DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSIONS

KEY COMMUNICATION ISSUES

The nature of a crisis, emergency or disaster needs to be recognised in order to frame it appropriately. The Hazelwood mine fire went very quickly from a bushfire related event, to an industrial fire (chronic technological event), to a significant and lengthy environmental and health crisis. By 12 February 2014, Mr Lapsley recognised that the Hazelwood coal mine could burn for up to one month,177 yet the way the crisis was framed in communications planning and delivery did not reflect the true nature of the event or the length of time it was foreseen as running.

The State Emergency Management Team and the EMJPIC acknowledged broader concerns about health and environment on 14 February 2014. However, the scale and importance of these issues was not fully appreciated until sometime after that.118

Lack of preparedness

The State did not have an existing communications strategy to apply to an emergency like the Hazelwood mine fire.119 It was not until 16 February 2014 (a week after the fire started) that a communications strategy was prepared, and not until 20 February that the document was adopted. The State’s Communications and Stakeholder Engagement Strategy appears to have been finalised and distributed on or around 24 February 2014 –15 days after the mine fire started.120 This was more than a week after the first community meeting, where agencies became aware of the community’s need for better communication. This may help explain why community members believed that: ‘It took government two weeks to get here, to even start thinking about it.’121

The Board accepts the analysis undertaken by Mr Drummond and agrees with his opinion that while the demographic make-up of audiences does not directly determine the effectiveness of communication, it significantly influences how a communication should be developed for an audience. The Board considers that if work similar to this analysis had been undertaken, and completed as part of crisis communication preparation, then the ability of government agencies to respond in an appropriate and timely way would have been much improved. It is imperative that reaching the target audience is done in a timely and appropriate way.

The Board considers that it was unfortunate that the strategy had to be written and executed during the crisis. This demonstrates that preparedness in crisis communication fell short and subsequently undermined the ability of government agencies to respond effectively.

The Board agrees that ‘one source, one message’ is an important and useful communication principle for bushfire and perhaps some acute emergencies. It may be less useful for a protracted crisis involving a chronic technological or industrial type event where health and the environment become central points of concern. The Board considers the ‘one source one message’ approach needs to be reviewed for crises that go beyond bushfire.

The first media release in relation to the fire was issued by Latrobe City Council 10 days after the fire started. The first media release from a senior government leader was issued 11 days after the fire started. Other than an interview undertaken by a GDF Suez spokesperson on 9 February 2014, GDF Suez did not issue a media release until 11 March 2014 – 28 days after the fire started.122

Government agencies and authorities issued a considerable amount of electronic and print material and engaged in a number of press conferences and community meetings. There was also an acknowledgement after the first week that the initial approach to communications needed to be changed in order to respond to the particular circumstances of this crisis. In most cases, government agencies understood that their communication strategies needed to be adapted to suit the situation and audience but this did not take place until well into the second and third week. A lack of preparation resulted in an inadequate response in this instance.

During the third week of the crisis, the Latrobe City Council organised a door knock of Morwell residents to inform them of the status of the fire and to discuss health and other concerns.123 Both the door knock by the Latrobe City Council and the letter drop by the DHS were sensible adaptations to the previous communication strategy, but occurred too late.

Communication channels

The Board accepts Professor Macnamara’s view that social media is useful where it facilitates a conversation with the community. Social media can be a very effective tool for hearing and reading what the community are saying and how they are responding, in turn enabling interventions to acknowledge and correct rumour and innuendo.124

The Board affirms the use of social media by government agencies and encourages the continued use of this medium. It is an important communication tool to reach many people very quickly. However, other more traditional forms of communication should not be sacrificed or forgotten about and should be used alongside social media in times of crisis.

The Board supports the use of multiple channels of communication that reach the greatest amount of people and best suit the needs of the audience, but notes that traditional mediums were not used readily or early enough. In some instances, digital technology was used by government agencies to the detriment of other forms of communication that could have worked alongside more modern mediums. This was important in the case of the Hazelwood mine fire as the demographic circumstances of the Morwell community are diverse, with high representations of elderly residents, those with low socio-economic status, residents with culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, those with limited literacy and those with limited internet access.125

Community engagement

While electronic communication has the benefit of speed and access, the best form of human communication remains face-to-face. This is particularly the case during a crisis. With the operational and practical pressures of a crisis limiting time and resources for sitting and talking with people, the Board endorses the view held by its two communications experts that key departments and agencies involved in such a crisis should consider the inclusion of community relations specialists in their communications teams. These specialists can be deployed during an emergency or disaster to work with local communities, including previously identified trusted networks, in accessing and interpreting information and acting as an interface between communities and the providers of information and services.126 In the Board’s view, identifying and training community relations specialists well before an emergency or crisis occurs, is essential.

Much of the frustration the community was experiencing was a result of one-way communication, with government authorities and agencies doing much of the telling and talking and not enough listening and local engagement. The information being delivered was often not being received because it was not addressing the specific needs and concerns of the audience—the Latrobe Valley community. While distributing considerable amounts of information to the community, government departments and agencies did not engage to any significant extent in listening to, or partnering with local residents and community groups, which are identified as important strategies in best practice risk and crisis communication.127 Had this been done soon after the Hazelwood mine fire started, a better understanding of the psychological, cultural, social and physical needs of residents may have been achieved. Local networks could also have been engaged in the task of distributing information.

