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Volume 27, Issue 3

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Words Count in Emergency Notification

Written by  Marc Ladin January 19, 2010

The benefits of an emergency notification system are easily diminished with the wrong choice of words – whether too many or not enough, imprecise wording can lead to panic and confusion rather than awareness and clarity. The message you send is just as important as having the right system to send it.

Emergency communication has come a long way since smoke signals, town criers and the Pony Express. In addition to the numerous shortcomings of these communication methods (the phrase “don’t shoot the messenger” comes to mind), information transferred manually is always subject to distortions, inaccuracies and miscommunications.

Today’s automated notification options offer countless advantages over manual methods including customization, containment and immediacy. More communication tools and greater specificity equal more lives saved. There’s a fire on the second floor and you only require first responders on the scene? No problem. Need to notify only residents within a three mile radius of a downed power line? Done.

Is it really an emergency?

A feast of options however, holds the potential for a glut of errors. Consider one instance where a city used its emergency notification system to remind residents that Fourth of July fireworks were illegal within city limits. Although the message was clear, many residents considered this usage an abuse of the notification system, with one resident likening it “to calling 911 to report a guy slowing the line up at a fast food place.” Because some residents provide personal information with the expectation that they will only receive emergency alerts, sending them information about non-critical events can desensitize them to your messages and can lead to them ‘tuning out’ – potentially diluting the potency of the system.

Although emergency notification systems advance public safety, classifying every incident as a public safety issue does not serve the community’s interest, particularly if controversy ensues. You must come to a consensus with your organization’s management team defining what qualifies as an emergency versus a routine incident. 

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When developing your policies, it is vital to consider the recipient’s reaction. Putting yourself in the recipient’s shoes provides the clearest perspective – theirs, and serves as a reminder of how a poorly phrased or incorrectly labeled message can result in unnecessary confusion that could have been avoided with proper planning.

With understanding, good judgment and planning, you can develop clear guidelines on how and when to use your emergency notification system to support the interests of both sender and recipient.

Your words matter

The message you send represents everyone in your organization. Overcoming the pitfalls of communication really is a matter of words and judgment, which even under the best circumstances can sometimes evade us. Factor in stress, emotions and behavior that accompany a crisis and the potential for complications increases. Creating messages in the midst of a crisis is no small feat. What is your message? Who is your audience? What do you want them to do? Communicating clearly in the first hour of a crisis is vital to preventing chaos and confusion.

Created in advance to address specific crisis scenarios, message maps eliminate the guesswork and errors that frequently occur with improvised communication and ensure message clarity and comprehension. To understand the importance of message maps, you should be aware of mental noise theory and how it impacts crisis communication.

What is mental noise theory? To put it simply, when people are in stressful situations, they have difficulty hearing, understanding and remembering information. In fact, the average person experiences an 80 percent reduction in their ability to process information when a disaster strikes. Because message maps are built before a crisis occurs, they circumvent many of the challenges created by mental noise theory during the crisis, ensuring the messages you send will be easily heard, understood and remembered.

Message maps are created in advance by distilling information in short, concise and easy to understand phrases. This clarity ensures messages will be specific and appropriate to the situation, as well as allowing time for contemplation of how audiences will interpret these messages and what action they will motivate. By creating message maps in advance, organizations have the time and resources to explore a range of incident scenarios and map out their messages by incident type, severity, stage, and audience. They provide a powerful way to inform, contain rumors and misinformation, and reassure those affected of the organization’s ability to lead during the incident.

Studies show that the best chance of getting an audience’s attention occurs within the first nine seconds of a visual or audio broadcast, or the first 30 words of written material.

Developed by organizational communication expert Dr. Robert C. Chandler, Director of the University of Central Florida’s Nicholson School of Communication, the “3-3-30 rule” dictates that messages should contain three short sentences that convey no more than three key messages in 30 words or less. 

Although the average person can process seven messages or concepts simultaneously in a non-stressful situation, the turmoil and uncertainty of a crisis can lower that number to three. Write messages at or below a sixth grade level, and always state the most important message in the beginning and end of your communication. When distressed, individuals tend to remember what they hear first and last, but information sandwiched between the two is often unheard or forgotten. Stress also negatively affects comprehension, prompting people to focus on the negative more than the positive so be sure to structure your message accordingly.

Tips for constructing effective message maps

  • Identify your audiences: Who will be affected in your organization? List all possible audiences, e.g. employees, citizens, clients, vendors, suppliers, first-responders, regulators, investors, community stakeholders, non-English speakers, and special needs populations.
  • Address mental noise issues: During stressful situations, people are overwhelmed with emotions like lack of control, dread and uncertainty.
  • Address every possible scenario: List all likely scenarios that may affect your organization, brainstorm “what-if” scenarios and isolate what you want to communicate.
  • Follow the 3-3-30 rule: Limit each message to three short sentences that convey only three key messages in 30 words or less.
  • Build messaging into your drills and exercises: Test your emergency notification system regularly to measure system performance, ensure accurate contact information and test messages for comprehension. Revise and refine as necessary.
  • Focus on brevity, clarity and sensibility: Keep the message short and focused; define the message as emergency or routine; and exercise good judgment considering all aspects of the situation, the audience and the message.

The true contagion in any incident is fear, but proper planning can prevent the spread of misinformation and panic. Working from a pre-written playbook versus crafting messages on-the-fly as the incident unfolds minimizes the pitfalls of panic and produces messages calibrated to the specifics of the event, audience and desired outcome. In addition to helping you establish and maintain credibility, message maps ensure consistency in your communications during critical incidents.

Compare these two messages. Can you identify which one uses the Chandler 3-3-30 rule?

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Technology as a standalone solution is not the panacea for emergency preparedness and response. Rather, it is the human element that bolsters technology’s capabilities, extends its reach and shows us how to make an impact on human lives. The relationship between the individual and the system fuels success, which is not measured in how often you use the system, but how well you use the system.

To measure the return on investment of your emergency notification system, be sure to factor in the number of lives protected, tragedies averted, communities brought together, and time and resources saved.

marc.jpgMarc Ladin is the vice president of global marketing for Everbridge, the world’s recognized leader in incident notification systems. He has more than 15 years of software, hardware and services marketing experiences and frequently speaks at business continuity and disaster recovery conferences and industry events.