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Developing a Disaster Communication Plan: 8 Steps

January 18, 2023

When disaster strikes, quick and accurate communication is essential. Developing a disaster communication plan ensures that everyone involved has the information they need. 

A disaster communication plan outlines how to distribute information during a crisis and ensure that everyone is on the same page. Individuals who aspire to help safeguard communities through a career in disaster management would do well to understand how to effectively create and implement disaster communication plans. 

Understanding Disaster Management 

Disaster management is a comprehensive, systematic approach to addressing crises, whether weather-related or human-made. It is grounded in empirical studies of past disasters and responses to them. Essentially, disaster management involves four aspects of crisis coordination:

  • Prevention
  • Preparation
  • Crisis response
  • Emergency recovery efforts

Disaster communication professionals play invaluable roles in saving lives and mitigating damage to people and property before, during, and after disasters. 

The Importance of Disaster Communication 

By developing a comprehensive disaster communication system and implementing it before an emergency strikes, organizations can be better prepared to manage crises and ensure the public receives timely and accurate information during difficult times.

Having a strong crisis communication plan is essential for effective disaster management. A disaster communication plan should outline clear objectives, processes, and strategies for delivering information in an emergency. It should include protocols for both proactive and reactive communication to ensure critical information reaches the public as quickly and accurately as possible. A well-developed disaster communication system can help to:

  • Foster trust in crisis communications
  • Counter hazardous misinformation
  • Give the public the facts they need during a crisis

The Purpose of a Disaster Communication Plan

Developing a disaster communication plan is essential for quickly and accurately relaying information during an emergency. Without a plan, people can become overwhelmed and find themselves unable to communicate clearly and swiftly.

The development of a disaster communication plan should be part of any organization’s emergency management strategy. This plan should be tailored to the organization’s specific needs. It should include elements such as media monitoring, message construction, and audience engagement. Additionally, organizations should consider setting up a crisis communication team to coordinate all communications during an emergency, ensuring that messages are consistent and accurate across all channels. 

A disaster communication plan should identify all stakeholders involved and map out who will be responsible for delivering information. When developing a communication plan, public health officials should employ the following strategies:

  1. Developing a coordinated response across diverse outlets
  2. Calling on credible messengers
  3. Improving communication with vulnerable groups
  4. Normalizing scientific uncertainty
  5. Countering misinformation and disinformation quickly
  6. Communicating with empathy
  7. Empowering people to act

Communication plans should include details on how to deliver messages, including the use of social media, press releases, website updates, and other means of communication. Additionally, the plan should include roles and responsibilities for those delivering messages and provide guidelines on how to handle any potential criticism from the public.

Having a well-developed disaster communication plan in place ensures that information is properly distributed during times of emergency, allowing the public to make informed decisions based on up-to-date data. This can minimize panic and confusion and supply much-needed direction during times of crisis.

8 Steps to Developing a Successful Disaster Communication Plan

Disaster communication experts should craft their messages carefully before disaster strikes for maximum impact. Consider the following disaster communication steps.

1. Anticipate Possible Disasters

While it may be impossible to predict the exact time and nature of a disaster, communication and disaster officials can put together lists of potential scenarios based on past disasters and their effects, as well as any environmental and social information they have on the community. For example, if disaster officials are developing a plan in an area prone to wildfires, they should prepare for the possibility of future wildfires and their accompanying effects. Or, if a certain community has limited resources in a specific area, disaster officials should prepare to supply those resources. 

To effectively prepare for disasters, officials may perform disaster risk assessments, which utilize qualitative or quantitative information to discern the intensity and nature of potential future disasters. This is usually done by analyzing potential risk factors and existing conditions that could impact a disaster’s effect. 

Disaster officials should document findings from risk assessments and use them to create communication plans that account for the most likely scenarios. They should also monitor for warning signs of disasters whenever possible. 

2. Assemble a Team and Identify Spokespeople

For a disaster communication plan to run smoothly, all people involved need to know what to do. The team handling the communication plan should present a cohesive strategy with consistent, accurate information. For this reason, it’s integral to assemble a team of responders and identify spokespeople for specific aspects of the plan. Spokespeople should: 

  • Be well-informed about the disaster
  • Display genuine empathy 
  • Be prepared to field any questions regarding the disaster 
  • Have decision-making authority 

It’s also a good idea to have at least one subject matter expert as part of the communications effort. Depending on the disaster type, this could be a scientist, public official, or another specialist in a relevant area. 

3. Establish a Coordinated Plan of Action

Disaster communications and management officials will likely need to collaborate with other teams, such as emergency responders, local authorities, and more. The disaster response should include a collaborative plan that accounts for the contribution of any and all involved parties. 

The disaster communication plan will help lay out roles and responsibilities for each group to take on, which means that there should already be established processes and protocols in place before the communication plan is publicly disseminated to minimize confusion. This can help present a unified front in the wake of disaster and ensure that the public stays informed on the response and who is handling what.

4. Create a Clear Message

During crises, communities need information they can use. Trauma and fear may affect an individual’s ability to process and respond to what they read, see, and hear. Communication officials must provide clear information and guidance.

