As you might expect, the issue of communication in a disaster event is one of the key considerations of humanitarians and disaster risk reduction (DRR) professionals. Whether that communication is about the locations of shelters before the event, the availability of supplies and food directly after or more long-term assistance during the recovery stage, the role of communication cannot be overstated.
My research has shown that examining the development and implementation of emergency communication at a more granular level, could yield a greater rate of recognition and compliance by those communities targeted. It’s been widely documented that an individual’s age, gender, religion, health status and other socio-economic factors can influence how the risk itself is perceived by that individual. This will then affect how the audience of the communication strategy will interpret the messages given by officials and emergency planners.
With these social, economic and cultural factors in mind, I carried out research in 2011 looking at the emergency communications provided by the Environmental Agency (who have a lead role in flood management and response in England and Wales) and local authorities during the 2007 floods in the UK. Looking specifically at the role of gender in the perception of risk and how that impacted on the success of communication strategies, my research highlighted that there are some key differences between how the different genders react to emergency communication. One example showed that the issue of preparedness and overall evacuation times had a definite gender divide. On the whole, men (18+) were much less likely to respond to warnings or communications than women. The data I collected showed that men generally wanted to ignore the risk until the very last minute. This meant that warnings and communication coming from the Environment Agency before the event (EA) was largely ignored, thus proving ineffective. The data also showed that women (18 years and above) were much more likely to have carried out research in terms of the property’s flood risk before any event had actually occurred. This meant that they were much more aware of the potential of flooding in their area and were much more likely to respond to emergency communication.
This research, whilst limited to the UK (and therefore unrepresentative on a global scale) highlighted that communication strategies before, during and after disasters need to be more nuanced. If men are more reluctant to engage with such messages, then emergency communicators need to develop strategies that target those specific issues. On the other hand, for the women in my dataset, the communication would have benefited being sent before a flood event had occurred, in order to provide additional knowledge and capacity to increase their individual resilience.
Increasing the resilience of individuals and communities is emerging as a key theme during discussions and negotiations on the Post-2015 Framework, which is due to be finalised in Sendai, Japan next month. With disasters increasing in both their frequency and severity, I hope that the importance of communication is not overlooked in the final framework and in fact, the focused, nuanced communication strategies we touched on above are actively explored and promoted.
Kevin Blanchard is the Director of DRR Dynamics, a UK-based research institute which examines the role of gender and other ‘at-risk’ communities in disaster situations. He also serves as the Communications Coordinator on the Gender Disaster Network (www.gdnonline.org). His Twitter handle is @genderingrisk.