Times and technologies change, but the realities that prompted one of the most famous emergency communications in history remain true today. Just as Paul Revere had to go door to door on April 18, 1860—243 years ago — to alert John Hancock and others that the British were coming, the only emergency alert system that consistently works remains door-to-door, human contact.
This is the same principle that distinguishes the dramatic and seemingly very sincere recent apology from Starbucks’ CEO Kevin Johnson. Compare it to the not-at-all-personal one from United Airlines’ CEO Oscar Munoz after the “leggings” incident more than a year ago.
People look for a personal connection, even if the person speaking is far away and only on TV. It’s why people listen and act when a neighbor pounds on the door shouting “get out” yet ignore an automated phone call or text message on a cellphone that says a fire is bearing down on your neighborhood. When emergency responders go door-to-door, compliance reaches close to 100 percent. No other method consistently gets above 75 percent.
Everyone who does communications for a living must know that nothing replaces human, personal contact.
What makes communication personal? It starts with trust. Does the audience know the person who is speaking? Are they a familiar face on TV? Are they wearing a recognized uniform?
When I surveyed a random sample of Americans about where they would turn for information in an emergency, most people said they would rely on their local police or fire department. That makes sense. But that was about the only point on which most Americans seem to agree.
The data shows that young people want to hear from someone they know in real life—such as a friend or neighbor or family member. Older people look for a uniform and a badge. In the middle are people who may gauge credentials a bit more and turn to news outlets or government agencies directly. In addition to differences based on age, differences also exist by region, economic status, and between rural and urban geographies.
These rules apply to non-emergencies, too. If you are a communicator, get to know your audience, who they trust, and why–before you need them to trust you. The era when mayors, governors, religious leaders, or health directors or anyone else can step in front of the cameras with instant credibility is long gone.
In order for communications to be effective, communicators must know:
- Who do people in the community trust?
- What segments need special attention, due to language, hearing or vision impairment, or other factors?
- What communications methods can reach your audience?
Those first two items can and should be determined in advance, as part of routine planning. After the crisis starts, it’s too late to be looking for the social media account passwords or specifications for videos, quote cards or news releases.
Used correctly, modern technology can deliver personalized messages fast and effectively. No doubt that is way better than relying on modern-day Paul Reveres.
Doug Levy is author of The Communications Golden Hour: The Essential Guide To Public Information When Every Minute Counts. Public Safety Press, 2018.