In times of crisis, communication should adhere to the following best practices:

  • Avoid technical jargon
  • Use familiar and simple terms that everyone can easily understand
  • Identify spokespeople that the community trusts
  • Highlight essential “need to know” information
  • Strategically deploy visuals, such as maps and diagrams
  • Provide updates in a timely manner
  • Communicate with an authoritative and empathetic tone 

5. Identify Stakeholders and Tailor Messaging

Crisis communication must be adapted to different audiences. Disaster managers should identify potential stakeholders and customize their messaging, ensuring their communication is suitable for different groups. Potential stakeholders may include: 

  • Disaster survivors
  • News and media outlets
  • Nearby communities
  • Local businesses and corporations
  • Government officials 

Communities are often made up of diverse individuals whose first language may not be English. Emergency management officials should tailor crisis communications to include all languages used in their communities.

Emergency management specialists might convey crisis communication during wildfires differently to homeowners and renters than they would to those who are homeless, for another example.

Disaster managers should take specific demographic information into account when tailoring crisis communication to a particular audience. Targeted messages should be accessible to a wide range of people and show respect for:

  • Age, including those who are children and those who are older adults
  • Geographic risks, including places at risk for flooding, wildfire, and other hazards
  • Language
  • Disabilities

Disaster management officials must demonstrate cultural competence in all communications, creating messaging that is accessible and easily interpreted by the specific audiences they need to reach. 

6. Stay Up to Date

Disaster management officials must communicate quickly. Regular updates help establish credibility and build trust between the general public and communication officials. 

Individuals and families deserve timely, accurate information during emergencies so they can make informed decisions that may save lives. 

To help the public keep on top of the latest information, disaster and crisis management officials should offer press conferences through a range of media outlets to deliver timely updates. 

Once the disaster has been mitigated, communications and disaster management officials should come back together to analyze the communication plan. This can help determine what methods worked, and what to improve for future disaster communications plans. Officials should also be open to any stakeholder feedback, and incorporate that feedback into future plans whenever possible.  

7. Strategize Social Media Use 

Slightly more than half (55 percent) of U.S. citizens turn to social media for their news, according to the Pew Research Center. To reach the widest possible audience, disaster management officials should use social media in their communications. 

For example, disaster communication plan officials can use social media to communicate quickly when information that’s been cleared for accuracy can be released or post detailed information, such as infographics or step-by-step instructions for times of emergency, on Facebook. 

In addition, disaster management officials should counter misinformation on social media. Misinformation can spread quickly during crises as people desperately seek information indiscriminately. Monitoring social media during a crisis allows disaster management leaders to:

  • Stay informed about people’s needs
  • Counter misinformation
  • Answer questions
  • Provide frequent updates to keep the public informed

8. Build an Accessible Disaster Communication System 

Communities need accessible crisis communication to stay safe and connected. Ensuring that disaster communication systems are accessible is not just beneficial — it’s the right thing to do. 

As one of the many benefits of earning a disaster management degree, graduates learn that sustainable communities must be accessible to all, and what is “accessible” varies from person to person. While large portions of a community may rely on social media for their news, many people may not. Different languages or formats, such as braille or text-to-speech, should also be implemented.

Crisis communication leaders should consider the information channels their communities use:

  • Online message boards
  • Social media (such as Facebook, Instagram, and Nextdoor)
  • Television
  • Text updates
  • Phone calls
  • Hotlines
  • Radio broadcasts
  • Street signage

Some people may find certain communication channels suspect. For example, in recent years, social media platforms have become more politically polarized, which may undermine their ability to reach members of the public across the political divide. Others may rely on those same channels exclusively.

For this reason, disaster communication plans should incorporate a strategic mix of information channels to make communications as accessible as possible. 

Make Disaster Communication Web Pages More Accessible

A crucial step in making crisis communication accessible is building accessible websites for communication during crises. These crisis communication web pages can act as hubs for information before, during, and after a crisis. 

Regularly updated, crisis-specific web pages that use direct text, vivid graphics, and familiar symbols can serve as valuable tools during crises. Often, these web pages are less useful if they are not maintained by accessibility advocates and experts who can alert disaster communication experts to accessibility gaps (for example, a web page may be less accessible to screen readers if it includes images without descriptive alt-text.)

These web pages should emphasize top-priority issues and offer detailed information via hyperlinks. In addition, crisis web pages should display information in multiple languages to reach the widest audience. 

Support Communities in Crisis 

Successful disaster communication plans serve the public good and save lives. Ready to develop crisis communication plan strategies for disaster management?

Gain the skills you need to craft clear and actionable public health messaging during disasters. Discover how an Online Master of Public Health in Disaster Management, such as the one offered at Tulane University, can help you develop the skills to respond to natural and human-made crises, local and global, including disaster and emergency communication. Learn how to help safeguard communities through a career in disaster management. 

Recommended Readings

How to Become a Public Health Analyst

Guide to a Career in Public Health Research

Strategies for Community Health Advocate: Roles and Responsibilities


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FEMA, Disaster Emergency Communications

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Hubspot, “10 Crisis Communication Plan Examples (and How to Write Your Own)”

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The Conversation, “Good Communication Is a Key Part of Disaster Response”

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