Reports & Toolkits

Local Government Guide to Coastal Management: Risk Communication

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Importance of Communication

One of the most challenging aspects of building resilience in our communities is effectively communicating the risks that require resilience in the first place. As resilience is integrated into a wider range of planning and decision-making processes, effective communication about these topics with a variety of stakeholders becomes more important. Engaging a wide range of personal and professional backgrounds – from local elected officials to low income residents – is vital to the success of local efforts to strengthening coastal county resilience. Frequent, genuine, inclusive conversations are critical, as communication is a two-way street that requires coastal management practitioners to ask for input, listen and remember that collaboration is key.

Developing your message

The most effective messages are simple and clear. Therefore, before you start any broader community outreach, messages must be streamlined and simplified as much as possible.

Stay clear of jargon

You want to make sure you are approaching people using their own vernacular, and not alienating them by using words they don’t understand or language that will shut down the conversation.

Contextualize the message

You want to allow the conversation to happen in a broader context of larger community issues. Focus on the economic or social benefits of taking action today. For example, turning an abandoned industrial park into a recreational park with low-impact design elements, gives county residents more options to get outside and stay healthy while decreasing stormwater runoff and improving the filtration of contaminants out of the water, which in turn has the potential to decrease flooding and improve local water quality.

Focus on interest, not positions

It is important for the message to be concrete and focused on how resilience can help solve current local circumstances. You want to use your core message in a way that speaks best to your audience to avoid alienating them. Focus on what you want to accomplish, how that is an opportunity to address the risks facing your community and how your community’s physical, social and economic well-being will benefit from making the changes you are recommending. Community members as well as investors in a community are more likely to support plans if they feel that they are in their best interests.

Keep your messages positive and motivating

Talking about uncertain, abstract future projections can lead to “doom and gloom” and negative conversations that cause people to disengage. For example, even if your audience has varying opinions about why flooding is happening more frequently, everyone is concerned about making sure homes don’t flood. A good rule of thumb is to focus one-third of your message on what is happening and the risks of inaction, and two-thirds of your message on what can be done and benefits of taking action today.

Engage a small core test group

Again, two-way communication is central to effective messaging and effecting change. To make sure your messages resonate with local stakeholders , engage a small core test group that is representative of the community. This test group can help you test and tweak your messaging, as well as any tools or materials, before you deploy it to a wider audience to ensure it is local and personal to the community. Relevant local stakeholders you might include: other county departments or agencies; faith-based organizations; volunteer and community organizations; businesses and nonprofit groups; schools and academia; and individuals and families of all ages and socio-economic means. You can build a stronger more effective coalition by aligning your goals with those of stakeholders with differing opinions from the outset.

Remember your end goal is to strengthen local resilience to hazards

 is about ensuring action is taken today to avoid future losses, not about changing people’s personal values and opinions. People can agree that taking action is the right decision, even if they do not have the same reasoning behind their decision.

Always remember: you want simple, clear messages that are adaptable for the diverse cross-section of stakeholders in your community and repeated often by a variety of trusted sources.

Tailoring your message

There is no one message. Messages need to be targeted to a variety of audiences as everyone has different values and concerns and different filters, which impact what they hear.

Local Elected Officials

Understanding the unique perspective of your county board can be difficult due to the vast number competing priorities they must balance, and the fact that viewpoints and values often differ between members of the board. It is vital to have your elected officials on board with your plans, as they are the decision-makers who adopt local policies and budgets and set local priorities. You will want to carefully craft your message to fit each occasion and audience and build each conversation on top of the previous one – whether it is a one-on-one conversation with an individual board member or a presentation to the board as a whole.

With the high turnover rates among local elected officials, communication can sometimes be a challenge. There are a few things to keep in mind when engaging new commissioners and re-engaging returning commissioners:

County elected officials are “jack of all trades”

They must be knowledgeable about many things. While some may be experts in planning or emergency management, others may have no detailed knowledge about those topic areas. It falls to local professional staff to be the experts and ensure local elected officials have access to the information they need to make informed decisions.

Elected officials must balance varying and often conflicting priorities

These include but are not limited to: budget constraints, public demands, politics and re-election bids. When speaking with elected officials, always remember that your priorities are just a few of many and try to frame your message to highlight its alignment with other priority areas.

All local elected officials have a common duty and goal to serve the best interests of the community and their constituents

This includes making decisions to protect local residents, property and natural and cultural resources. Across the country, counties currently spend more than $122 billion of building public infrastructure and maintaining and operating public works. That’s a huge investment. And it is in a county commissioner’s best interest to make decisions that can help protect that investment over the long run.

Be prepared to address common questions and statements of resistance

After your present your initial message, you may run into resistance. Common reactions to mitigation requests include: “We don’t have enough time,” “We don’t have enough money,” “This may never happen,” and “Others will fix this if it does happen.” You must be prepared to answer these questions by:

  • Showing the budget impacts. Demonstrate the budget impacts of being prepared versus being unprepared.
  • Sharing real stories from real people. Demonstrate why they should care and show the need by sharing human-centric stories that “hit them in the gut” rather than scientific data that “hits them in the brain.” If asked, however, make sure you have the data available to pair with your story.

