Crisis communications is complex – there are many steps to the process. Here we are talking about how to craft the message once you’ve identified the layers of audiences to communicate with.
A crisis, like a bombing or a bridge collapse, is filled with uncertainty and evolving details. And there is a lot of information to communicate to those impacted and to the wider community. As part of the consideration of what information to share, it’s important to think about traumatized audiences which is likely to be, as explained in part 1 of this article, a majority of the people who are physically near a crisis event (and maybe some who weren’t physically nearby).
When considering how to communicate with these individuals, there are two messages to focus on: Validation and self-efficacy.
Especially early on, outside those people who are killed or physically injured, people tend not to think of themselves as victims or survivors of something like this. There are a lot of reasons for this. One key reason is that as a society we don’t do a great job of publicly acknowledging mental health impacts of events like this. That means that people don’t even realize how they may have been affected.
Important to note here: Most people experience post-traumatic stress reactions after a tragedy or disaster and will eventually heal on their own and with the help of their own support networks. Some people will have more trouble and may need extra help to boost their self-coping skills and resiliency.
Validation sends two important messages:
- It reminds people that having a response to an abnormal and tragic event is normal.
It’s normal to have anxiety when hearing loud noises after being somewhere when a bomb goes off. Or to feel hopeless and anxious after being rescued from under the rubble of your home after a tornado. Or be afraid to go back to work after a co-worker went on a shooting rampage in your office.
- It sets people up to know that help is available if they need it.
Most mental health impacts of disasters and crises are transient, and most people will eventually get better. Providing services and letting people know what is available benefits:
- People who may have longer term issues and will need to get some sort of support to heal
- People who may get better on their own because they understand what is happening to them is normal.
Self-efficacy is the ability of people to draw on their own natural resilience, coping strategies, and support networks to meet their own needs. We all have different levels of resiliency and self-efficacy. By reassuring people that their feelings are normal, people can understand what they are feeling and put them in context.
If I know it’s normal to have nightmares after a crisis or to freeze in crowds, maybe those things aren’t as frightening when they happen. And when I have an expectation that I may recover, I’m likely to draw on my resilience and coping skills to work through those nightmares and anxiety attacks. Normalizing the experience of trauma benefits everyone by:
- Enabling people who are able to do so to help themselves
- Helping people understand that having a reaction doesn’t mean they are or will become mentally ill, which is something many people still fear.
- Encouraging people to help each other – if we know and expect that our neighbor may have been traumatized, we are likely to reach out and help.
And experts know that social support is a key to healing. Communication is a bit of psychoeducation at this point, because as a society we aren’t in yet in a place where we understand how normal these feelings are among ourselves, our friends, neighbors, and community.