Communicators reveal intimate glimpses of challenging disaster responses

June 2, 2017

J. Suzanne Horsley and Jill M. Bode

By J. Suzanne Horsley, University of Alabama, and Jill M. Bode, Designed Write Public Relations

Over the past year, the Arthur W. Page Center grant funds supported our efforts to talk with communicators from governments, emergency management agencies and nonprofits that respond to disasters. We asked our participants to take us deep behind-the-scenes to help us and other professional communicators better understand the reality of working in the midst of disasters.

We collected stories from men and women who have responded to terrorist attacks, a fertilizer plant explosion, hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and many other disasters during their careers. We were honored that they were so open with us and allowed us to share their experiences with other professionals who can learn from them.

For all of the interviews, we relied on personal and professional contacts to gather potential names of interviewees. Over time those contacts provided additional names for possible inclusion. We utilized pre-interview questionnaires to help stimulate our participants’ memories and to gather initial information before arranging for in-person, video conference, or telephone interviews.

Oklahoma City bombing and the 9/11 terrorist attacks

Communication plans should always be carefully thought out, but when an unexpected terrorist attack rocks a community, town, or even an entire country, many factors go into choosing what, when, where, how and to whom information should be communicated in a very short period of time. In a mass casualty event, the stakes are even higher.  In speaking with communicators who had responded to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and the 9/11 terrorist attacks six years later, they stressed the value of incorporating mental health workers into the communications strategy process, making decisions based on the best available information at the time (then revisiting those decisions as more information becomes known), and learning to walk the fine line between “protecting” families from the media and allowing the families unfettered access to the media to talk about their loved ones.

With experience responding to both attacks, communicators shared the following insights into communicating during mass casualty incidents:

  • Put victims at the center of your communications strategy—Those who are being helped and the mission to help them are the most important things to talk about.
  • Defend people, not the organization—The public has an easier time trusting or forgiving an individual, rather than a "faceless" organization.
  • Use stories, not statistics—People want to find common ground and be engaged in the response, and compelling stories allow them to do that.

West Texas fertilizer plant explosion

When a fire started at the fertilizer plant at the edge of this town of 2,000 people near Waco in 2012, the volunteer firefighters thought it was a routine fire call. Moments later, the arson fire ignited an explosion that killed 15 people and destroyed more than 150 buildings, including homes, schools, and businesses. The local individuals who stepped forward to help communicate with the residents, families, media, and outsiders who wanted to help actually had no communication experience – they were local leaders, business people, and parents who felt compelled to help their community.

These individuals relied on advice from disaster communicators in neighboring cities as well as those who had experienced significant disasters as they continued their work over the weeks and months ahead. But in those initial hours and days, the individuals we spoke with worked under the pressure of intense time constraints, questions about the cause of the fire, and uncertainty about how the community was going to respond and recover from this life-changing event.

The communicators offered the following lessons learned:

  • Use local resources to find creative ways to share information in a community where the communication infrastructure is completely gone.
  • Find a central location for the media to convene and establish times to update reporters on the situation.
  • When a disaster affects friends and family in a small community, remember to take time for your own emotional needs. You cannot help your community if you are emotionally and physically exhausted.

Considerations for disaster mental health
In addition to the interviewees from the terrorist attacks and the plant explosion, we spoke with communicators who had responded to a variety of high-stress events: Atlantic hurricanes, widespread flooding, deadly tornadoes, and wildfires, among others. A common theme began to emerge from all of our interviews: while communicators are not considered first responders (i.e., firefighters or police officers), their experiences with the disaster event may be similar and can create highly emotional responses. There is also a likelihood that they were personally affected by the disaster or knew someone who was. The effects of emotional stress can include everything from making minor mistakes to complete paralysis, and the greater the effects, the greater the consequences on strategic decision making.

This led us to talk with disaster mental health professionals who could offer advice to communicators for how to manage heightened emotions during a disaster response:

  • Know the signs of emotional distress and be mindful of them in yourself and others you work with.
  • Plan your coping strategies ahead of time and stick with what works for you; consider having a mentor outside of the event whom you can call upon for advice or just a friendly, objective ear.
  • Know what mental health resources are available to you, and don’t hesitate to reach out for assistance during the response and after you return to your normal routine.

Presentations to professional communicators
We have been excited to share what we learned with professionals who can put the many lessons learned to use in their own work. To date, we have arranged presentations for the Alabama Media Professionals Association, the Utah PIO Association, the American Red Cross national public affairs group, and local chapters of the Public Relations Society of America. In addition, we have several forthcoming blog posts, and many of the stories we collected are being developed into chapters for a book about disaster communicators. Portions of our study were also presented at the International Crisis and Risk Communication Research Conference in Orlando, Florida.


This project was among six research studies funded by the 2016 Page & Johnson Legacy Scholar Grants. For more information about this work, please email J. Suzanne Horsley at