COMMUNICATING IN A CRISIS

In his report to the Board, independent communications expert Professor James Macnamara, Professor of Public Communication at the University of Technology, Sydney, outlined the elements of effective crisis communication.

Professor Macnamara told the Board that communicating effectively is a central requirement of crisis management and should be prioritised along with the technical management of the emergency at hand.1 The approach to communication in a crisis can mean the difference between effectively managing an emergency situation (through gaining the trust and support of those affected), and increasing distrust, anger and anxiety in the community.

TYPES OF CRISIS

Professor Macnamara cited the Institute for Crisis Management and specialist crisis researcher Otto Lerbringer, in identifying seven different types of crisis:

  1. Natural crises such as earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, tsunamis, floods, and accidental fire,  often described as ‘acts of God’.
  2. Technological failures such as the nuclear power plant disaster at Chernobyl, the US Challenger spacecraft explosion, and the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster, as well as other mechanical and technical failures, such as power blackouts, telecommunications network crashes, and shipping collisions, groundings or sinkings.
  3. Confrontation crises such as activist attacks, union strikes, or consumer black-bans.
  4. Crises caused by malevolence, such as terrorism or sabotage enacted against an organisation or society.
  5. Crises caused by systemic issues such as management values and ethics that lead to unsafe practices (eg ‘cutting corners’ to save costs).
  6. Crises caused by deception, such as cover-ups of risks or faults.
  7. Crises caused by management misconduct such as fraud, sexual harassment, insider trading, or failure to adhere to standards and regulations.2

The cause of a crisis is significant in determining a crisis communication strategy.3

Professor Macnamara explained that in the first four categories of crisis identified by Lerbringer, where there is no fault on the part of any organisations involved, there is often a degree of sympathy and public understanding towards those organisations. In contrast, in the fifth, sixth and seventh types of crisis identified above, when the organisation is at fault in some form or another, there is little or no public or political sympathy for the organisation, and often great distrust and antipathy is directed towards it.4

Professor Macnamara emphasised that: ‘crises have a way of never staying within one of those categories and crises can evolve and emerge, and I think this happened in this case where it started out as a bushfire, which might be a natural crisis, but then turned into a mine fire and then evolved onwards.5

Independent communications expert Mr Lachlan Drummond, Consultant, Research and Strategy Lead  at Redhanded Communications, expanded on this feature of the Hazelwood mine fire in his evidence to the Board:

I think what happened here was a crisis that started as a bushfire but could probably be more accurately characterised as a chronic technological disaster or a disaster that led to long-term health and anxiety impacts for the local community. So what started as a bushfire in fact evolved into something akin to a chronic technological disaster. The literature on chronic technological disasters, though somewhat out of the scope of this report, talks about and has a whole range of ways of dealing with these sorts of issues. The reason I cited chronic technological disasters in this report is that I think that’s a more accurate classification of the nature of the problem that these affected communities were dealing with.6

Chronic Technological Disasters

Technological or manmade disasters are non-natural disasters that often occur near human settlements. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies defines technological hazards or disasters as:

Danger originating from technological or industrial accidents, dangerous procedures, infrastructure failures or certain human activities, which may cause the loss of life or injury, property damage, social and economic disruption or environmental degradation.7

Time (the speed of onset and duration) often distinguishes technological disasters from natural ones. Unlike a natural disaster, there is no acute moment of terror followed by a defined sequence of rescue, relief and recovery. Technological disasters are more often protracted or ‘chronic’ events, as distinct from the episodic nature of natural disasters. Chronic Technological Disasters are also known as CTDs. CTDs are not new but they are becoming more common as human settlement crosses paths with industrial and related activity.

At the onset of a CTD, when the hazard is identified, there is also an acknowledgement that danger may be prolonged. In the case of a coal mine fire, the first and foremost problem is stopping the fire. The official response therefore is often less concerned about community relief and rehabilitation. There is also a great reliance on state and commonwealth agencies to provide technical help in dealing with the hazard at hand. People can be left feeling ‘in limbo’ when danger, risk and health effects are being considered. An appreciation of the human element and how reactions may manifest at this time is important.

Each disaster has some commonalities yet CTDs show that expected human responses are not always apparent. Rather, there are different human responses to this type of disaster. Generally, people are better at responding and adapting to natural disasters than CTDs, where knowledge is more limited, particularly in relation to social, physical and psychological factors that constitute the public response (LaPlante & Kroll-Smith, 1989, pp. 134–150).

TIMELINESS

Crisis communication research and international best practice literature advocates that crisis communication planning should begin long before a crisis occurs.8 Mr Drummond and Professor Macnamara explained to the Board that crisis communication is less effective when it is executed ‘on the run’ when a crisis is already underway.9

Timeliness of communications was a significant issue of concern for the Latrobe Valley community during the Hazelwood mine fire. Professor Macnamara made the following comment to the Board on this point:

…I do find it very surprising that there wasn’t a communications strategy, they were actually writing it, and it was distributed on 24 February. That seems, given that this mine’s been here a long time, to me it would be reasonable to think that there could be a problem. Why wouldn’t we have a community engagement and communication strategy in place years ago?10

Mr Drummond endorsed this statement by noting that: ‘…writing it [a communications strategy] on the run doesn’t strike me as best practice’.11

DEMOGRAPHIC CONTEXT

Mr Drummond explained to the Board that the effectiveness of a communication method in informing or creating behaviour change is also determined by how well the chosen method resonates with the target audiences’ values. The Morwell region, like any community, required tailored communications that took into account particular social and demographic features.12

The demographic data on inner regional Australia provides a rationale for the values that resonate with regional Australians. Values of higher prevalence in regional areas of Australia include high community orientation, Australian loyalty, traditionalists and political cautiousness. Mr Drummond reported to the Board that these need to be understood clearly, before an event such as the Hazelwood mine fire, in order to develop suitable communications for regional areas.13

Overlaying regional values are those values and characteristics specific to the Morwell community. These include a higher than Victorian average of being born in Australia or having both parents born in Australia, a higher than Victorian average of smaller households, a higher than Victorian average of retirees, a higher proportion of people classified as ‘blue collar’ workers, a higher than Victorian average of low income households and higher levels of unemployment.14

As Mr Drummond explained:

In this case I would have thought that it would be standard practice, or perhaps best practice, to be prepared by understanding the demographic and social characteristics of the community, say of Morwell and the immediate surrounds. I would have thought it would be critical and important to build contacts in advance of any crisis, contacts within the community, community leaders, develop networks, have relationships with editors and publishers of the local paper, and in effect build a team that, in the event of a crisis you can rally quickly…15

Those responsible for coordinating communications during the mine fire were only provided with demographic data on Morwell on 17 February 2014 (nine days into the fire) and acknowledged that Morwell, as a particular audience, should have been taken into account in advance of developing the communications strategy.16

In his statement to the Board, Mr Craig Lapsley, Fire Services Commissioner, commented that initially one thing that was not done well was making use of established local community engagement structures and networks.17

COMMUNICATION MEDIUMS

During a crisis, the timeliness, reach and impact of information are dependent on the appropriateness of the communication medium.

Mr Drummond reported to the Board that he believed there was an initial over-reliance on electronic communications to inform the community during the mine fire. Mr Drummond reported that regional and metropolitan audiences do not differ greatly in terms of digital uptake and usage. Accordingly, it was fair to expect in the first instance that electronic communication would be as effective in the Latrobe Valley as in a metropolitan area. However, other characteristics of a population are better predictors of digital uptake and usage, including age, ethnicity, income and education. In this case, the demographic profile of the Morwell community indicated a need to use a broader array of communication mediums.18

Mr Lapsley commented on this generally in his evidence to the Board:

…we default very quickly to websites and think by publishing a “www” address that everyone will go there. That’s not the case and I think we’re too quick to default to websites although they’re important … and if we are going to default to websites or the internet, using places like the neighbourhood house is a classic example that that’s where people go to get information and they go there sometimes to access the information or to be supported on how to use the information… [the information] might be electronic, but you’ll be supported in how you access and use it.19

Mr Drummond reported to the Board that:

The communications that appeared to work best were those that were what we might call more traditional or grassroots communication such as the face-to-face contact, door knocks organised by Latrobe City Council. ABC Radio was particularly important to the community.20

…Handouts and leaflets, another example of good communications, and then some specific individuals… So, in summary, examples of good communications in this crisis, particularly to this community, it may not apply to all, were typically grassroots and through more traditional channels.21

The Board also heard evidence from Professor Macnamara that social media could have been used more smartly by government agencies during the Hazelwood mine fire. Professor Macnamara told the Board that government use of social media was largely restricted to one-way communication rather than working in partnership with the community and generating a sense of dialogue.

