Thursday, January 28, 2010

Crisis Communications When Communications are Down

It's been more than two weeks since a major earthquake reduced much of Haiti to rubble.  News stories suggest that Haitians are, understandably, getting more and more desperate, more and more angry and, possibly, more and more violent (although this last point is somewhat in dispute).  For two weeks, many Haitians have not had reliable sources for clean water, food, shelter or medical care.  Perhaps most importantly, they haven't had reliable sources of information, either.

I say that this may be more important, because people can tolerate a lot of hardship if they know if, when and how it is going to come to an end.  Without decent information, rumors take control and people are frightened by the uncertainty.  People who are hungry, for example, can stick it out if they know that food is coming the day after tomorrow.  If there's any likelihood that food is not coming for weeks or months, hungry people need to do something about that now, before it's too late.  They can't wait for weeks or months to see what happens.

The antidote to uncertainty is information, and on any normal day there are a number of methods at the disposal of the authorities to get out that information.  Following a massive disaster, it's a little more tricky, and when the information infrastructure wasn't in great shape to begin with, it's that much harder.  The two mediums that seem to be available to get information to large numbers of people right now are radio and loud speaker.  Not ideal for a reasoned discussion of the situation.

The how of crisis communication is, of course, only one part of the issue.  There's also the what.  One of the reasons that Haitians don't know when they are going to get help is that the people helping them don't know, either.  Even if any given agency or government knows how much help they are sending and how fast they can get it to Haiti, they can't tell any given person whether that aid will make it to them, and that's under the best of circumstances.  Delays at the airport, red tape and the simple magnitude of the need create uncertainty for the very people who are trying to be reassuring.

The message also needs to include something that indicates that those communicating know how bad things are.  People who are desperate or angry need to know that they are being heard.  Hungry people are not going to stick anything out if they think that no one even cares that they are hungry.  The yelling sometimes simply means that people don't feel they have been heard.

This week, the U.S. embassy started trying to disseminate the message that most Haitians, even those with relatives in Haiti, were not going to be getting help from the embassy.   Ambassador Kenneth Merton got on the radio to deliver a message the Christian Science Monitor summarized as,
The US is providing unprecedented amounts of assistance to Haiti. . . but the embassy is only serving the legitimate needs of American citizens. . . . Haitians’ needs would not be attended to at the embassy.

This harsh message was made necessary by the growing crowds of people gathering outside the embassy, trying to get to the United States or to get assistance from the U.S. government.  The embassy was understandably concerned that there would be a riot, and they wanted people not to come there.  It seems to have worked.

The fact that it worked, however, doesn't change the level of need for assistance, nor does it change the need for decent information and a little empathy.  I wish the United States had taken a page from Crisis Management Briefing techniques and issued a statement saying that they were helping as many people as they could as fast as they could, that they understood that it wasn't enough, that they were going to keep trying, and that people needed to understand the difference between what the embassy could do and what the United States was doing.  This may sound like the same message, but it has some important differences.  It's one thing to say, "We've already given you people a lot, and we're looking out for our own," and quite another to say, "We understand, we want to help, we really are doing the best we can, but unfortunately there are some things we just can't help with."  The latter might not only have averted a riot, but actually made people feel just a little better.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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