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Crisis communication with expert Dr. Robert Chandler, Ph.D.

What would you do if you only had 38 minutes to live? Last January 13, around 8:07 a.m., an alert went out to scores of Hawaii residents and tourists on their cellphones: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

Pure panic ensued, as thousands of people, assuming a nuclear attack was moments away, scrambled to seek shelter and say their final goodbyes to loved ones. A wireless alert 38 minutes later stated that the missile warning was a mistake.

Can you imagine? Well, that’s exactly what you should do: imagine what might happen, and be prepared, said Lipscomb University’s Dr. Robert Chandler, speaking in a special session with WeatherCheck in September.

While the missile attack is an extreme example, communication during a crisis can make the life or death difference.

When the you-know-what hits the fan during a severe weather disaster, your brain turns off any message but “RUN!” said Chandler. During a hurricane or tornado, you may not be able to speak, think clearly, do simple math, even recall your own name or address.

A Visiting Professor at Lipscomb University, where he founded the Forum on Crisis and Consequence Management, Chandler is an internationally recognized expert on topics related to disaster, crisis and emergency contexts.
Founder of AVINDEX, a crisis and consequence management services provider, he also currently serves as an Expert Council member for the nationally recognized crisis management company, Firestorm.

Because WeatherCheck is in the business of talking to people before, during, and after severe weather crises, we invited Chandler to help us better understand and improve our way of communicating.

Disasters and emergencies that threaten our safety and security and put people at risk, overwhelm our routines and expose our vulnerabilities. They create confusion and anxiety, which biologically changes the way we think, act, and even see. People have been known to ask each other “What’s the number for 911?”

When the body’s DNA-deep fight-or-flight system kicks in, we often can’t receive, access, hear, listen, read, process, understand, or make decisions about what’s happening, or just happened, Chandler explained. Our body reserves all resources for sheer survival.

So what should we say to people who are in the path of disaster to get them to take life-saving actions?

As we move through the event from warning to recovery, messages need to be comforting, and above all, simple, Chandler said. Think about what people need to know now, and forget everything else. And keep messages at around a middle-school reading level, he added.

Severe weather events produce chaos and confusion. The best way to prevent panic is to plan.That’s why school made you do all those fire drills. So if the real thing happens, you automatically know what to do, without needing to think at a time when you probably can’t.

Plan, prepare, adapt, adjust, perform, and assess, said Chandler. Practice how your team will respond, and document a crisis communication plan.

Evaluate every facet of your crisis plan before you need it, and gain the best possible outcome if the worst ever does happen.

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