He pointed out that traditional media tends to be more one-way and that social media has the potential to be a ‘listening medium’ not just a ‘transmission medium’, however too often social media is not used to its full potential.22 Professor Macnamara agreed with Counsel Assisting that there is more to using social media than ‘just posting information’.23

In his report to the Board, Professor Macnamara drew upon examples of international best practice in relation to government agencies using social media during crises such as the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013 and the Queensland Floods in January 2011.

The Boston Marathon Bombing 201324

Twitter proved to be the quickest and most reliable communication medium for the Boston Police Department to communicate with the community, media and other key government agencies.

The Boston Police Department’s Twitter account went from 54,000 followers to over 330,000 following the crisis. Twitter communication reached 49 million people in only five days.

The Boston Police Department only had three police officers and three civilian staff handling communications during the crisis. Importantly, all had received social media communication training including writing Facebook and Twitter posts in addition to more traditional media and public communication statements. This was supported by a crisis communication plan that included social media.

Twitter was considered a valuable and essential communication tool that helped the Boston Police Department manage their communication by enabling them to ‘connect directly with the community.’ This approach ‘built a cohesive community, reduced panic, engaged the public in the search for suspects, and kept people safe.’

Journalists following the Boston Police Department Twitter account quoted directly from its tweets on live radio and TV broadcasts.

When the Boston Police Department announced a news conference via Twitter, the mistake was quickly corrected. Conversely, when several news outlets incorrectly reported that a suspect was
in custody, the Boston Police Department corrected this via Twitter. Fast correction of misinformation
is one of the benefits of using social media during a crisis.

The Boston Police Department also tweeted images such as photos of the suspects which thousands of followers retweeted to their social networks and which assisted in their capture.

The January 2011 Queensland Floods25

The Queensland Floods of January 2011 affected large parts of south-east Queensland and inundated some 30,000 homes. The Twitter hashtag #qldfloods very quickly became a central site on social media for information in a rapidly evolving event. Key government agencies such as the Queensland Police (which has its own Twitter account) quickly adopted the #qldfloods hashtag.

The use of social media by government authorities showed that Twitter offered ‘exceptionally flat and flexible communicative structures’ that allowed the public to listen in to institutions, news outlets and other individuals, whilst also allowing ‘institutions, emergency services and journalists
to listen in to the experiences of locals in the midst of the crisis.’26

Twitter allows links to be included in short tweets, enabling messages to be sent quickly with a link to longer documents containing detailed information, including emergency plans and advice.

TONE AND STYLE

Tone and style are particularly important aspects of crisis communication. As Mr Drummond reported to the Board:

…in order for an affected community to identify with communicators, it is critical that such people exhibit empathy, genuineness and concern. Speakers that are ‘wooden’, bureaucratic and too ‘on message’ are likely to be rejected. This means acknowledging the crisis quickly, with sincerity and exhibiting a willingness to engage and help. Failure to adequately ‘speak the language’ and use the channels of the community will lead to poor, piecemeal and ultimately deficient communications.27

Mr Drummond emphasised to the Board that the ability to recognise whether or not you are received empathetically is crucial:

People in a crisis need to feel validated, they need to feel that their anxieties are being listened to, being heard, and so empathy and understanding is a critical tool in validating people’s emotional state in a crisis; that is to say, we hear you, we understand where you’re coming from and therefore we know how to help you in the best possible way. So it’s not an admission of guilt or liability, it’s really saying, we understand you, we empathise with you and, in so doing, it builds trust and I’d argue that trust is the cornerstone of crisis communications.28

INFORMATION VERSUS COMMUNICATION

Professor Macnamara told the Board that information transmission is not the same as communication:

…information is not communication and it’s a common misunderstanding. Communication, in simple terms is about the information that arrives and is understood in the mind of the audience, it’s about interpretation and meaning-making… I think throughout this there was a lot of information, but at the end of the day the community had fears that were not addressed and had concerns that were not addressed, so this information had not turned into meaning and interpretation within the community… if it’s one-way it’s not communication, it’s information transmission.29