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Avoid Disaster when Communicating in a Crisis

Be First. Be Right. Be Credible.

That’s the advice printed across Crisis Emergency Risk Communication (CERC) guides based on a core principle of communicating in a crisis—limit information to the three most important things. Copies of the Centers for Disease Control guides were shared by Dr. Elizabeth Felter of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health in a May 2017 presentation at the Allegheny County Health Department.

“Only about 5 to 15 percent of information gets through to people in a disaster because of the high mental noise,” said Felter. “People take in, process and act on information differently than under normal circumstances.”

Key crisis communication tips shared by Dr. Felter:

  • Use positive language. People may only remember a few words, so instead of “Don’t take the elevator,” they may only hear “elevator.”
  • Don’t wait for all the facts. People tend to “anchor” to the first source of information in a crisis. It’s OK to tell what you know for certain and what you will share as soon as you know.
  • Express empathy. People make up their minds about whether they trust you in mere seconds. And 50 percent of what they consider is based on whether they think you care about them.
  • Plan and test and plan. Ninety percent of your communication planning should be done PREcrisis. Test your plan, and be brutally honest in assessing performance.
  • Don’t ignore social media. Mobile aps and social media combined now make up the main source of people’s information in an emergency. At a minimum, post a Frequently Asked Question page—it can help take the place of the bygone phone bank script.