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If you take no other lesson from the COVID-19 pandemic response, take away this truth: human response. It’s the one thing that must be fully understood by anyone dealing with disaster management. It is more clear than ever that emergency managers and other senior and elected officials need to have a strong understanding of sociology and how the general public’s reaction will shape policy and response efforts. Over the past two years, we have seen an overall failure—or at least poor estimate—of how the public would receive government actions.
For many in the emergency management field, the negative and split responses of the public are nothing new. Whether dealing with weather forecasts, evacuation and shelter-in-place orders, or just general awareness efforts, there is always that segment of the public that will proclaim we are overreacting to nothing. Those critics always seem to be the loudest, even though they are usually an overwhelming minority. Thanks to the prominence of social media in our society, including the emergency management field, those critics have an even louder platform.
However, COVID-19 presented a substantial change in this dynamic. This was something new. We hadn’t had a world-changing pandemic that would last for a prolonged period of time. It wasn’t something people were accustomed to dealing with. When you’re dealing with a hurricane, blizzard, earthquake, or even a man-made event, there is at least some public understanding and experience; simply put, they know what to expect. That was not the case with COVID-19, whichactually caused disruptions to daily life. We had a vacuum of knowledge on this global pandemic. That vacuum created an arena where “do your own research” became a rallying cry for those who didn’t understand the actions being taken and why. It allowed the public to draw their own conclusions without having all the information, or necessarily understanding what information they did have. Overall, there was much uncertainty.
However, an information gap wasn’t a credible excuse for government agencies to relinquish responsibility. We, as a collective government response at all levels, dropped the ball hard on this one. We relied too heavily on catchy slogans like “two weeks to flatten the curve” and deferred to higher levels of authority without presenting the message to our own communities. There also wasn’t enough messaging, misinformation management, or rumor control at the local level. Without that local community effort where there is naturally more connection, a significant portion of the public was able to build up animosity and distrust towards federal agencies and politicians who were already spreading conflicting messages.
We’re seeing that mistrust continue into other arenas of public safety; the public is becoming mistrustful of all emergency management messaging at the local and state levels.These agencies are being met with more challenges from the public when we present information on things we’ve done for years. This includes earthquake and hurricane preparedness, severe weather alerts, and even general updates on our training and operations efforts. The “what are they trying to do to us now” sentiment has grown louder. Whether that sentiment is truly more prevalent now or not isn’t clear, but we do see that those who feel that way are absolutely more comfortable in putting it out there. I saw it first-hand when a series of tornadoes impacted our region not long ago; at that time, much of the social media feedback we were seeing emphasized overreaction when it came to issuing watches and warnings.
“We had a vacuum of knowledge on this global pandemic. That vacuum created an arena where ‘do your own research’ became a rallying cry for those who didn’t understand the actions being taken and why.”
So how do we combat misinformation and different public reactions? South Carolina Emergency Management Division (SCEMD) has taken a great approach to this. They’ve made their social media presence “fun”. Incorporating pop culture and humor into their posts, they provide quality information while encouraging positive feedback from the public. This unique strategy eliminates much of the space that critics need to spread their negative messages and misinformation. The key factor for SCEMD in their success isn’t so much that they are “fun” but that their messaging is engaging. They have identified an avenue that generates positive discussion and feedback. It builds trust by reaching out and getting the public to have an overall positive and trusting opinion of the agency and its people.
Not every agency can take that same approach, and not every member of the public will be satisfied with what you do. However, by increasing
your engagement with you’re the community, an agency or organization canalter its image and narrative in a positive way. If people have a positive opinion of your organization when there isn’t an emergency, they’ll be more likely to trust you when something does happen. Emergency and disaster management happens at the local level first and foremost; therefore, the local emergency management office has to feel like a part of the community. Let the public know who you are and feel like you are someone they can trust. That helps with your messaging on local issues but also makes you a trusted source when it comes to understanding the information that comes down from state and federal agencies.
How your community responds to your agency will be a key factor in the success of your operations before, during, and after a disaster. Take the time to make sure the public trusts your organization as the prime local experts when it comes to emergencies. Being given that “benefit of the doubt” when it comes to critical decisions during a disaster can be the difference between an efficient and effective response, and a spiraling disaster that fractures public trust.