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Modifying Strategies Throughout a Crisis: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina

Tuesday, February 27th, 2018

Crisis preparation is crucial, but crises, by nature, are unexpected both in when they strike and how they progress. Emergency managers, public relations professionals and organizational leaders should prepare in advance as much as possible should the worst occur. Because it’s impossible to know what will happen and how events will unfold, it’s also crucial to learn how to modify messages and communication channels in the moment to best inform workers and the public in the midst of a crisis.

Fortunately, we can learn from past crises, planning to apply what worked in those situations and discard what didn’t. Hurricane Katrina, one of the most disastrous hurricanes ever in the United States, hit in 2005, killing at least 1,245 people and damaging at least $108 billion in property. A study published in the Journal of Applied Communication Research in February 2007 details the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention communication specialist’s efforts to provide life-saving information to those affected by the crisis.

A natural disaster is unique in that people can anticipate its arrival, unlike a crisis like an active shooter or an explosion at a chemical plant. Before Katrina hit, the CDC had the opportunity to prepare specifically applicable messages in advance and develop a strategy based on the information they had, Marsha L. Vanderford, Teresa Nastoff, Jana L. Telfer & Sandra E. Bonzo write. However, as the hurricane wreaked havoc, the CDC communication specialists faced several challenges. They needed to quickly broadcast health and safety messages to diverse communities and update messages to meet people’s changing needs throughout the crisis.

Here are some key takeaways we can remember for responding to crises in the moment:

Use creative communication channels. The CDC previously utilized primarily websites, radio and television to send emergency messages, but power outages slowed down these channels. “During the Katrina response, the CDC modified formats and restructured its health messages to meet different needs,” Vanderford, et. al write. “For example the CDC created door hangers for door-to-door delivery of CO poisoning prevention materials, stickers for children in evacuation centers for remind them about hand hygiene, and one-line messages for high-frequency radio broadcasts.” Adapt to the crisis by choosing additional channels based on what is available.

Use local sources to communicate with people. When travel became possible, the CDC sent health communication specialists to educate local and state health departments, evacuation centers and emergency response centers to share life-saving information that was then disseminated to the public. During the crisis, CDC workers realized people would be more likely to take the information seriously if it came from local sources. Take credibility into account. The source is just as important as the message itself.

Modify messages for different populations. Even though the CDC did prior research to determine how messages should be phrased based on literacy levels and cultural contexts of people in different areas, they realized during the crisis that the message modification work had just begun. In New Orleans, 33-44 percent of the population reads at “level I on the five-level reading classification system developed by the U.S. Department of Education,” the researchers write. Messages constructed above that reading level could therefore be inscrutable to a large portion of the population.

Modify messages during different phases of the crisis. The CDC identified failure to plan for communication during different phases of the crisis as a major oversight. Though the exact phases of a storm or other crisis can’t be specifically predicted, but recognizing this may be necessary is better than not even being aware of the possibility. When Hurricane Katrina first struck, people needed information about how to remain safe from storm winds and falling debris. As it developed, citizens required information regarding staying off flooded roads, avoiding electrical hazards and preventing CO poisoning. Especially during a lengthy, complicated crisis, anticipate the need for different phases of communication with the public.

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