Empower storytellers

You want not only to tell your story but also help your elected official be a storyteller too.

The Public

Examine the local context

As during the message development process, the first thing you want to do when tailoring your message for the public is to examine the local context and local perceptions already in place in your area and identify each stakeholder group’s individual priorities. This typically occurs through research, informational interviews and focus groups.

Hold focus groups

 As part of this effort, you want to discover each group’s core community values, what language causes red flags within each group and what messages are well received by each group. How do the people that you’re trying to reach see the world? What is important to them? What is the local understanding of natural hazards? Messages should factor in important aspects of people’s lives, including health, natural resources, safety, where people live, people’s livelihoods and social vulnerability

Emphasize positively-received language and avoid negatively-received language

Once you understand these things, you will be able to better tailor your message to introduce the topic at hand – whether that is building support for a resilience project or increasing awareness of coastal hazards – to each audience by emphasizing and leveraging positively-received language and avoiding negatively-received language that is potentially polarizing.

Equity and inclusion

It is important to engage every stakeholder group in your community in an equitable and inclusive way.

Empower storytellers

As with your elected officials, you want to make sure all stakeholders within the community have a basic understanding and awareness of the topic at hand while empowering them to become storytellers.

Communicating your message

When you are ready to communicate your message, it is worth reminding yourself: the most successful messages are simple, clear, adaptable for the diverse cross-section of stakeholders in your community and repeated often by a variety of trusted sources.

Engaging Specific Audiences

Local Elected Officials

Communicating risk is about building relationships – but as local professional staff no relationship is more important than the relationship you build with your local elected official as they are the biggest local decision maker. This dialogue should not be a one-time thing but rather a regular occurrence – with each conversation building on the last. You want to meet with your regular officials and their staff regularly. One way to do this is to hold regular briefings or executive seminars with your local elected officials. In a recent survey of local elected officials, they identified their most preferred methods of contact as email and in-person conversations.

Engaging Local Government Departments and Agencies

Within local government, there are a number of departments and agencies with missions related to resilience. As you begin to communicate your message, you want to make sure your colleagues sign on to the core messages and use the same tone and responses to FAQs in their communications. One way to do this is to hold a training program for county employees on the relation of resilience to their departments.

Engaging the Public

Engaging the public is a multipronged effort. You want to: make sure that they have a basic understanding and awareness of resilience; build confidence in the government’s ability to improve resilience by being transparent in communications and decision making; and, finally, empower residents to be change makers who effect change by spreading the core message to their fellow residents and decision makers.

Outreach

The more trusted stakeholders and sources you have sharing your message the better

This goes for both the organizations spreading the message to the public at large as well as residents. People reach conclusions based on what they know and hear, and compare messages to verify their consistency. Groups you might engage to help spread the message include: faith-based organizations, community and social networks, your Chamber of commerce and neighboring communities who have already done this work and can speak to its outcomes.

Before engaging any one group, make sure are reaching out in an equitable and inclusive way

It is especially important to engage youth, elders, socially vulnerable, activists and artists. Artists can help you communicate your core message in unique ways and build a space for genuine conversation that allows you to connect with your audience on an emotional level that you might not be able to achieve in another setting.

Have an aggressive public outreach campaign using a variety of methods

Outreach efforts should not rely on one medium to get information to all of those involved in resiliency efforts and should cater to as many learning styles as possible. Additionally, outreach strategies should try whenever possible to extend beyond simply giving people information, but should engage them in the adaptation, mitigation, and resiliency plans as much as possible. Remember that outreach programs should be consistently monitored, evaluated and revised for effectiveness.

  • Use traditional communication methods. First, there are the traditional methods which include newspapers, radio and television programming, social media, fact sheets, and billboards. As with all things, do not try to recreate the wheel; if someone has great outreach materials that fit your purposes, use them! If you want to personalize them with your county information, ask. People are usually happy to share.

  • Embrace new technologies. Second, as technology keeps evolving, new ways to share information arise. These include smartphone applications that alert residents to weather developments and warn of pending evacuations and tools that help you visualize flood risk, such as the CanVis tool and the NOAA Sea Level Rise Viewer. Remember with all visuals you do not want to be redundant as showing the same images over and over can lead to over exposure.

  • Creatively engage audiences.  

    • Hackathons. Hackathons can be held with a variety of intentions, including the creation of even more new technology options. You might, for example, hold a contest asking people for their suggestions on how to address local climate-related challenges.

    • Strategic forums. There are a number of strategic forums you can create and/or participate in to broaden the reach of your message. These include strategic partnerships with local universities or other local governments, special tasks forces and citizen coalitions. They can be temporary or institutional.

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