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  • Writer's picturejeannettesutton

Writing for your audience: when being understated is the norm

On February 20, 2024, a resident of the city of Plymouth, London, UK was digging in their garden and found an unexploded ordinance (UXO) from WWII.  In the hours and days that followed this discovery, the City of Plymouth jumped into action construct a plan for the removal of the UXO in a manner that was safe and effective.  They also used this opportunity to issue their first Wireless Emergency Alert. You can read about the event in a story posted by the BBC here.

a WEA issued in the UK for an unexploded WWII bomb

On the Sunday after the removal and disposal of the UXO, we received a tweet from colleagues overseas, asking “how’d we do" in our first message using the WEA system? The Warn Room editor reviewed the message (without knowledge of the context and the days leading up to it's dissemination) and responded saying "it's very polite...and you might include something about the potential impact of the WWII bomb and why it is important to evacuate." Looking back on the entire story now, it seems like everyone in the city was already aware of this extremely hazardous situation. However, a few hours later, the Chief, whose office from which this message originated replied “I conclude it’s typically British: terribly polite and somewhat understated!


This exchange raised questions about the cultural differences found in messages due to the language/slang/vernacular of the local speaker and community norms.  We’ve seen these sort of cultural norms in WEAs issued with phrases such as "due to the unforeseen telephone service disruption..we are providing these temporary alternate numbers to ensure emergency service" to which, we have said “that’s wordy, but it sure is polite.”  This makes me wonder about other norms for communication and how those may affect not only how the message is written, but also, how the message is received.  How does the language style affect perceptions of the sender? Does it make them appear to be more credible and trustworthy; perhaps more in touch with their audience, increasing comfort of the message receiver?


The Warning Response Model doesn’t take into consideration these cultural norms and the Warning Lexicon presents information in a factual manner using language to emphasize risk or severity of impacts. And yet, here we have an example where being understated also means not including any description of the threat beyond notifying people that the WWII bomb will be transported. 


I suspect that people who live in areas where UXOs are more common than they are in the US will already have a schema for understanding “found WWII bomb” and adding an explainer such as “it could explode and kill you” is not necessary, especially when there is evidence that the entire city was talking about the discovery with ample time to inquire about the hazard and potential danger.  Obviously, the WEA was not the only mechanism to alert people to danger in this case, allowing for a more understated approach.


But, for the rest of the message we say “Bravo! Well done!”  The City of Portsmouth competently, and politely, relayed the source, the hazard, the time, and guidance in their system's allowable 473-character message.  They also effectively disposed of the UXO and no one was hurt. 


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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