Nothing incites panic like receiving a message along the lines of, “Don’t panic, but….” If you’re tasked with sending out critical communications in a disaster, the pressure is on you to be clear and effective.
From fires to floods to chemical spills to cyberattacks, communication is the top priority in any disaster. If you’re using a crisis communications system like Blackberry AtHoc, you’re often messaging several groups of people at the same time. All other responses follow from the first lines of communication, so you need to make them count.
That’s why avoiding poorly written mass alerts is paramount. Where alerts fall flat, disasters escalate. There are strategies you can pursue to make sure the alerts you’re writing are effective. Here are the do’s and don’ts, according to mass alert experts.
- Keep It Simple
- Don’t Overdo Acronyms
- Gear the Message Toward the Device You’re Targeting
- Use Colors in Templates
- Be Specific
- Be Consistent
- Mock Up Templates in Advance
When writing mass alerts, people tend to be verbose. Instead, work backwards: what response are you trying to initiate? Think about what your message needs to convey, and keep it clear and simple. For example, a less-than-ideal alert might be worded: “Good afternoon. We are experiencing seismic activity. Please take precautions.” A better solution? Use the word “Earthquake.”
If you can help it, don’t use lots of acronyms. When you’re using an emergency alerting system, you could be dictating text to speech or vice versa. Acronyms don’t always translate perfectly, and receiving parties don’t always know their meaning. Consider using clear, simple words instead. Use words that can easily identify the issue, and then the expected behavior.
If you need to include a lot of content in your emergency alert, don’t use SMS. Get on email instead. If you have to write four or five paragraphs but SMS is the only communication channel, make sure you break up the message. What will happen if the messages get out of order - can your meaning still be deciphered? Make sure you don’t lose all context if the message isn’t perfectly transmitted. Gear your words you’re trying to convey toward the modality.
If possible, use colors for your messaging templates. Individuals learn and process differently, so accommodate for more visual processors. You can use red for fire, blue for water, or whatever other configuration of colors aligns with your business processes. If there’s a way for the end user - the recipient - to easily identify the emergency message, that’s a help. The unique configuration will depend on your business. For example, a visual template makes sense in a manufacturing environment where audio is drowned out - if you see a flash on a digital sign with a red background, this can quickly and clearly indicate a disaster communication.
You have to balance the competing priorities of simplicity and specificity. While you want to use as few words as possible, don’t go overboard. Don’t end up with something hard to read or respond to. If what you want is for people to find the nearest exit, that’s all you need to say. You don’t need to put other details in the message. The temptation might be to overdo it, or over-explain. Just be specific and then hit send.
Have a consistent look and feel in your templates. It’s best practice to have templates that match the look and feel of the documentation and collateral of your business processes. If you can use alert language that closely resembles your already-existing protocols, that removes one layer of unfamiliarity for the recipient. In disasters, every second is critical, so consistency can save valuable time. You don’t need to create an entirely new aesthetic and new language - doing so will just confuse the people with whom you’re communicating.
It’s not ideal to send out alerts in a panic. If possible, create templates in advance within your crisis communications software. For example, AtHoc Alert allows you to preconfigure templates and scenarios to expedite alerts. Prior planning will allow your team to think about what alerts should look like. You should even get all stakeholders in your organization to agree on the message of the alerts. When a police department sends alerts, they don’t create a new one from scratch every time - their templates have already been decided on. They’ve had time to consider each word, the length of the message, and where it should go. Eliminate a situation where someone must create an alert from scratch and send it out. That’s when incorrect verbiage, misconstrued meaning, and confusion occurs.
Practice for an emergency. You don’t need to wait until the real thing to prepare. If you have drills and systemic tests, you’ll ensure the health of your crisis communication system. However, make sure not to overdo it. A monthly or quarterly drill is a good idea, but if daily drills are going on, people will experience alert fatigue. Don’t bombard your organization with alert messages. A drill of some regularly, so that people know it exists, will do the trick.