“I wish they’d communicate directly with us and tell us what they’re doing,” said the volunteer in her high-vis jacket, desperately trying to co-ordinate the efforts to help the wretched residents of her village as they were flooded out of their homes. The ‘they’ in question were the Government and she was talking to the BBC, apparently the main channel of communication for her and her fellow villagers to find out any information about the official flood response.
I’m often asked to provide examples of what happens when communication goes wrong, to show why it’s vital to get it right, and here is a major example unfolding on my TV screen. I can only begin to imagine what it must be like for all these poor people who are watching their homes and livelihoods being destroyed by the water. And I have been struck by how many of them are saying, ‘we’re on our own’, ‘we don’t know what’s happening’, ‘no-one is talking to us’. Clearly these people need decisive action and to see something happening that is improving their situation, but it seems they need words as well as actions. Not knowing what’s going on, or indeed if anything is going on at all, is adding to their already considerable distress.
So what does this tell us about communication, both in times of crisis and more generally? I think there are many lessons to be learned, for the Government, Environment Agency and affected communities, and for all of us who need to communicate effectively:
1. The grapevine is incredibly powerful. Without any clear, official communication, people in the flooded areas are filling in the gaps – they are guessing at what is, or isn’t, going on and passing those views on to others. This in turn is fuelling their attitudes and behaviours.
2. Bad news travels fast, even if it’s not accurate. The bad experiences of people in flooded areas and the bad decisions taken are being transmitted rapidly around the world, particularly with the help of broadcast media and social media. In these circumstances, these channels of communication take on a power all their own.
3. Simply ‘doing some communication’ is not enough. To be effective you have to get the right message to the right people at the right time and in the right way. The lady in the high-vis jacket had heard things on the TV about what was supposed to be happening, but these messages were not tailored to or specifically aimed at her and her fellow residents, so were in effect meaningless to them.
4. Communicating effectively should be an ongoing process. There have been many accusations and counter-accusations, especially in relation to the Somerset levels, of actions that have been requested or advice unheeded, that go back over many years. Had there been a consistent flow of communication between the various groups and clear messages about what was happening and why or why not, the relationships would be far more positive and would make negotiating the current crisis much easier.
Communicating in difficult times, with elements beyond your control, is always going to be challenging. But with some pre-planning and thought, as well as a generally positive communication culture, it is possible to communicate well and avoid adding to people’s problems.
If you are living in one of these areas, I am genuinely sorry for what is happening and I hope that you are able to get back to some sort of normality soon.
Until next time