Emergency management is notoriously bad at marketing. People have a much better idea of what most other government agencies do, or simply (at least) that they exist. Establishing awareness and understanding of emergency management not only for the people you serve, but those you work with can go a long way toward meeting your goals.
As with any message everything is about the audience. Emergency management has a variety of audiences. While we have some programs and campaigns oriented toward individuals, much of our work is with organizations, including non-profits, other government agencies, and the private sector. All in all, most emergency managers are pretty good at interfacing and coordinating with organizations. It’s the public that we still struggle with. Emergency management inherited the burden of individual and family preparedness from the days of civil defense. Things were different then. Civil defense focused on one threat, it was persistent, and the calls to action were tangible and even practiced with the public in many communities.
And yes, I said that our present engagement with the public is a burden. Can it make a difference? Sure. Does it make a difference? Sometimes. While some can argue that any measurable difference we make is good, we all need to acknowledge that campaigns and programs for the public are often a huge source of frustration for emergency managers across the nation and elsewhere. We feel compelled to do it, but so often we can’t make that connection. While I think it is a worthwhile mission and there are successes, the usual rhetoric is stale (i.e., make a plan, build a kit, be informed, get involved) and our return on investment is extremely low.
We need to do more than handing out flyers at the county fair. Some communities have been able to find success through partner agencies or organizations that actually do work with the public on a regular basis, which I think is a better formula for success. These agencies and organizations already have an in with a certain portion of the population. They have an established presence, rapport, and reputation. Given that agencies and organizations have different audiences, it is best to engage more than one to ensure the best coverage throughout the community.
As mentioned, our usual rhetoric also needs to change. With continued flooding here in the northeast US, I saw a message from a local meteorologist on Twitter recently giving some information on the flooding and saying to ‘make a plan’. Fundamentally that’s good. Unfortunately, this message is pretty consistent with what we put out most of the time in emergency management. Yes, it’s a call to action, but incredibly non-specific. Should I plan to stay home? Should I plan to evacuate? Should I plan to get a three-week supply of bread and milk? I’ll grant that Twitter isn’t really the best platform for giving a lot of detail, but I think we can at least tell the public what to make a plan for and provide a reference to additional information.
Should EM disengage with the public at large? No, absolutely not. But we do need to find better ways to engage, and I think that really requires a keen eye toward marketing, analyzing our audiences to determine what kinds of messaging will work best, how to reach them, and what is important to them. Two messages a year about preparedness doesn’t cut it. Neither does a bunch of messages giving the FEMA hotline after a disaster. It needs to be consistent. It needs to be fun. It needs to be engaging. It should be multimodal – social media, speaking at local meetings, articles in the town newsletter, etc. Don’t be boring, don’t be technical, don’t be doom and gloom. Make it clear, make it interesting (to them… not you), and make it brief. Essentially, don’t be so ‘government’ about it. (The same applies for any corporate emergency management program as well).
I’ll also add that having a presence with the public in your community is, in a practical sense, a presence with voters. While emergency managers often talk about the need for emergency management to be politically neutral, there are a lot of interests that align with emergency management that are clearly partisan, giving cause for us to be political. For context (because ‘politics’ has become such a bad word) I’m not talking about campaigning for someone, attending a rally, or spewing political rhetoric; but rather being engaged in political processes, of which a huge part is having a regular and strong presence. Even with partisan issues aside, emergency management requires funding and other resources to be effective, and that often requires an extent of political engagement and support. We need to actively and regularly promote what we do and what we accomplish. No, it’s not usually as sexy as putting out a big fire or building a bridge, but most fire and highway departments don’t miss an opportunity to get that stuff in the news. That’s why people know them.
Given the fairly universal benefits to emergency managers everywhere, I’d love to see FEMA engage with a marketing firm to produce a broad range of reusable content. TV and radio spots; website and social media graphics; customizable newsletter articles and handouts; speaking points for meetings (no PowerPoint necessary, please), interviews, and podcasts; etc. This also can’t be done every 10 or 15 years. It’s something that should be refreshed every two years to stay relevant, fresh, and meaningful, and with the input of actual emergency managers and public information officers. Speaking of PIOs, if you think your only work with emergency management is during a disaster, think again. PIOs, even if not within EM, should absolutely be engaged in these efforts.
FEMA has produced some material in the past, as have some states for use by local governments, but we need more and we can’t hold our breath for this to be done. Emergency management is, however, a great community of practice. If you have a successful practice or message, please share it! Bring it to your networks or even provide information in a comment to this post.
© 2021 Tim Riecker, CEDP