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Communicating in a crisis best handled by authority figures

In the event of a crisis, government bodies and corporations need to have a solid communication plan in place, and that means providing high-level experts to speak to the public and media early, frequently, and in a transparent way, says a man who has first hand experience communicating under pressure.

“You need to manage it down and manage it aggressively. Having a single spokesperson won’t work,” says Dr. James Young, special advisor to the Deputy Minister, Department of Public Safety. “If it’s a spokesperson, they won’t feel like they’re getting an authoritative message. They want to look into the whites of your eyes. You need senior decision-makers with a consistent message that lets people know who is charge.”




November 30, 2006
By Jennifer Brown

Instead, those speaking to the public and media need to be viewed as
decision-makers from different levels of government or, in the case of
a company, someone of authority and expertise.

“No one level of
government holds all the cards, even in something like a pandemic,”
said Young, speaking at the Conference Board of Canada’s Global
Approaches to Security and Technology Strategies in Ottawa Nov. 28. His talk,
entitled Communicating Risk — Preparing and Briefing Employees and the
Public in a Crisis, explored the challenges of educating the public
during a situation such as the blackout and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003.

Young
was the province of Ontario’s point man during the SARS outbreak.
During that time, Young and a small team of public health officials
appeared at daily press conferences to advise the media and public of
what was happening. He says the strategy was to flood the airwaves with
information from experts and sometimes that involved the premier. For example, he said the more people understood about the importance of
quarantine and not going to work if you were sic, the easier it became for public health to
control what was happening.

“The press needs a story and you
might as well be the one to give it to them,” said Young, noting that
during SARS the approach was to schedule daily press conferences and
answer every question until there were no more to answer. Eventually,
the questions dwindled and the press events became shorter in length.

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By
educating the public, Young said it becomes easier to gain control over
what was happening. He pointed to the tragic events that occurred after
Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans as an example of how a lack of
communication caused the event to spiral out of control.

“When they
lost civil order they had to spend an enormous amount of time restoring it before they couldn’t get supplies to people,” he said. “Without a
seamless method of communicating you risk the loss of public
confidence.”

When communicating to the public, Young said to
avoid conflicting messages and make sure information that is not
substantiated doesn’t make a situation worse. In the case of a
pandemic, incorrect information in the early hours and says of the situation could spell a number of disasters,
including economic collapse.

“Assume a lot of the information is
wrong in the beginning. Drawing conclusions early is a bad thing,
especially around the question ”˜Why did it happen?’ The answer should be ‘This is what we’re doing to fix it.’"

While the
buzz around pandemic planning appears to have softened in the last few months, Young
said the time is now for decision-makers to inform stakeholders about
simple things that could help mitigate an outbreak. Early communication of simple, informative pieces of information could greatly improve handling of a  crisis before it happens.

“We need to talk about things like hand washing and advising people to stay home if they are sick,” he said.


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