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  • Writer's pictureShawna Bruce

Clarity in Crisis: Lessons Learned from Dr. Mileti

The Disaster and Emergency Management world lost a tremendous academic last week with the passing of Dr. Dennis Mileti. Dr. Mileti was a well-known and beloved natural hazards researcher and a leading risk communicator who inspired generations with the practical application of his research. He made it easy for the rest of us to understand academia.

My latest blog is dedicated to Dr. Mileti’s research and includes references to his work (and other tips) to support writing with clear messages when communicating in emergencies. His research on developing public alerts and warning messages shaped how alerts and emergency messages motivate action and save lives. Dr. Mileti will be missed, but his legacy and research will live on by sharing and adopting his best practice examples and applying them to disaster and emergency management.


Applying the Research of Dr. Dennis Mileti

Dr. Mileti promoted writing clarity and how the use of multiple means of communications can save lives by "reducing the time between warning messages and public action" (FEMA, 2018). He shared his research findings in this FEMA Prep Talk Modernizing Public Warning Messages, which offers an excellent overview for developing clear, specific alert and emergency messages.

A second resource that complements the video is A Guide to Public Alerts and Warnings for Dam Levees and Emergencies prepared for US Army Corps of Engineers Risk Management Center by Dr. Mileti and his colleague, Dr. John Sorensen. Both resources need to be in every Public Information Officer’s Toolbox.

Preparedness: Diversity Reduces Diffusion and Delays

Using multiple channels of diffusion to disseminate information reduces delays in getting critical messages to those who need it. So, where are your audiences going to get their information? This is where you need to be, and chances are – they are going everywhere.

"There never has been, there never will be, a silver bullet for disseminating warnings. One technology is insufficient" (Mileti, 2018).

Newsflash: If you do not pre-plan and prepare your approach to message dissemination in a crisis or weather emergency, you will not reach your impacted audiences in time to save them from harm.

By mixing Weather Event Alerts (WEAs) with social media messages, traditional media, and tapping into your community networks for your most at-risk populations, the most isolated, or those who are a "community within a community," you have a better opportunity at reaching your intended audiences. Look at past events. What caused delays in getting information? How can you shorten time delays? Also, think about including your networks in your planning process to identify "how" you will disseminate information in an emergency or disaster. If you want to reach the ageing population or youth – reach out to existing community groups to get their inputs and feedback on your approach, before waiting to reach them during an emergency that hits your community.

Takeaway: Conduct analytics of where your audiences are getting their information. Make sure you are sharing information in the same locations. Then, sharpen all the tools in your toolbox by using and testing them in your drills and through public information campaigns.

Keep it Simple – Consider using Message Maps

When faced with a crisis, our cognitive ability decreases. We may need to hear and read messages several times before actually acting on the information provided. Therefore, writing emergency messaging needs to be based on the science we know today.

Keeping your messages short and simple helps bring attention to the information your audience needs now.

  • Write at a Grade 8 level

  • Use simple words

  • Repeat the messages often

  • Add more details as they become available

Using a template helps guide the process and narrow down the language to support clear messaging.

Risk Communications expert Vincent Covello introduced us to Message Maps, an excellent tool for every communicator to have in their toolbox. Message Maps help you identify active words, simplify the language and reduce the verbiage often found in public messages. They force you to use fewer words, making them perfect for adopting them for public alert and notifications systems, social media and other applications such as media interviews.

Takeaway: Message Maps can be prepared in advance for risk scenarios facing your organization or community and tweaked as needed at the onset of a crisis. Various versions and "how-to guides" have been developed since, but this is the original context framed around public health messages delivered by Dr. Covello himself is well worth watching.

Be Specific and Tell Them "Why"

Clear messaging means there is no room for interpretation. By giving your audiences enough information to make informed decisions, you are also sharing the consequences if they do not act. Dr. Mileti's Prep Talk outlines, "The storm surge will be higher than the rooftops," but also consider "the wildfire will block evacuation routes for those who do not leave by 2 pm." or "the fire is moving quickly towards the town centre. Evacuate now and travel towards Edmonton." Be clear and honest by sharing the risks and not sugar-coating the information for them. Tell your audiences "why" they need to take the action you are requesting.

Takeaway: Test your messages with others outside of those responsible for writing them. Do this quickly, but make sure there are no confusing words or actions included. As an example, be cautious of directional language. Don't use "evacuate and travel North, South" etc. Use a destination, so it is evident in a time of confusion, where they need to go. Evacuate and travel North towards Canada or South towards Florida - offer a visual and directional destination.

Properties of an Emergency Message

In his FEMA Prep Talk, and again in A Guide to Public Alerts and Warnings for Dam Levees and Emergencies (Page 15), Dr. Mileti demonstrates the properties of an emergency message. This is an excellent formula and template to guide you in developing your alert and crisis messages and support, offering clear direction to your impacted audiences. Your audiences need enough information to help them through the emergency's next steps, but not be so overwhelmed; they are paralyzed into inaction due to information overload.

First, start with the SOURCE of the information (so people know it is credible), include the THREAT to the individual, the LOCATION of those impacted, the GUIDANCE/TIME that outlines the actions you want them to take and offer a timeline if appropriate (from listening to local media to evacuating) and the EXPIRATION Time of that specific message so that your audiences recognize they are receiving the latest information and update. Refer to the image below.

Source: A Guide to Public Alerts and Warnings for Dam Levees and Emergencies

Takeaway: These properties can be easily written into a template. During an emergency, using a template will save you time and help you deliver information with clarity. This approach will help avoid confusion and dispel misinformation. Consider using this graphic to prepare your own template and insert it into your Crisis Communication Annex of your Emergency Response Plan.

Next Steps

If you are responsible for preparing public information messaging in your organization, working or in emergency management for your organization, review these resources with your team. There are far too many takeaways to share in this blog post and they deserve further discussion at the team level. Consider using it as a Tabletop Exercise or a Lunch and Learn session. Play the video, and then discuss the questions posed in the FEMA Prep Talks Discussion Guide. For further detailed information, review the document A Guide to Public Alerts and Warnings for Dam Levees and Emergencies and compare it to your current approach.

Continuous Improvement

Disaster and Emergency Management requires us to adopt a cycle of Continuous Improvement. We cannot restrict this to simply adopting lessons learned into lessons identified (when, and if, this happens.) The process requires us to look at how we can embrace research findings into our current practice by marrying the academic with the application.

Dr. Dennis Mileti was a steward of public safety. I am dedicating this blog to his research and to the more than 50 years of contributions he made to the profession of Disaster and Emergency Management. Thank you Dr. Mileti - you will be missed.


For more information on Risk and Crisis Communications, Emergency Public Information, Message Mapping, Public Engagement or Media Training visit our website or connect with us at:

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