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Communications in emergencies – lessons learned

In the summer of 2021, the catastrophic Wooroloo Bushfires tore through the City of Swan and Shire of Mundaring. Many homes were lost and many families in our communities were impacted significantly, and I was working at the City of Swan as Corporate Communications lead.

The emergency response was of immense public interest and drew local, national and international media attention. My role was to lead and deliver the City of Swan’s emergency and recovery communications, a job that unfolded over a two-year period.

A community’s recovery from an emergency is usually handed over to the relevant local government to manage and a critical element of any recovery is engagement – ensuring that the impacted community are given the opportunity to connect with their local government and access the information and services they need to rebuild a sense of community resilience.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to support the community through this recovery period and learned so many useful lessons as a communicator. Here are my key takeaways.

1. Don’t forget to look after yourself

I've put this one first as it deserves a spot at the top. It was a very intense experience to be thrust into the thick of the emergency. I had friends and colleagues living near the fire, so it felt very close to home, and this impacted me personally. Our workload as a team also skyrocketed dramatically, which caused pressure and eventually, fatigue. We were also in a covid-19 lockdown at the same time, so my colleagues and I were all physically isolated from each other while working together. What a combination!

I remember working non-stop and feeling a bit guilty for eventually needing a rest. However, rest is vitally important to ensure you can work at your best level and being burnt out helps nobody. I learned that it was okay to prioritise my wellbeing with proper sleep, food, and support from others – even when there is an emergency happening at work.

In any good crisis communications plan, everything should be able to continue in your absence, and your role can be picked up by an alternative person in your team to allow you to confidently take a step back when you need it.

2. Listen to the changing needs of your audience.

Don’t be afraid to cast a critical lens over your method of communication at any point in the delivery your communications plan. Look at the data, sentiment and other measures of success and adjust your approach as needed.

It’s also important to consider that one approach won’t work forever – the needs, interests and attention spans of your audience will naturally change over time and it’s important to keep this in mind, particularly when delivering a long-term communications strategy.

People go through an entire cycle of emotions in an emergency, so its important to be mindful of this cycle and tailor your content as their needs change.

3. Have dedicated, tailored channels for your audience, and don’t assume that mass communication will reach who you need to reach.

The communications demand changed as we moved from the bushfire emergency into the recovery phase. The intense public interest fell away after the bushfire but what remained was a desperate need for the people who had lost their homes, or been evacuated or displaced from the bushfire, to have support with navigating everything that came next.

Again, we needed to adapt our methods, switch up our priorities, to ensure we were reaching the right people at the right time.

This involved dedicated and tailored print and digital communication channels, building an accurate database, and remaining a trusted and consistent source of truth. Which meant keeping the messages current, clear, and timely. Plus, did I mention being responsive to the changing environment?

4. Language and presentation of communication is critically important to those who have lived through an emergency.

Generally, it’s always important to make sure key messages are succinct, explain the important facts and keep people engaged. But in the context of an emergency, there are additional factors to keep in mind to ensure your communications are a success.

  • Simplify everything. From our online forms to the structure of our website, layout of our newsletters, and the language in our key messages to assist those moving through recovery.

  • Repeat, repeat, and repeat again. We did not shy away from repetition in our communications, to ensure the message was received by those who needed to hear it.

  • Be empathetic. We were considerate of the imagery we used to support our content, as images from the emergency event had the potential to trigger people who had lived through the experience. We focussed on imagery that conveyed our objectives: community connection and environmental renewal in particular.

5. Two-way communication is important – seek feedback, adapt.

Sometimes it can be hard to frame authentic and meaningful communication when you’re sitting in an office. With things moving so fast it can be difficult to keep up to date, so we identified our ‘listening posts’ and made sure we connected with them regularly. They helped us check how the communications are being received. These listening posts were often engagement professionals who are directly connected with the community!

This anecdotal method of evaluation is just as insightful as the analytical data you will also be reviewing through your digital platforms to measure the success of your communications.

I also recommend getting out on site at every opportunity. Go to the evacuation centre, or the recovery centre, and work remotely from that setting if technology and space permits.

Whether you’re a communicator or an engagement professional, I hope you can take something away from my own lessons. I’d love to hear from you if you do!


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