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  • Writer's picturejeannettesutton

The value of a consistent message: a case study

Message consistency is a concept that is frequently discussed when considering multiple parties communicating about a single event. We see problems arise when, for example, messages from broadcasters do not match public safety officials. Generally, inconsistency in these cases can found in the use of colors and graphics, but sometimes it is also the use of words to describe the risk or severity of the threat, and the certainty of impacts. When messages are inconsistent, they will affect understanding about the threat and its impacts.

However, and perhaps more important, inconsistent messaging affects trust in the messenger as receivers have to judge who is most correct, most credible, and has the most expertise. This trust will affect people's decision making and, in many cases, will also drive them to look elsewhere for information.

The examples presented here represent a series of messages sent for a statewide tornado drill. It's an innocuous example of inconsistent messaging and is unlikely to affect behavioral outcomes, at least as those behaviors relate to taking a protective action.

Each message differs in its approach to alerting and uses different words to communicate about the event.

a message sent indicating that it is a drill

For example, the first message treats this test message as an alert with a call to action. Notably, it begins with repetition "this is a drill" (a strategy that is more commonly used for audio alerts, where information is stated multiple times), followed by the source of the message, the time, location, and a call to action (tune in to local news).

The second message uses a different approach, simply notifying people that the message is a test of the alert system that happens to coincide with a statewide tornado drill.

a message sent saying it is a test

Here, there is no specific call to action, such as how to participate in the tornado drill, how to prepare for future hazards, or how to report back to the County to confirm that the message was successfully received (which could be done by embedding a link in the message).

In the third example, we find a bit of conflation between the words "drill" and "test", where the message indicates that it, the message itself, is a drill as part of the test of the public alerting system. We can assume that the drill, in this case, is for the benefit of the County to practice, not for the receivers. Who needs to practice getting a message that has no actionable content? This message adds a bit of context by explaining that there is no emergency. It does not contain content about any call to action or timing of the event.

a message sent saying it is a drill

Each of these examples shows different approaches to conducting a test of alerting systems and engaging in a statewide drill. While we don't advocate the practice of repeating words/phrases in a message (this is a drill this is a drill this is a drill), the inconsistent interpretation of the drill/test and what should be done in response to the message is a bit confusing. Wayne County appears to use their WEA to educate about future tornadoes; the other two counties seem to opt out of public education. This is a miss, in our opinion.

There are few opportunities when an entire state will embrace the voluntary disruption of their constituents' day; why not make the most of it and use that opportunity to educate, prepare, and train for the future?

This was also an opportunity to practice coordination between emergency management organizations and create a unified public message. While that may have been happening behind closed doors, there isn't evidence of it in these messages.

For more recommended contents, be sure to download The Warning Lexicon - it's free and offers step-by-step instructions on how to write a better warning message.


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