Disasters Book Raises Important Comms Point

Thom Weidlich 05.20.21


A book on megadisasters raises an often-ignored issue for communicators: Yes, it’s important to provide information about an ongoing crisis, but that won’t accomplish much if stakeholders don’t know what they’re supposed to do with it.

Jeff Schlegelmilch, deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, is author of Rethinking Readiness: A Brief Guide to Twenty-First-Century Megadisasters (Columbia University Press, 2020).

As for the aspect of the book we’re focusing on, Schlegelmilch gives an example of a false air-raid alert in Oakland, California, in 1955. Although it was, within minutes, determined to be (literarily) a false alarm, fewer than one in four people took it seriously. Their response was to do nothing. There was a similar reaction some years later when a civil-defense circuit was accidentally tripped in Washington, D.C.


We need to rethink the way we provide messages and the way we engage people before and during a disaster.

— Jeff Schlegelmilch in Rethinking Readiness

And then there’s the more recent (2018) example of the false ballistic-missile threat in Hawaii. Although much of the media coverage of that event focused on how many people panicked, many others were apathetic, Schlegelmilch writes. More importantly, even those who took it seriously didn’t know what they were supposed to do about it.

Schlegelmilch cites a survey in which 43 percent of respondents said that if they were confronted with a situation like that in Hawaii, they would react in a way that would make the situation worse, such as evacuating randomly or searching for loved ones. Others said they would ignore the threat (or even ignore the news).

Clarifying Information

“This shows how current efforts to improve public warnings are incomplete and virtually ineffective if the information is not received or acted upon by the people it is intended to protect,” Schlegelmilch writes. “Unfortunately, the focus of attention on this false alarm seems to be only on technology and human-operator failures, in addition to how and why it took so long to retract the false warning. But simply adding more safeguards to the system and processes that led to the false alarm does nothing to correct the ineffectiveness of the alarm, an alarm that in the absence of clarifying information was very real.”

The author makes clear the wider implications of this failing.

“Our operational assumption is that giving people good information will lead them to take informed protective actions for themselves,” he writes. “But research and experience often contradicts that assumption, meaning that we need to rethink the way we provide messages and the way we engage people before and during a disaster.”

This isn’t the main point of this interesting, brief book. In fact, communications isn’t the crux. Its main idea is the importance of addressing — even more than preparedness — the underlying causes of disasters and megadisasters: biothreats, climate change, infrastructure failure, cyberthreats and nuclear conflict.

But Schlegelmilch gives much for those working in either crisis and emergency communications to think about. Do the recipients of our messages know what they’re supposed to do with that information?

Photo Credit: Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash

Sign up for our free weekly newsletter on crisis communications. Each week we highlight a crisis story in the news or a survey or study with an eye toward the type of best practices and strategies you can put to work each day. Click here to subscribe.

Related:CDC Manual Offers Advice on Crisis Comms