004).

Common myths about public responses can lead to errors in communicating action and risks to the public. As discussed in this article about Panic, the myth that people will panic could lead authorities to withhold information, which could be detrimental in the long run.

In addition, as discussed in this article about warning responses, it is suggested that the use of a single spokesperson is suboptimal and that it is better for the same message to come from a variety of trusted sources and through a number of channels as this serves to validate the message (Mileti & Peek, 2000).

Communication errors

Common communication errors that have been noted include:

  • raising fears without simultaneously increasing confidence in risk-reduction steps;
  • sending contradictory messages;
  • prematurely issuing reassurances about a risk before sufficient evidence is available (Fullerton, Ursano, & Norwood, 2004; Tinker & Vaughan, 2004).

For more issues, see this article on communication problems in disaster.

Following the Chernobyl disaster, confusion and inconsistencies in the message created a climate of insecurity in which overreactions and apathy developed simultaneously (Renn, 1990), and mistrust of official representatives resulted in disbelief in the efficacy of countermeasures (Morrey & Allen, 1996) (see article on social responses to disaster).

Following the Three Mile Island incident, 83% of evacuees cited the receipt of conflicting and confusing information as a reason for evacuating (Mileti & Peek, 2000).

Although it is not known exactly how the population will react to an unprecedented CBRN incident, previous research indicates that effective and adaptive collective action occurs and panic is rare, but public information is key.

Information and communication geared towards harnessing the capabilities of the civilian population, integrating the public into public health activities, and generally treating the public as a capable ally in the response to an incident may help to shape an appropriate public response (Henderson, Inglesby, & O'Toole, 2002).

Information vacuum

The fulfilment of the above recommendations is not necessarily straightforward. At the same time that the government and authorities are working with only partial knowledge about an incident that they are likely to be reluctant to release until it has received careful deliberation, the media will want information to assess, prioritise and report (Expanding local healthcare structure in mass casualty terrorism incident, 2002; Walsh, Norwood, & Hall, 2004).

The potential information vacuum caused by this disparity can cause significant problems, including the proliferation of rumours.

Maintenance of trust in the authorities is crucial, especially during the early stages of an incident, but the media can be embraced as allies by the authorities to broadcast accurate information that reduces rumour and mistrust (Alexander & Klein, 2003). For this, the media should have access to frequent updates to pass on to the public, even if nothing new is happening (Expanding local healthcare structure in mass casulty terrorism incident, 2002).

Consistency and dissemination

A further problem, noted following the World Trade Centre attacks and arising from the modern media environment, is that it can be difficult to maintain a linear and consistent message given the range of dissemination technologies that are available that provide continuous access to information (such as the Internet, and 24-hour news channels) (O'Brien, 2003).

However, these different channels of information can be used to convey official messages directly to a greater proportion of the population as individuals and social groupings will differ in their choice of technologies from which to access information.

Potential conflict can also arise from the tension between the public's need and right to be provided with information and the need to protect official intelligence, as Nick Raynsford, Minister for Local and Regional Government (2002-2005, stated:

“…there is always a tension between giving the public appropriate information which doesn’t endanger intelligence sources and processes, and to give information which ensures the public knows what is happening, and that they are aware how to get information if they need it in an emergency” (Raynsford, 2004).


These tensions and differing priorities, particularly between the authorities and media, need to be recognised and addressed in order that the public receive appropriate information that they trust and will act upon. It is also crucial that the process of building trust and increasing the credibility of those responsible for dealing with an incident is undertaken before an incident occurs (Tinker & Vaughan, 2004).

It is suggested that the best public response will come from educating the public about the scope of likely medical outcomes, educating the public about how to prepare themselves for an event, training decision makers and emergency personnel in actual rather than mythical behaviours and in offering accurate information from credible sources (Fischer, 1998).

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