Communications is Harder than Rocket Science
Perhaps my awareness on communications is up simply as the result of two coincidental events. One, the Boston Sunday Globe “Ideas” section featured an article entitled “Attack of the Light Drizzle: How Weather Was Taken Over by the Hype Machine.” In short, author Robert David Sullivan gives an account of how recent storms (i.e., one that occurred in the Washington DC/Philadelphia/NYC areas) received a lot of “news” about how it was going to move into New England and be worse. OMG! What a terrible thing! Some even recalled stories of the 1978 Blizzard that actually buried cars and stopped activity the Northeast for several days. But what really happened was… nothing. Schools were canceled. Workers told to stay home. Grocery stores were overwhelmed. All for, nothing. Sullivan points out that our weather forecasts are packaged and delivered not for information but for drama. Okay, that’s one.
The other coincidental event was my listening to WNYC’s Radio Lab podcast examination of the 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast by Orson Welles. In the off-beat but well researched podcast in front of a live audience, hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich explained the historical context and why the drama of a Martian invasion was taken seriously by about 12% of the listeners, resulting in some panic and hallucinations in New Jersey, panic calls to the New York Times about where people might find safe places to escape the deadly gases, and so on. At that point, most of the audience agreed that that sort of thing could never happen again. But it did! The same drama was revised and broadcast in 1949 in Ecuador, resulting in a panicked population, as the military and police rushed to the “landing” site to battle the invaders from Mars. As soon as it was understood to be only a hoax, the panic turned to anger and six people died and the radio station was stoned and burned. But wait. It was re-done by a radio station in Detroit in 1968 (high tension time of the Vietnam War) and caused panic not only in Detroit but in Canada as well.
The conclusion of the podcast indicates that Welles knew what he was doing. In a way, he and his radio actors (later called “terrorists” by the government) was poking at the current (1938) news broadcasting companies for exploiting hype and drama to garner listeners.
I think my point here is that, for emergency managers and responders, communications is essential but not at all easy. Rocket science is based on physics, chemistry, mathematics – all relying on predicable results if the rules are followed. Communications is much more difficult because it deals with social science – you know, people.
When technology (mobile TV, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter , etc.) can outstrip our ability to provide accurate information and broadcast news seeks dramatic sound bites to offer as teasers, emergency managers and responders must have a communications plan that is as complete and well-conceived as their operations plan. When the message is clear, concise and accurate, then technology is best means to deliver the information and reduce the potential for adding disaster on top of any emergency incident.