Communicating in a crisis

The earthquake in Christchurch has provided an opportunity to reflect on a wide range of ideas and issues about the things we think are important, and how best we might prepare ourselves for the eventuality of a crisis situation. I remember as a student at school being required to undergo ‘earthquake drills’ and ‘fire drills’ on a regular basis, never really thinking we’d some day have to go through one for real. It’s only during a time of crisis that the importance of some of this preparation comes into focus.

One of the things that has impressed itself on me at this time is the importance of effective communication. At the time of the Feb 22 earthquake I was in Rotorua, my wife was teaching at the pre-school where she works, my son was alone at home while the secondary teachers at the school he is at were at a stop work meeting, and my daughter was at primary school. At that instant we all had a significant need to be able to ‘find’ each other, and to ascertain that each was safe. The phone system,both landlines and mobile networks, were working to capacity, and it took ages before we were connected. Despite receiving regular updates via social networking sites such as twitter and online news-feeds on my mobile phone, it was nearly five hours before I managed successfully to connect with my wife in Christchurch – all the while working frantically to change my flight to return home immediately.

Of course, that was in the midst of the crisis itself, and it is inevitable that public communication networks will be put under severe stress in these times. But in the hours, weeks and months after the crisis, the communication need remains.

At the time of the crisis there were parents wanting to find out whether their child was safe at school – and teachers wanting to locate parents. This is where up to date phone records are important – particularly mobile phone numbers where both text messaging and voice calls can be utilised. With the increased use of smart phones, use of social media services such as Twitter and Facebook should be considered, along with immediate updates on the school website. Look at this example of a Twitter account for one of the CHCH schools using Twitter to communicate with parents at the time of the earthquake (scroll down the list of ‘tweets’ to see the messages that were sent out at the time.)

Schools I have been working in post-quake have been re-thinking a number of these ideas. One secondary school I know of has had a policy of banning mobile phones on the premises for years – only to find that had their students actually been allowed to access the very device that is their life-line in out of school hours it may have reduced a considerable amount of anxiety at the time. One of my colleagues began receiving Twitter and Facebook updates from her child’s school almost immediately, while several other schools still had no update on their website two weeks after the event when I did a quick search. In some cases I’ve learned that this is because the maintenance of the school website is handled externally and updates are only made once a week – or less – as a part of a management contract.

Communication becomes increasingly important in the uncertain times immediately after the event also – with parents wanting to know when schools will be re-opened, what alternatives are being provided for those whose schools have been destroyed etc. The mayor of CHCH was seen regularly on our TV screens post-quake, earning praise for his persistence in keeping the citizens of CHCH appraised of what was happening. (Several times I appealed to our Ministry of Education for there to be some sort of “Education Bob Parker” to keep people appraised specifically about what is happening in the education sector – but sadly it hasn’t eventuated.)

My point really is that effective communication in a time of crisis is critical in terms of allaying fears and minimising the sense of alarm or panic. Of course there will be a general awareness of lots of people locked away in back rooms doing all sorts of emergency planning and preparation – but people feel the need to know this to be the case, to feel connected to what is happening and to feel they have the opportunity for their voice to be heard in the midst of it all.

In the modern world of online communications we are in a position like never before where this can be achieved, and there are some good examples emerging:

  1. Geonet has provided citizens with (almost) immediate details of the quakes as they occur – and rose at one point to be the #1 hit on the web for CHCH!
  2. There’s a Christchurch recovery fund page on Facebook
  3. Using Storify NewSolid provides an aggregation of feeds and news items to keep people informed
  4. Re-imagine Christchurch has a site where you can contribute your thoughts and ideas about the future of Christchurch.
  5. Stuff provided us with an opportunity to look at before and after shots of some of the CHCH landmarks, as did ABC News.
  6. Schools EQNZ – a site established so that people in other parts of the country could offer help to CHCH schools.
  7. As well as a series of forums and opportunities being planned to allow young people to provide input, including:
    • Rebuilding CHCH – youth perspectives, to he held on 14 May
    • Youth voices – a forum initiated by UNESCO to be held on 28 May
    • We Speak – a series of forums to be put on by theThe Otautahi Youth Council

A recent post from eSchool News titled How social media can help, and not hinder, during a crisis suggests steps that can help school and university leaders use technology to react to emergencies effectively. It covers much of what I’ve been thinking about, but the following quote about the demand for hyper-transparency sums up the particular emphasis I think is important:

A big challenge with social media audiences is that they seem to feel they have a right to know anything and everything about a crisis and the people and organizations behind it. Withholding information or hesitating to update the public risks being seen as a cover-up.

Their suggestion is to create a “listening post”

A “listening post” is simply a term for the electronic platform used to synthesize news across all types of media, including traditional print, blogs, and Twitter. It is a way to learn what people are saying about a situation in real time. Administrators and faculty can use the following tools to help feed a listening post:

  • Google Alerts – eMail reports that track news stories, blogs, and more, based on search keywords.
  • Twitter Search and TweetBeep – websites that act like a Google Alert equivalent for Twitter. They monitor discussions occurring in the Twitter realm.
  • TweetDeck and Seesmic – desktop applications that allow you to monitor Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn, as well as Twitter.
  • Social Mention – a search tool that also tracks content from YouTube and Flickr, in addition to Facebook and Twitter.

The overarching message of the article, and one I’d advocate strongly is – be prepared. Make this a part of your strategic planning before the crisis happens. In the same way as we’ve been practising earthquake drills for decades, we need to consider and plan for the use of web-based technologies and social media in our crisis management plans. The challenge for us in the Christchurch education community right now is to create a coherence in terms of the future planning that is going on – and effective communication is key to this, including the use of social media.

My second plea is be a user, not just a pusher! This approach to communication is not something to be abdicated, left to ‘someone else’ to take responsibility for. Like the case of schools who rely on an outside agency to update their website – this is last century thinking. Leaders at all levels – principals, community and national agencies – must develop their own repertoire of communication channels, including social media, and be active in at least monitoring what is going on, and preferably be active users. Sadly, in  my experience, only a small number of our current colleagues in leadership can be included in that category.

4 thoughts on “Communicating in a crisis

    1. Hi Hamish
      thanks for this link – excellent article by Richard (fellow Kiwi 🙂
      it delves more deeply in to the ideas I’ve raised and provides some excellent advice and ideas for implementation.

  1. Hello Derek

    If we can learn from our mistakes eventually we’ll make progress.
    An example: The Resilient Christchurch Conference held at Lincoln University.

    The University site has a list of speakers, and a booking system that works well, but the pre-confrence papers were nowhere to be found. Then I heard a whisper that the conference had a Facebook page. I generally don’t expect anything sderious to be on Facebook. But in Facebook over about three weeks links had been posted to an amazing list of papers and web sites about disaster relief. A great resource.

    Today on the Lincoln University site the presentations made during the conference are avialable:

    But the Facebook page with the resouces has been taken down. Why? Who knows, it would have cost nothing to leave it there.

    Digital literacy skills are poor across the community not only in schools and universities. There are Twenty Five Neighbours Forums, helping to spread the digital skills needed to allow better communication.

    My Open Future Blog has also been focused on this topic.

    1. John
      appreciate your response here and pointing out several other relevant links
      We certainly have some way to go to achieve the state where these online environments are used in the way they are intended, and that thinking about them moves from being simply a ‘token’ idea, or an ‘additive’ thought – to being central to our thinking and decision making.

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