Risk communication, which centers on what is known about potential risks and possible responses, functions primarily in the stages before and after a crisis. Before a crisis, the goal is to educate and engage with the public and just before the crisis to issue warnings. After the crisis, the goals shift to applying lessons learned during the crisis and to building resilience from future events.
Crisis communication, by contrast, occurs in stage 2, during the crisis, and has very specific communications demands. Crisis communication inherently involves many acknowledged unknowns in the context of a particular event. Thus, an approach that is successful for risk communication may not succeed during a crisis.
During a crisis situation, communication with the public shifts from a dialogue about potential risks to instructional messages focused on the steps that members of the public should take to protect themselves (for example, evacuating or sheltering in place). Another aspect of response management involves connecting with others—individuals trying to connect with one another, such as families seeking to reunite, and emergency responders from a variety of agencies needing to connect with others in order to coordinate response efforts.
The traditional view of information dissemination centers on the command post. Alerts and warnings are prepared by public officials, media receive their information from briefings by public information officers (PIOs), and the public receives its information from the media. According to the traditional view, the perception of the crisis is tightly controlled by the context of the briefing room and the information that the PIO chooses to provide. Likewise, information is mediated, the timing of the information is very controlled, and direct access to the crisis zone is controlled. Regardless of which news source people turn to, they receive much the same information.
Today’s media can provide unfiltered, more-immediate information. Long before an alert is delivered by CMAS or another official source, information about the event will most likely already be available on social media sites, such as Twitter or Facebook, that support online social interaction, including the widespread sharing of people’s observations about current events. Information shared using these tools, or even information simply exchanged among individuals, includes not only text but images and video, which are readily captured using mobile telephones. As a result, those directly affected by a disaster can also become key sources of information about the event. These tools also change conventional news gathering—reporters can use cell phones