The Need for a Strong Communications Strategy in the Face of a Radiological or Nuclear Accident

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The threat of a radiological or nuclear disaster strikes fear in the hearts of most Americans; this is why commercial nuclear facilities need comprehensive emergency response plans. Yet even the most effectively executed and successful technical response to a radiological/nuclear crisis will likely be viewed as a failure by the public if this response does not include a strategic communications component.

The Need for Communication Skills

There have been many examples in recent years that demonstrate how even the most successful resolution of a crisis can have a negative impact when the organizations and agencies involved overlook the chance to communicate openly and honestly with the people affected.

According to Edward Maher, Program Director of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s program, Radiological Emergency Management anyone involved in emergency preparedness plan, or recovery in the public or private sector can learn from these mistakes and use them to strengthen their own response efforts in order to earn the trust of their target audience.

Program faculty member Steven B. Goldman, Ed.D, an internationally recognized expert in risk and crisis communications, crisis management, and business continuity, agrees, pointing out that seeking training in how to properly communicate in a variety of situations is essential for people involved in all forms of emergency response—and particularly for people who work with radiological events, since tensions are even higher when the risk of radiation exposure or contamination is involved.

The most successful resolution of a crisis can have a negative impact when the organizations involved overlook the chance to communicate openly with the people affected.

“Good communication during a radiological accident is valuable to your organization, to the citizens impacted by the event, and to response organizations worldwide,” Goldman says, adding, “The communications effort directly impacts people’s emergency choices and response, and potentially their lives.”

Goldman also points out that communications about a radiological event must go beyond simply providing data. “You must provide clear, accurate, timely, open, coordinated, and honest communications to the media and the public. And this must be accomplished by a credible, knowledgeable, and trained spokesperson,” he stresses.

Learning by Example

To put the importance of communication into perspective, Maher refers to the partial nuclear meltdown that occurred at Three Mile Island, a nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, in 1979, as an example of what can happen when communication is inadequate during an emergency situation.

“From an operational standpoint, the technical response to the Three Mile Island accident was relatively good, aside from having a robust evacuation plan. No one was killed or even injured. But nonetheless, bad press came out because of poor communication,” Maher says. Part of the problem was that the spokesperson, who was not a communications expert, downplayed the situation initially. As the severity of the situation became known, this lessened credibility with the public and government agencies, ultimately leading them to overreact since they didn’t have all of the facts.  The Three Mile Island situation demonstrates the type of panic that can ensue when people don’t feel both they and their government leaders are being kept in the loop during this kind of disaster. Another timely example that does not involve radiation but still clearly demonstrates the danger of a poor communications response in a more general way is the recent United Airlines “passenger re-accommodation” debacle. With shocking videos of a passenger being dragged off the plane being shared widely on social media, United’s poor public relations response tarnished the airline’s reputation in the eyes of many customers.

Designating a good, trustworthy spokesperson can go a long way toward earning the confidence of the people you serve.

And on the flip side, there are also examples of how, when organizations step up and acknowledge a problem or situation, share essential information, and set out a reasonable plan for how they plan to address the situation, the results can be more encouraging.

“Crises such as the 1982 Tylenol® poisonings and the spring 2017 Oroville Dam failure in California demonstrate that good communications with the public, news media, government agencies, and other stakeholders not only can help you through the event, but can actually improve relations after the event,” Goldman says.

Overcoming Obstacles

Part of the challenge that many groups and organizations face when it comes to incorporating communications into an emergency response plan is that demonstrating good communication skills doesn’t come naturally to many of the people on the front line, who often end up being very visible. Unfortunately, many leaders may be missing the skills and training needed for effective communications under fire, and organizations may not have been educated about the need to have an appropriate expert to fill this role instead, Maher says.

He stresses that designating a good, trustworthy spokesperson can go a long way toward earning the confidence of the people you serve. “A family physician and a university professor are two people from the community who garner trust from others,” he says. This makes them good choices to serve on your emergency response team to help share information and key messages during a crisis. Beyond appointing one or more skilled spokespeople to manage your messaging, it’s also a good idea to be prepared yourself so you can also handle questions and share information if needed. This can help you be ready to respond in any situation for optimal results.

How to Prepare for a Crisis

Whether you are affiliated with a nuclear or energy-industry regulatory body, homeland security, an emergency management agency, a defense or military organization, a state or local department of health, a nuclear power plant, or a state radiation control agency, or whether you have any other role where you may find yourself dealing with the aftermath of a radiological emergency, preparation matters for best results.

To this end, Maher and Goldman share the following tips:

  • Develop a written communications crisis plan that includes concrete policies and procedures. Consider how the plan will be implemented in various scenarios.
  • Draft an informational program (pre-event) geared to earn the trust of your audience by helping them understand how you operate and providing them with some basic facts.
  • Put together a comprehensive communications team to manage all angles of a situation.
  • Select a designated spokesperson (or spokespeople) trained in dealing with the public and media in an emergency.
  • Explore various channels you will use to communicate key information to the public, including written, verbal, and broadcast avenues, as well as social media.
  • Consider the logistics of information flow from the event scene to the communications team.
  • Run meaningful and challenging exercises with all the response agencies that potentially could be involved. Remember that the more comfortable everyone feels answering questions under the gun, the better they are likely to come across when it matters most.

Putting It into Perspective

The bottom line is that while the technical response during a radiological accident will always be the most crucial to the outcomes, it’s important to remember that how you communicate throughout the process will also play a key role in your emergency response. A strong communication strategy will help the public understand the implications and keep a realistic perspective of the situation in order to best manage the risks and expectations.

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health offers Radiological Emergency Management  an On- Campus program which focuses on effectively planning for and responding to radiological emergencies. To learn more about this opportunity, click here.