Lessons for Public Information Officers from Paul Revere

Times and technologies change, but the realities that prompted one of the most famous emergency alerts in history remain true today. Just as Paul Revere had to go door to door on April 18, 1775 — 243 years ago this week — to alert John Hancock and others that the British were coming, the only emergency alert system that consistently works remains door-to-door, human contact.

Alarming, but true. When flood waters rose near San Jose a year ago, cell phone text alerts reached fewer than one-third of the people in the risk area. When fires raced through Santa Rosa last fall, automated phone calls went unanswered because utility lines were down. Hawaii officials pushed the wrong button in January and thousands of people received a false alarm of an inbound ballistic missile, but many people ignored the electronic message anyway — even though it said it was not a drill.

This article is based on Doug Levy’s new book, The Communications Golden Hour: The Essential Guide to Public Information When Every Minute Counts, available at Amazon.com or from your local bookseller by special order.

Nothing replaces human, personal contact. When emergency responders go door-to-door, compliance reaches close to 100 percent. No other method consistently gets above 75 percent.

For emergency responders in 2018, the lessons are clear: establish trust before the next disaster so that people know what to do when you tell them to take shelter, evacuate, or not worry. Technology-enabled tools like Nixle mass-alert systems, neighborhood social media groups like Nextdoor, and mass social media such as Facebook and Twitter all help, but none of the technology can substitute for the quick, skilled judgment of a well prepared public information officer who knows how to use those great tools.

Part of that skill also includes knowing when old methods work best: How many people have transistor radios anymore? As it turned out, broadcast radio was one of the only remaining ways people in the Sonoma and Napa fire area could receive updates during the peak of the firestorm last October. This was true during the Oakland Hills fire in 1991, too. Santa Barbara County publishes a list of radio stations for residents to turn to for emergency updates, a system they used in both the fire and mudslide disasters last November. There is a reason that the Federal Emergency Management Agency recommendations still include the old Emergency Broadcast System.

As in 1775, that recognized neighbor knocking on a door was the most effective alert system in the California wildfires last year. The heroism demonstrated by firefighters, police and other first responders in Napa, Sonoma, Ventura, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties was nothing short of extraordinary. In many instances, sheriff’s deputies, police officers or firefighters put their own lives at great risk trying to get residents out of danger. The number of lives they saved likely is too many to fully count.

That’s one of the many reasons why the uniformed, highly trained, highly professional emergency services personnel are the most trusted in an emergency. When I surveyed a random sample of Americans about where they would turn for information in an emergency, most people said they would rely on their local police or fire department. That makes sense. But that was about the only point on which most Americans seem to agree.

The data shows that young people want to hear from someone they know in real life — such as a friend or neighbor or family member. Older people look for a uniform and a badge. In the middle are people who may gauge credentials a bit more and turn to news outlets or government agencies directly. In addition to differences based on age, differences also exist by region, economic status, and between rural and urban geographies.

The bottom line is that emergency communicators cannot presume that they will automatically be trusted by virtue of their position. Even if they are trusted, public information officers also must know that some people in their area may need to get urgent messages differently — because of special needs or other factors.

If you are a communicator, get to know your audience, who they trust, and why — before the next emergency. The era when mayors, governors, religious leaders, or health directors could step in front of the cameras with instant credibility is long gone.

In order for communications to be effective, communicators need to know:

  • Who do people in the community trust?
  • What segments need special attention, due to language, hearing or vision impairment, or other factors?
  • What communications methods can reach your audience?

Those first two items can and should be determined in advance, as part of routine planning. If a fire is raging over the hillside, it’s too late to be looking for instructions on how to use an alert system or who has the password for the social media accounts, and our communities have grown too big to rely on modern day Paul Reveres.

Doug Levy is author of The Communications Golden Hour: The Essential Guide To Public Information When Every Minute Counts. Public Safety Press, 2018.

A version of this article was published on LinkedIn.