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Discussion Point: Taking Effective Risk and Crisis Communication for Granted?

Discussion Point: Taking Effective Risk and Crisis Communication for Granted?

August 26, 2013Elizabeth Petrun and Brooke Liu

The following is part of a series of thought pieces authored by members of the START Consortium. These editorial columns reflect the opinions of the author(s), and not necessarily the opinions of the START Consortium. This series is penned by scholars who have grappled with complicated and often politicized topics, and our hope is that they will foster thoughtful reflection and discussion by professionals and students alike.

Discussion Point: Taking Effective Risk and Crisis Communication for Granted?

Communication has recently been highlighted as an essential function for weather forecasters as impending storms threaten communities, for scientists discussing the wide range of impacts of climate change, and for law enforcement officers issuing AMBER alerts to reunite missing children with their families. Calls for risk and crisis communication research, training, and implementation are up  and it's not all that surprising.

We need information to make informed decisions, and we value information differently based on its source, medium, timeliness and structure. In a competitive information economy, professionals cannot afford to assume communication effectiveness.Liz Petrun Crises like those mentioned above can have great consequences, particularly when there are gaps between responders' communication efforts and information received by audiences who need it: such as during Hurricane Sandy.

The comprehensive review of social science knowledge about how the public uses (and does not use) social media during disasters. This review uncovered several key knowledge gaps including a lack of research that uses national samples, tests the effects of multiple social media, and tests causal relationships among information source (e.g., FEMA), information form (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, and websites), and communication and behavioral intentions  all of which START addressed in a recent national sample experiment of more than 2,000 U.S. adults. Brooke Liu

As another example, the Mobile Devices Project is examining the most effective way to communicate imminent threats to the public through Wireless Emergency Alerts.

This project released the protective action sequence matrix to help responders better understand the sequence of potential messages for a variety of imminent threats, and currently is testing a subset of these messages through focus groups and experiments with the public. Finally, in the area of training development START recently developed and pilot tested the Training in Risk and Crisis Communication (TRACC) program, which aims to put scientific research to use in developing and delivering a theoretically rigorous and practical training for risk and crisis communication practitioners.

TRACC's first three modules build knowledge in crisis planning, audience analysis & engagement, and media relations. The fourth module is an interactive online crisis communication simulation.

So, where do we go from here? We need to continue identifying risk and crisis communication knowledge gaps, and filling those with state-of-the art research, especially as risk communication tools rapidly evolve in our changing media landscape. We also need to engage in more real-time translation of research findings that can immediately guide responders. But first we need to make sure our research addresses the most pressing knowledge gaps by working with responders to identify those gaps before conducting additional research.

These gaps are becoming more apparent and are receiving more attention from those outside the field of communication. Acknowledging the important role communication plays in information sharing and ultimately behavioral change or action will help solidify resources for responding agencies for future events. While there are no shortage of risks and crises to communicate about, as futurist John Naisbitt said: "We're drowning in information but starved for knowledge."



1 PR News. (2006). New survey finds crisis training is primarily learned on the job. PR News. Retrieved from http://www.prnewsonline.com/subscription/2006/03/20/new-survey-finds-crisis-training-is-primarily-learned-on-the-job/
2 Su, Y. S., Wardell III, Clarence, & Thorkildsen, Z. (2012). Social media in the emergency management field. National Emergency Management Association. Retrieved from http://www.cna.org/sites/default/files/research/SocialMedia_EmergencyManagement.pdf