Health Dept. offers crisis communication help

By Maureen Smith
JACKSON – The Mississippi Department of Public Health invited representatives of at-risk populations to a workshop on Thursday, May 18, to work on improving communications. Dorothy Balser, disaster recovery coordinator for Catholic Charities, attended on behalf of the organization and the diocese.
Before the workshop, participants took a survey to better direct the day’s activities. “They asked which at-risk populations does your group serve, what threats are they concerned about, what communication channels do they use and what sources does that at-risk group turn to and trust,” said Balser. The workshop was meant to help the Health Department open new avenues to communicate sensitive information in times of crisis and help organizations think more strategically about their own communication with their clients.
Tim Tinker, Director of Strategic Communications at Atlas Research in Washington D.C., helped facilitate the day. He talked about cultural or socio-economic factors that might make reaching one group or another harder. For example, language barriers, lack of access to technology or the internet, a cultural mindset that might make a population mistrust a government source. The health department can use this information to craft more effective messages when there is a threat to public health, such as an illness outbreak, a time when water is contaminated or after a natural disaster. The night before the workshop a water main in Vickburg burst, cutting off the supply of water to 40,000 people. Liz Sharlot, spokesperson for the department of health, said her department already had guidelines, precautions and other information posted to its website and urged participants to share that information with their clients.
Tinker explained that in times of emergency, organizations must keep their messages to their simplest and most direct formats.
“He used the term 27, nine, three for the idea that your message should be 27 words, about nine seconds and only have three points,” said Balser. “He explained that you should not give people too much information when there is a crisis, they are already overwhelmed, be succinct,” Balser continued.
Organization representatives were invited to put their own challenges and information on large sheets of paper around the room. Members of the health department’s communication team will type up all the information and share it with participants.
At the end of the day, each representative was asked to come up with an aspiration statement for how they would use the information they gleaned to improve their communication.