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Crisis Communication 101: How to Develop Messages for Relief

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Crisis Communication 101: How You Can Develop Messages for Relief MonkeyBusiness Images/PhotoSpin

After taking a training course on crisis communication at work, I realized how applicable it is in everyday life.

A crisis can range from moderate to severe in intensity. And a crisis can happen anywhere, at any time.

A crisis is defined as an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending, according to a Crisis and Emergency Management Plan Development presentation by the New Jersey Department of Health.

Crisis/emergency risk communication is taught, practiced and used throughout various health agencies, hospitals, government organizations and media outlets in the event of a public health emergency and or crisis.

For someone dealing with a mental illness, crisis can take the form of a psychotic break. For someone who is job hunting, crisis can come in the form of constant rejection. For students, crisis can be failing a course.

In terms of public health, a recent example of a public health emergency/crisis was the Ebola outbreak.

I bring you this introductory post as the first in a three-part crisis communication series that will analyze how you can use these communication tools with various individuals and in various settings.

Keep reading to learn the what, when and how of crisis communication.

Crisis communication is a science-based approach used to speak to those directly affected by stressful life events. Crisis communication is intended to empower the person to take action, include action messages and relieve their anxiety.

The psychology of a crisis is complex because everyone takes in, processes and acts on information differently. In the case of a crisis, less is more, information-wise.

According to the mental noise theory, people lose up to 80 percent of the information that is communicated to them.

During a crisis, communicate in a way that can simplify things for those affected, as they are already most likely to over-analyze due to anxiety.

In order to effectively communicate with your audience during crisis, limit their intake of new information. It is estimated that on an average day an individual can process between 11 and 14 messages. However, during a crisis an individuals’ ability to process decreases to as few as three to five messages.

Your message should:

- Inform your target audience of the situation

- Persuade them that something is being done to handle the situation

- Encourage them to take action to stabilize their environment and maintain optimal health.

Identifying your target audience before you develop your message is crucial in determining how effective it will be. The outlet you use (email, Twitter, Facebook, television news, etc.) will depend on the situation.

Messages should be short, concise and focused. Having one voice and one message will allow your message to be consistent. Explain the why, how and what of the specific crisis incident.

When communicating to the public, speak to them as if you are the public. This means using transitions/bridging statements, plain language, and no acronyms.

Acronyms may be jargon at your agency, or within your professional community, but acronyms are not always common knowledge for the general public.

Messages should not contain empty promises and guarantees. They should only include promises you can deliver.

Your message should tell those affected by crisis that you/your organization will remain committed to providing relief and assistance throughout the event. Never speculate and always stick to the facts.

Developing a message with these elements in mind will give your audience a sense of control and keep them engaged.

The public, defined by those affected by the crisis want to know: “Am I safe?” and “Can you fix it?”

Your message should not over-assure the public. Acknowledge the uncertainty and fear associated with the situation and inform them that a process is in place.

More importantly, give people things to do. With all the nervous energy known to be caused by a crisis, assigning tangible steps and tasks can be instrumental in relieving anxiety as it occupies the mind. Working with the hands is known as an effective tool in dealing with anxiety.

And most importantly, when you don’t know the answer to something, inform the public that you will find out, and answer their concern in a timely fashion. Inform them of a tentative date and time you are likely to get back to them.

Stay posted for my next article where I'll illustrate how to use crisis communication for various everyday problems and crises.

For more communication insights read my article Communication Insight for Anxiety Disorders.


New Jersey Department of Health (NJDOH). Risk Communications Training. January 20 2015. Office of Emergency Preparedness, Health Center Command (HCC).

The 10 Steps of Crisis Communications By Jonathan Bernstein. Bernstein Crisis Management. May 12, 2015.

Reviewed May 12, 2015
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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