Are you reaching the public or just sending notifications?

Public notification is successfully informing the public as to what is going on during an emergency.  The key to reaching people is to reach them timely; where they are; how they want to be reached; with positive actionable information; and in a culturally appropriate manner.

Timely: Information could be too late to be useful if it takes too long to reach them or the information is out-of-date.  Imagine if a building fire alarm took 10 minutes from the time the alert is sent to the time the alarm started to ring.  A building fire alarm needs to ring quickly to give people more time to evacuate the building.  A wildland fire evacuation notice is very similar; the fire moves extremely quickly and can change directions unexpectedly.

How they want to be reached:  Think of how you interact with your family and friends.  Some you will call by phone, some email, some text message and there may even be a few that you mail a real letter to.  You might even admit to have the crazy relative that you’d rather talk to their spouse and have the message passed along.  The public is the same way: all different.  This means that your message must use many different methods to reach all the audience.  Some will want text messages to their cell phone; some will want a voice call to their land-line phone; some will want an email; and there may be a few that are only reachable through the community or faith leader.

Each medium needs to convey similar information, but it need not be the exact same words.  Why should you limit the email to 140 characters just because Twitter is one of many mediums?  For convenience and speed, a message might have a long version and a short version.  The short versions could cover Twitter, SMS, and other short message forms.  The basic information would be shared, along with where to get more information.  The long version could cover email and voice calls.  It would start with the basics and then provide the additional information.

Many of the emergency messages that would be sent can be pre-scripted with blanks left for the immediate details.  Consider the weather watches and warnings.  These are scripted messages that contain all the ever-green information with spots to insert timely specific weather details.  Use the time before an emergency to word-smith the message and get necessary approvals on when it will be used.  Trying to get multiple approvals to send an emergency message is contrary to sending a timely message.

Where they are: This can refer to two places.  Where someone is geographically, and where someone is in the mentality of readiness.

A thing that bugs me is signing up for weather alerts by zip code or locality.  I still get weather alerts for there even when I travel elsewhere.  I want to sign up for one system that follows me.  It can already happen with weather alerts through mobile apps, but it doesn’t happen with local EM alerts.  I have hope that CMAS is changing this.

I live in Fairfax, VA and work in Washington, DC.  I’m registered for county-level alerts in Fairfax, VA; Arlington, VA; and Washington, DC.  Why do I have Arlington, VA alerts?  Because I commute through Arlington and this gives me information on my path.  This becomes amusing on metropolitan-wide alerts as I can see which system sends the information out first and which one takes the longest.

When I travel to another city, I do not get local alerts for that city.  I still get the other alerts from home which is fine so I can take actions to protect my family and property.  When travelling I could do my research, find the local alerting system and sign up for it; but let’s be honest, that’s too much work.  The capability exists today using a feature called “cell broadcast.”  An SMS alert message is point-to-point.  It originates somewhere and goes directly to the single recipient.  SMS alerting requires lots of individual messages all containing the same information which can bog down systems.  Cell broadcasts are point-to-area messages.  It originates somewhere and is broadcasted out to all the phones in a specific area, usually by cell tower.  This doesn’t overload the system because it is one message to many phones.  The technology is commonly used in Europe.  Use in the United States is very limited because it originally released as a way to do local advertising.  Pass the front of a store, and you’d get a text message with a coupon or ad.  People were naturally against this and cell broadcasting has been minimized in the US.  The feature is hard to find on most phones in the US, and defaults to opt-in with no channels loaded.

People also need to be reached where they are in their mentality of readiness.  Telling someone to use their emergency preparedness kit isn’t helpful if they don’t accept the fact they need to have one.  Someone may have a fatalistic attitude of there’s nothing I can do or it is God’s will.  The message needs to be crafted in a way to reach these people where they are mentally.  This leads right into the next point.

Positive actionable information: I chuckle when I hear someone say don’t forget or don’t panic.  How do you not do something?  Mentally, you must flip the message around to figure out what you need to be doing.  That assumes the person reading the message would know the opposite you’d expect them to know.  Craft the message to be a positive action message so the receiver will know what you want them to do and give them something to focus on.  The two statements above should be remember and stay calm.

I forget this all the time in parenting.  I tell my kids things like: don’t touch that, stop making that noise, don’t go over there; instead of keep your hands in your pocket, stay quiet and stay over here.  People should be told what to do, not what not to do.  Messages in a disaster should be simple and direct to be quickly understood and acted on.

Culturally appropriate: Being culturally appropriate starts with using the right language.  Keep in mind just because someone speaks another language doesn’t mean they are literate to read materials written in their native language.  A common mistake I hear is when people say they’ll make print materials in Spanish to reach a Spanish-speaking audience.  Reading and speaking are different things.  A native Puerto Rican told me that he’d rather distribute our materials in English then Spanish.  Apparently, it is easier to understand materials written in English than materials written in European Spanish because Puerto Rican Spanish is that different.  European Spanish— or Castilian Spanish — is commonly taught in academics and is the default Spanish when asking for a translation.  The lesson here is to ask someone from the community the best way to provide written or auditory materials to the community.  Translate to their specific dialect.

Culturally appropriate also refers to the sensitivities of the people.  Migrant farm workers are sensitive to the immigration status of themselves, their family or their friends.  Consider FEMA assistance to these workers before or after a disaster.  The workers will see the DHS logo on the materials.  Who else does DHS have?  U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.  Do you really think that people who are sensitive to their immigration status want to engage with any DHS offices?

Some communities get all their trusted information from a community leader.  Information from other sources may not be readily accepted by the community and have less impact.  Public notifications to these communities need to involve and go through the community leader.  Individuals don’t have relationships with organizations; individuals have relationships with individuals who represent an organization.  Think about it for a minute: your best organizational relationships are likely to have an individual or series of people who you’ve built trust with.  That will be a key when we talk about social media: how do you make your organization interact with individuals on the individual level?

Next time you write a public notification, check off the points I listed above and see if you can improve the effectiveness of the message.