While many government agencies and authorities provided factual information, the Board accepts the opinion of its two communications experts that the basic human need for empathy, and expressions of concern, care and assurance, were not adequately expressed. Communication was mostly functional, with information packaged in neatly designed templates.

Crisis communication needs to take into account the psychological, sociological and cultural aspects of human communication and these elements were largely overlooked throughout the event.

A good deal of information provided to the community during the Hazelwood mine fire by the State and its agencies did not meet best practice standards in crisis communication, which, in its simplest terms, requires quick, consistent, open and empathetic public communication. As stated by the Latrobe City Council in its written submission to the Board:

There was a wide array of agencies providing messages to the community from their respective departments but it appeared that at times this was not coordinated or consistent in its approach. Council believes that this created confusion, fear, anger and a lack of trust within the community.128

These shortcomings were acknowledged by many, including the Chief Health Officer: ‘The community has fed back to us that some people did not hear the messages, some people did not understand the messages, so we need to go back and do a thorough review of our communication strategy…’129 The Board commends this review as appropriate in the circumstances.

What did work well was face-to-face communications. The clear message from the community received through community consultations, public submissions and evidence provided by community witnesses during the public hearing was that personal, face-to-face contact and open and honest information through community meetings and a door-knock was greatly valued.

EMERGENCY SERVICES

The Board commends the Fire Services Commissioner, the CFA and other emergency services for their communication with the community during the Hazelwood mine fire. It is unfortunate that other government agencies and authorities were unable to connect and deliver important information and messaging in the way both the Fire Services Commissioner and the CFA did.

The effectiveness of emergency services communication was due in part to the established regard and respect for the CFA. The Board commends the Fire Services Commissioner for effectively engaging with the community, and for his ability to engender trust and support, and genuinely convey empathy while commanding authority.

Although community meetings were integral to the effectiveness of the emergency services’ communications during the mine fire, the community meeting held on 18 February 2014 was an exception. In light of the terrible conditions in Morwell over the weekend of 15 and 16 February 2014, more care should have been taken to set up the meeting in accordance with the guidelines for community meetings previously established by the State Emergency Management Team. In particular, the Board considers that this meeting should have been chaired by a skilled and experienced facilitator and attended by senior government agency representatives able to provide authoritative factual information, and to hear the messages and experiences the community were going through.

The only criticism that Professor Macnamara could level at the CFA in his analysis was an over-reliance on web-based information. In the case of the Morwell community, printed hard copies of key fact sheets, and updates would have been a useful addition to its public communication for residents who are not internet and social media users.

THE DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT PROTECTION AUTHORITY

The Department of Health and the EPA could have been more open and transparent with the public on the development of the Carbon Monoxide Response Protocol and the PM2.5 Health Protection Protocol as discussed in Chapter 4.6 Health response. Community trust could have been enhanced by sharing the outcomes of the peer reviews sought from a number of external experts on these important matters.

Sharing this information with the public would have helped in explaining the rationale behind their decision-making and could have helped build community trust and confidence by raising awareness and understanding that the opinions of eminently qualified experts were being sought, and what their advice was.

In a press conference on 26 February 2014, the Chief Health Officer stated that interstate and international experts were being consulted.

However, when asked by the community ‘Who are you consulting?’ the response was ‘I don’t want to disclose details of that.’130 This was in stark contrast to the messaging of the Fire Services Commissioner, who was open about consulting experts.131

On the evidence, the Board considers that the Chief Health Officer, as the Government spokesperson for health, did not communicate effectively enough with the Latrobe Valley community. The Board acknowledges that many in the community perceived the Chief Health Officer’s communications as lacking in empathy and sincerity. The Board appreciates that there may have been a number of other factors contributing to this, including a level of pre-existing distrust in government in the region. However, the Board does not consider that this distrust accounts for the perceived inadequacy of communication by government agencies and their spokespeople during the Hazelwood mine fire.

The Board acknowledges that the EPA was faced with the challenging task of effectively communicating complex scientific information to a diverse audience who wanted immediate data while also wanting to know what it meant for their health. In particular, in an effort to address this demand, the EPA experienced criticism following the launch and promotion of its microsite for the mine fire on 21 February 2014. The microsite was difficult to access for some and increased expectations, whereby the community sought even more interpretation and advice relating to the information posted.132

In trying to understand complex issues such as various types of air pollution, many members of the community who do not have a science background (the majority) required explanation, discussion and a chance to ask questions and clarify information. Effective communication often requires face-to-face meetings and printed information sheets that can be retained and referred to as required.133 It was poor communication practice by the EPA to publish information sheets that posed, but provided no meaningful answers, or unclear answers, to pressing public health questions.

Additional efforts by EPA staff on the ground to provide face-to-face communication with the community during the event is commended by the Board, although the success of this strategy appeared to be limited from the community’s perspective.

