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01.08.13

In the eye of the storm

Source: Public Sector Executive July/Aug 2013

Extreme weather demands a quick and clear response. Kate Ashley reports from the Environment Agency-led session on incident communications at LGA 2013, which heard from the EA’s Kate Hughes and its chief media officer
Jason Wakeford. 

Some events are completely outside local authority control, but in the case of extreme incidents, it’s not about what you do as much as what you say. The Environment Agency has set out best practice for councils when responding to natural disasters and why good communications can cut costs, boost trust and provide life-saving information. 

The Local Government Association conference 2013 heard more on this subject from Jason Wakeford, the EA’s chief media officer, and Kate Hughes, then its communications manager for the North West but who is now head of partnerships and engagement at Atlantic Gateway. 

They discussed how incident communications could help to manage extreme changes in weather by reassuring the public and providing an excellent template for councils to introduce into their own comms. 

Mixed messages 

Incident communications are becoming more and more vital as extreme weather events such as flooding and drought become more common, Hughes said. 

The Environment Agency urges councils to use consistent messages across all different forms of media. It is also worth recognising the irony of simultaneous warnings of both drought and flooding, which could be met with disbelief if not explained properly. 

Consistent messages are more reliable, and can be bolstered with internal campaigning. This raises awareness and improves understanding of how there can be water shortages despite heavy rain, for example.

Think big, act early 

Emergency incidents like floods are an area where good communications can literally save lives, so it is squarely in councils’ best interests to pay attention. 

Hughes summed up the basic ideology of EA communications as “think big, act early”. This means keeping the message clear and simple and establishing good relations with councils and local resilience forums in advance. 

Tone can be as important as content: local authorities should remember to show empathy when emergencies occur, she added. Good communications can show the public the operational face of the Environment Agency; staff working on flood defences, for example, and helping those affected. This helps to boost awareness of the dangers as well as making sure people know the best place to turn for information during times of crisis. 

The Environment Agency also contacts council chief executives and environment directors to share key messages ahead of incidents, preparing them for the provision of local communications. 

Balancing act 

It is essential to correct misinformation quickly on social media – something that can happen easily as rumour spreads – so that valuable resources are not diverted on false alarms. Councils should monitor their local social media to catch similar inaccuracies in time. 

Wakeford described social media as “a game changer” for both communications and operations for managing flooding, but highlighted the importance of using traditional media in conjunction with this. It’s a perspective many forward-thinking councils will appreciate; the need to balance new and old mediums of communication.

Sharing internal campaigning materials will allow under-resourced councils to implement vital incident communications, and the Environment Agency produces packs for just this purpose. 

Lessons from a snowman

Sometimes messages get confused or taken out of context – but this can be used to an advantage. Wakeford described an incident in January 2013 where an off-the-cuff comment by an Environment Agency spokesperson got gleefully blown out of proportion by tabloid newspapers, who reported the EA as advising all homes to build snowmen to mitigate the risk of flooding.

It could have been a terrible moment for their publicity, but the EA communications team turned it into a success. They ran with the joke, taking the image of a snowman as their profile picture on Twitter, and got academics to discuss the benefits of using up snow to stop a thaw. 

Joining in like this showed a human face to the organisation and created a spike in the number of people signing up to flood alerts. Sometimes taking a less serious approach can catch the public imagination, and meant the Environment Agency could reach more people with their core safety message. “Engaging with unexpected incidents is for the best,” Wakeford said. 

Future forecast

The agency focuses on a ‘warn and inform’ approach, which means it has less of a public role when it comes to predicting extreme weather events, or dispelling myths spread by climate change sceptics. Wakeford explained that it was very difficult to get certainty and accuracy with such forecasts, and that there was a need to tread carefully around climate change. This is because it wants its emergency incidents communications to be just accepted without debate, whereas with climate change, unfortunately, any messages would always be disputed by some and are obviously complex to get across. 

Instead, the chairman is the designated spokesperson for such issues, separating a potentially charged topic from vital protection advice and information. 

It is certainly too complex to discuss on social media platforms such as Twitter, making it more pertinent to talk about offline, but could be an area where there is greater involvement in the future.

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