Tips: Plan for Public Outreach During Emergencies

Disaster Communications Planning

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A female, African-American public information officer sits at a panel, speaking into a microphone during a press conference.

IBTS spoke with Lexington-Fayette County, Kentucky, Emergency Management Public Information Officer (PIO) John Bobel about his plans for communicating during natural disasters at the local level. Below, Bobel offers advice to other localities on how disaster communications planning can increase effectiveness of public communication and outreach during and after an incident.

Practice, practice, practice. 

  • Make sure anyone who will serve as a PIO or communicate with the public is comfortable getting into a writing or publishing role, or being a spokesperson.
  • Hold full-blown simulations, table top exercises and stay up-to-date on communications training.

Take the time to develop message templates for different perils and communication platforms.

  • “Even if it’s as simple as opening up a document in Google Drive, DropBox, or some other cloud-based storage system and dropping in effective messages that you’ve published,” says Bobel.
  • Categorize messages and make sure you remember where they’re stored for easy access during an emergency.
  • Periodically go back to review, update and tweak messages.

Know how to effectively communicate through different platforms of communication.

  • “You have to think about how you are going to adapt a message to make sure it meets the requirements of effective communications through all channels, it doesn’t just happen,” Bobel says.

Integrate surrounding localities into your planning.

  • Hold periodic tabletop exercises and review social media messages together to identify what’s working and areas for improvement.

Amplify surrounding locality’s messages, but stay in your information lane.

  • “If information from a county adjacent to ours will affect people in our county – for example, if the interstate is closed – we will amplify and repeat their message, but we’re not going to initiate that message.”

Experienced, full-time PIOs can act as a resource to “accidental PIOs.”

  • Localities that don’t have full-time PIOs in their emergency management agency should use full-time PIOs as a training resource.

Integrate live streaming into your communications toolbox.

  • “Live broadcasting can be done right from an iPad Pro to give residents constant updates on an evolving situation,” Bobel adds.

Use local colleges, community colleges and universities as additional resources during a disaster.

  • Give students very specific tasks, such as using their own computers and cell phones to monitor Twitter for posts regarding damage to roadways.

Coordinate with your local library and librarians.

  • Every locality has a library, and nearly all are equipped with public Internet access. Have agreements to use their facilities for operations if your emergency operations center (EOC) is out of commission during a disaster, and for after a disaster to help residents get information and fill out applications.
  • If short-staffed, ask librarians to help with tasks like social media monitoring and scheduling interviews with the local media. “Who is better qualified to find stuff, to help people and to have computer skills.”

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