The bushfire smoke advisories issued by the EPA and the Chief Health Officer throughout the fire were repetitive, poorly focused and unhelpful, increasingly so as the weeks went by. The bushfire smoke advisories originated from the 2009 Black Saturday Bushfires and are template-based documents that exist based on an agreement between the EPA and the Department of Health. They were not seen as helpful during the Hazelwood mine fire, particularly as the fire burned beyond the first week.

The Board accepts the view of its communications experts that the advice should have been better tailored to the actual conditions in and around Morwell and the prolonged nature of the fire. Communication during a crisis needs to be simple, clear and meaningful, using plain language that avoids jargon and acronyms. However, it should not be repetitive or based solely on pre-approved templates only.

Smoke alerts did not provide any information about levels of sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, or other chemical or particle pollutants. The EPA distributed only general information about smoke and notification that it was testing the air quality.

While the Board endorses the use of social media as an important channel for fast communication with internet-connected and social media savvy citizens, there was an over-reliance on internet communications during the crisis by the EPA.

LATROBE CITY COUNCIL

The Board recognises that Latrobe City Council was placed in a difficult position due to the way communication was dealt with by government agencies and authorities. However, the Council could have improved its online and social media presence to help clarify its role with the community.

The Council’s clean up package became symbolic of the inadequacy of Council to communicate effectively with the community.

The Board commends the Council for undertaking a door knock of the entire town of Morwell. In seeking to communicate in person, to ensure people knew what was happening and to find out how people were, some 6,400 homes were attended. This would have been even more valuable had it been done earlier. The Board acknowledges the resource constraints the Council was working under and commends the efforts of those from Councils as far away as Ararat who volunteered their time to assist with this door knock.

GDF SUEZ

During the 45 days that the Hazelwood mine fire burned, GDF Suez’s communications practices fell well short of good communication standards.

The Board accepts the views of the independent communications experts in relation to GDF Suez. In particular, the Board agrees that GDF Suez was ‘conspicuous by its absence’ regarding public communication throughout the crisis. This included a noticeable absence by GDF Suez at community meetings and media conferences.

International best practice in crisis communication demonstrates that the central company involved in an emergency should be open, honest, quick to respond and act responsibly. GDF Suez did not adopt this approach. GDF Suez did not publicly express its concern other than in a few paid advertisements in the Latrobe Valley Express. The consequence was that the community saw the mine owner and operator as failing it.

The Board considers that adhering to the ‘one source, one message’ policy of government did not preclude GDF Suez from expressing compassion and empathy by having a physical presence at community engagement meetings and press conferences, or otherwise showing its compassion and concern for the community and the impact the fire had.

The Board considers that GDF Suez in particular, needs to review its crisis communication approach and demonstrate greater concern for the local communities in which it operates and directly affects. The Board affirms the commitment articulated by Mr Steven Harkins, GDF Suez Director of People, Culture and Environment, and Mr George Graham, GDF Suez Asset Manager, to review the GDF Suez communications protocol. The protocol should ensure that during the response to an incident that is capable of impacting on the community, GDF Suez is able to communicate messages to the community effectively.

COMMUNITY-BASED COMMUNICATIONS

The Board commends those from Morwell Neighbourhood House, the Ramahyuck District Aboriginal Corporation, Asbestos Council of Victoria and Gippsland Asbestos Related Diseases Support Inc., and other community organisations for their efforts in keeping their community as informed and connected as they could under the circumstances.

The Board commends those responsible for the establishment of Voices of the Valley and the actions of this group in disseminating important information to the local community and advocating on their behalf during the emergency.

As well as providing a voice for the community, the formation of Voices of the Valley illustrates the importance of self-help and agency. It also emphasises the important role a community group like this can play not only in advocating on behalf of others but in the potential to partner with government authorities to support effective crisis communication with the community.

OPPORTUNITiES FOR ENHANCEMENT

The Board notes the communication principles included in the Victorian Emergency Management Reform White Paper and the Victorian Government’s new governance arrangements for emergency management in Victoria through Emergency Management Victoria. The Board commends action taken to improve how agencies communicate with communities in emergency situations.

The Board considers that the issues raised by this Inquiry and the recommendations of this report should be reflected in crisis communication policy and procedures within the new emergency management framework. The Board considers that government agencies consider the suggestions for improvement, and that GDF Suez review its crisis communications approach to more effectively engage with the community.

Recommendation 11

The State review and revise its communication strategy, to:

  • ensure all emergency response agencies have, or have access to, the capability and resources needed for effective and rapid public communications during an emergency; and
  • ensure, where appropriate, that private operators of essential infrastructure are included in the coordination of public communications during an emergency concerning that infrastructure.

Recommendation 12

The State, led by Emergency Management Victoria, develop a community engagement model for emergency management to ensure all State agencies and local governments engage with communities and already identified trusted networks as an integral component of emergency management planning.

Recommendation 18

Gdf Suez improve its crisis management communication strategy for the Hazelwood mine in line with international best practice.