Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

The Problems with Disaster Messaging (And How to Improve It)

Ana-Marie Jones of the nonprofit organization Collaborating Agencies Responding to Disasters addresses why preparedness messages fall short and how to reach more citizens.

Ana-Marie Jones is the executive director of Collaborating Agencies Responding to Disasters (CARD), a nonprofit in Oakland, Calif. CARD was created after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake by local agencies to train nonprofits and faith-based agencies in disaster preparedness.

Jones attended a recent two-day event, Awareness to Action: A Workshop on Motivating the Public
to Prepare, hosted by FEMA and the American Red Cross to discuss emergency preparedness messaging to citizens. We asked Jones about the workshop and preparedness in general during
a recent interview.

Emergency Management: What was your impression of the FEMA/Red Cross workshop?
Jones: In theory, it was supposed to be 85 preparedness experts across the country convened by FEMA and the Red Cross, and the topic was about messaging­ — in particular: Get a kit, have a plan, be informed.

I have long been a proponent of how ineffective that message is and I thought that those individual pieces aren’t grand. I mean, really, it’s great to have a plan put together and a kit — the concept is perfectly fine. It is that it has been a dismal failure as a rally cry for the public.

What’s wrong with the message?
It’s threat-based, top down, put forth by agencies whose mission, mindset and muscles are around disaster response, not preparedness.

By anchoring preparedness specifically to earthquakes, floods, terrorism and other things we can’t control, we’ve absolutely told 90 percent of the public, “Don’t worry your pretty little head about this.”

Ana-Marie Jones, executive director, CARD. Photo by Jessica Mulholland.

We spend much more money branding the emergency management agencies than we do preparing the public. If you look at the campaigns that are put out there, they aren’t preparedness campaigns, they’re branding campaigns.

But if you’re going to give a big, broad-based, scattergun preparedness message, it should be nonthreatening and something everybody can do.

It’s such an upper-class, American-privileged message to think that people have resources for sometime in the next 30 years when there’s an earthquake.

Which is why we go so heavily on everyday brilliance being your disaster resilience. I can go into a homeless center and [teach] people preparedness skills that help them right now. People are totally willing to learn it, because it’s of value right now. If I go in and give them whistles and teach them the emergency code (instead of a brochure) —one is yes, two is no, three is help — people immediately embrace this. Why? Because they feel a level of threat every day.

If you’re a homeless person and you’ve got kids in that homeless center, I can tell you it’s a moving experience for them because finally they get to be the good parent who showed their kid a tangible skill so that the kid can feel safe.

If you’re a parent and living in a homeless shelter, you have that constant shame of having brought your kid into homelessness and you are constantly worried that somebody is going to fall off their meds, go off program, mess with their kids, molest their kids, you name it.

So that little whistle becomes this incredibly valuable thing. I promise you, nobody has responded that way to a brochure. And it will never happen.

What’s the right way to get the message across?
The message that we at CARD have embraced is all about being prepared to prosper. Have your everyday brilliance be your disaster resilience. Anything that you can build into your everyday muscle is much likelier to serve you in a crisis.

There are lots of ways you can have your everyday brilliance be your disaster resilience. It’s never going to come by threatening the public.

In fact, CARD’s website put up the study that the Red Cross did in 1992 and it was a brilliantly done bit of research. The organization went to the community, did basic disaster education for earthquake, fire and flood. They did two different classes. One class was given the preparedness message with disaster images; the other was given the same thing with no images. The results? Those who had the images did much less, and in some cases, nothing.

We’re doing a lot of things that fall into the category of unintentional harm. Threat-based campaigns don’t work.

Jim McKay  |  Editor

Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his wife, Christie, daughter, Ellie, and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout. Jim can be reached at jmckay@emergencymgmt.com.

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