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The right message in the right bottle

10 Tips for Effective Public Warning Messages

10 Tips for Effective Public Warning Messages hero image

The way we react as individuals to a threatening situation is a function of many things – how we perceive the threat; the reactions of others around us; the help and information available to us and our own personality. Therefore, it’s vital that authorities consider this when designing an effective public warning system to keep the population safe.  Specifically, it’s important to consider not only what will make an effective message but combining this with the most appropriate channels and sending the messages out at the right time.

Our knowledge of human nature and the way that emergency situations unfold is vital in building an effective public warning system.  Emergency situations and people are rarely static or predictable so as a result, the level of danger citizens may face can vary over time for several reasons:

  • People do not all react in the same way to emergency situations
  • People will often ignore advice and disperse to a location they assume, or hope is safe
  • People may head towards escape routes that are no longer open, for example a train station which has been closed or a key road that is blocked.
  • The danger can move geographically during an unfolding incident, for example a marauding terror attack, forest fires or chemical contamination.
  • The danger might evolve and create other risks to the public

The first of these points is perhaps the most challenging.  Preparing for the unpredictability of human nature may seem like asking the impossible, but when a public warning system is triggered, we are likely to observe three typical public responses:

  • Ignoring the warning – public warning system messages are rare, so believing that the message is a hoax, or that they are not in any immediate danger, people can choose to ignore them and continue with their day
  • Engagement – people follow the instructions in the message, staying calm, and spreading the information to other people around them as they do
  • Panic – there are many reasons why people panic on receiving a public warning system message and it is not always a fear over personal safety. It could be caused by panic in other people, stress, concerns for the safety of friends and family.  It can also be caused by the way an individual interprets the messages received through the public warning system, a lack of regular updates or an inability to contact emergency services.

Whilst we can’t say how people will respond on an individual level, we can prepare for the changing dynamics of their behaviour and the incident itself. 

Be prepared with the right messages

With mobile devices in our daily lives, it has become easier to reach people wherever they are at any time but having the ability to respond quickly is not enough, you need to deliver an effective message.  Being prepared and crafting messages in advance helps ensure that employees, customers, stakeholders or citizens receive and understand critical notifications, instructions, and updates.  The US state of Florida is no stranger to issuing emergency alerts as it lies in the path of hurricanes which devastate the coastline every year.  Dr. Robert Chandler, an expert in crisis communications and director of the Nicholson School of Communication at the University of Central Florida,  suggests the key to creating effective message maps is having:

“clear, concise messages created prior to a crisis that simplify complex concepts and speed communication during chaos.”

Disaster response organisations including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommend advance scripting of message templates for a variety of scenarios and audience types to streamline communications during an incident, emergency, or disaster.

Top Tips for Effective Messages

In our white paper “Top 10 Tips for Successful Message Mapping” we  dig into the details, but here we can outline some useful steps: 

1. Plan for scenarios in advance

Consider scenarios that would either impact the health and safety of people or disrupt normal day to day operations. The European Commission Disaster Risk Knowledge Centre publishes country profiles showing risk dimensions and components for natural and man-made disasters.  

2. Follow Chandler’s 3-3-30 rule

  • No more than 3 message points
  • Deliver 3 short sentences – or 1 sentence during the initial emergency
  • Keep the key content in the first 30 words

3. Keep it simple in a crisis

The average person’s reading comprehension in a crisis drops to about the level of a child. Your audience needs to understand your message without confusion at a time when stress is heightened.

4. Craft your messages to match the stages of an event

  • Early stage– – The event is unfolding and not all the facts may be known. Provide the information you have and realize stress is high and the time may be short. Be clear, precise, and specific.
  • Mid-stage – There is more information about the event and the desired actions by audience.  Motivate the recipients to take the correct actions.  Messages include actions and are directive based
  • Resolution stage – The incident is over and the outcome is known. Provide the information to help everyone resume their lives.  Describe services or areas that will not return to normal operation.
6 Stages of a Crisis
6 Stages of a Crisis

5. Choose your words and watch your tone

The response to your message can be affected by the words and tone you use. Think about the reaction you want. Does your message help? Does it create urgency? Does it cause panic?

6. Craft for the recipient

During an incident, there may be several messages and actions needed for different groups of the population. Are the actions that citizens need to take different based on their locations?

For example, people on a station platform might be told to evacuate to the streets whereas people inside the trains themselves may be told to stay on the train.

7. Test, Train, and Fix

Real-life simulations help build confidence and ensure that they’re ready to perform in an actual event. Testing with the public helps familiarise them with message formats and emergency processes and identifies any challenges.

8. Consider send and receive models

2-way communications are extremely helpful in public warning systems.  The initiator sends a message, the receiver gets the message and sends a confirmation or reply.

9. Think about your communication mode

A modern public warning platform like Everbridge is capable of sending multi-channel public warning messages across: Sirens, Radio, TV, Cell Broadcast to mobile phones, SMS Text to Mobile Phones, voice calls to both mobile phones and landlines as well as social media. When creating your message maps, ask yourself,  How will this message be delivered?  What mode will you use?  Each mode has advantages and disadvantages but working in harmony can be extremely effective.

10. Message Mapping is a science

Message mapping can seem fairly straightforward, but considerable time and expertise has gone into researching exactly how to structure messages for recipient response in a crisis (See Dr. Chandler’s book, Emergency Notification

Everbridge also has created sample messages which countries may encounter which will save time and make broadcasts more efficient. If you would like more on this, just get in touch.

The right communication channels

Some governments have placed the need for a multichannel public warning system high on the agenda. This is the case in Iceland, India, Australia and Greece, for example, where natural disasters have made the need for public warning systems more urgent.  However, each country must decide on the best communications channel to meet the incident scenarios of their country.  

A public warning ‘platform’ allows agencies to see how a critical event is evolving and make decisions on the best way to communicate with the public, with which messages and channels.  Critically, it can help assess where agency and emergency services resources, should be deployed – particularly important when these resources may be stretched. 

Building a public warning system is not a tick box exercise based on choosing one technology – a hybrid approach is so much more powerful.  It takes planning to understand the nature of the threats you may face, and the best way to communicate to reach every citizen.  The right message, in the wrong bottle, delivered the wrong way will never be seen, could be ignored, or could lead to panic and the escalation of an emergency.  Get it right, and the planning will pay off, save lives, reassure citizens, and help deescalate events.

Interested to learn more?

This is the sixth blog in a series addressing the issues and challenges of meeting the requirements of the EU Directive 110 on population alerting. 

Further reading about Population Alerting: