Preparedness & Recovery

The Problems with Disaster Messaging (And How to Improve It)

Ana-Marie Jones of the nonprofit organization Collaborating Agencies Responding to Disasters addresses why preparedness messages fall short and how to reach more citizens.

by / December 12, 2012
Photo from Shutterstock

Ana-Marie Jones is the executive director of Collaborating Agencies Responding to Disasters (CARD), a nonprofit in Oakland, Calif. CARD was created after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake by local agencies to train nonprofits and faith-based agencies in disaster preparedness.

Jones attended a recent two-day event, Awareness to Action: A Workshop on Motivating the Public
to Prepare, hosted by FEMA and the American Red Cross to discuss emergency preparedness messaging to citizens. We asked Jones about the workshop and preparedness in general during
a recent interview.

Emergency Management: What was your impression of the FEMA/Red Cross workshop?
Jones: In theory, it was supposed to be 85 preparedness experts across the country convened by FEMA and the Red Cross, and the topic was about messaging­ — in particular: Get a kit, have a plan, be informed.

I have long been a proponent of how ineffective that message is and I thought that those individual pieces aren’t grand. I mean, really, it’s great to have a plan put together and a kit — the concept is perfectly fine. It is that it has been a dismal failure as a rally cry for the public.

What’s wrong with the message?
It’s threat-based, top down, put forth by agencies whose mission, mindset and muscles are around disaster response, not preparedness.

By anchoring preparedness specifically to earthquakes, floods, terrorism and other things we can’t control, we’ve absolutely told 90 percent of the public, “Don’t worry your pretty little head about this.”

Ana-Marie Jones, executive director, CARD. Photo by Jessica Mulholland.

We spend much more money branding the emergency management agencies than we do preparing the public. If you look at the campaigns that are put out there, they aren’t preparedness campaigns, they’re branding campaigns.

But if you’re going to give a big, broad-based, scattergun preparedness message, it should be nonthreatening and something everybody can do.

It’s such an upper-class, American-privileged message to think that people have resources for sometime in the next 30 years when there’s an earthquake.

Which is why we go so heavily on everyday brilliance being your disaster resilience. I can go into a homeless center and [teach] people preparedness skills that help them right now. People are totally willing to learn it, because it’s of value right now. If I go in and give them whistles and teach them the emergency code (instead of a brochure) —one is yes, two is no, three is help — people immediately embrace this. Why? Because they feel a level of threat every day.

If you’re a homeless person and you’ve got kids in that homeless center, I can tell you it’s a moving experience for them because finally they get to be the good parent who showed their kid a tangible skill so that the kid can feel safe.

If you’re a parent and living in a homeless shelter, you have that constant shame of having brought your kid into homelessness and you are constantly worried that somebody is going to fall off their meds, go off program, mess with their kids, molest their kids, you name it.

So that little whistle becomes this incredibly valuable thing. I promise you, nobody has responded that way to a brochure. And it will never happen.

What’s the right way to get the message across?
The message that we at CARD have embraced is all about being prepared to prosper. Have your everyday brilliance be your disaster resilience. Anything that you can build into your everyday muscle is much likelier to serve you in a crisis.

There are lots of ways you can have your everyday brilliance be your disaster resilience. It’s never going to come by threatening the public.

In fact, CARD’s website put up the study that the Red Cross did in 1992 and it was a brilliantly done bit of research. The organization went to the community, did basic disaster education for earthquake, fire and flood. They did two different classes. One class was given the preparedness message with disaster images; the other was given the same thing with no images. The results? Those who had the images did much less, and in some cases, nothing.

We’re doing a lot of things that fall into the category of unintentional harm. Threat-based campaigns don’t work.

You give people a threat-based message, they have to buy into all of the bad things. Terrorism is the best example. Look at how hard the terrorism message is for people to embrace. It’s even harder than the national disasters.

We think there’s a different path.

Talk about what a viable message should contain.
We have several initiatives that are all about getting people connected. We have one initiative that’s nothing but cellphone. Become a freak about your cellphone.

Get your neighborhood in there, get all your emergency numbers in there, get your ICE [in case of emergency] contact in and label the people who are your neighbors so that your phone is your brilliant portable document storage.

The thing is whether or not you ever have a disaster and you need to crack into the kit, the communications stuff will help you for anything. There are a hundred good reasons to have your neighbors programmed into your phone.

There’s a different way to leverage resources in a community than to just tell everybody you need to have this, otherwise horrible stuff is going to happen.

Should emergency managers be charged with the preparedness message?
Technically, you would say it is their job, but they’re not the right people to be putting forth that message. I believe, and this is where the public can play the biggest role, that there’s a completely different message.

My background is advertising and marketing research. I spent the first 10 years of my [working] life in advertising and research, and I would be happy to go to my grave saying that we have never framed preparedness the way preparedness needs to be framed if you want people to do it. 

No private-sector company would invest billions of dollars putting a message out that had such dismal returns. You just would never do it.

Different messengers and people need to hear the message from messengers that they believe in. I was just in a conversation about how religion influences disaster, and the reality is, if you want people who are affiliated with a religious group to get the message, they’ll get that message when that religious organization threads it into the way they speak.

There are all kinds of ways to frame your conversation so that it works for the community.

The business community doesn’t have a bunch of money to spend on this. The majority of businesses have not done any of the planning. It’s the exception rather than the rule.

If you look at the big companies that’ve done it — the Targets and Wal-Marts — some of them only recently got into this game. Most businesses have done so little and there are really easy things they could do. Look at how cheap it is to have storage space online. You could back up your files so easily for pennies. If you don’t have confidential information, you could back it up using Gmail because you have unlimited amounts of Gmail space.

Schools are a perfect example. Every time we do a presentation at a church, the people who line up to talk to us are almost always teachers. They are overwhelmed for what they’re expected to do, so there are all sorts of things like having the kids play a much more active role in the planning and response.

Jim McKay Editor

Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his wife, Christie, daughter, Ellie, and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout. Jim can be reached at