Emergency response institutions engaged in the implementation of humanitarian crisis management and disaster relief operations will typically face an overload of information–a phenomenon referred to as an infodemic. Sources of information comprise everything from traditional media (print, TV and radio) through rapidly emerging digital media (social media and emails) and word of mouth. Time and resource constraints rarely permit the opportunity to objectively watch, read and listen to everything. A systematic strategy is required to identify and understand pertinent issues before meaningful responses can be developed and disseminated.

The main categories of information comprise: 1) primary data such as government or key stakeholder reports and announcements; 2) secondary sources including commentary and reporting from traditional and digital media agencies; and 3) informal sources such as staff and casual encounters with members of the public. Each of these sources must be assessed and contextualized against prevalent prominent social, political and economic factors. The facts and figures received will often be inconsistent and sometimes conflicting. Most errors and contradictions can be attributed to shortcomings in capacity of information sources associated with misinterpretations, typos and delays between the capture and dissemination of information.

Other times the errors can be more insidious. Deliberate misinformation can be as simple as withholding key facts and figures in the development and dissemination of information. In other instances, information can be intentionally manipulated. While most common in conflict scenarios, misinformation can be prevalent in all crisis scenarios. Stakeholders can exploit situations for economic, social or political gain. Even internal divisions within your own institution may result in distortions in the management of information that can adversely affect operations. Unscrupulous opportunists can appear anywhere within civil society or government. The relative role and importance of stakeholders, at all levels, across all sides or factions, can be highly fluid in emergency situations and appear, disappear and reappear within very short time frames.

The availability of print media and TV can often be minimal in a crisis scenarios. Ubiquitous in most parts of the world, FM radio is an extremely effective tool for public communication; but is heavily influenced by local political conditions and is limited geographically to not more than 30km beyond direct line of site from a transmitter or repeater. Short wave radio is a more reliable medium for objective information from global news agencies, but is rarely detailed, often outdated and will not provide a nuanced understanding of the situation. A small battery operated SW/FM radio is an invaluable addition to any emergency relief worker’s go bag.

Digital media is an increasingly important source of information though often not feasible in crisis situations due to damaged infrastructure. While internet penetration and access to smart phones is growing rapidly, over 80 percent of the population across enormous swathes of the developing world are not connected. Word of mouth continues to be very effective. It can be astonishingly fast and uncannily durable, but is also vulnerable to distortion/misinformation.

Failure to accurately assess information can result in an incorrect analysis of a situation. This will at best undermine the intervention resulting in a waste of time and resources and at worst put staff and beneficiaries in danger. Perceptions of impartiality can leave staff and beneficiaries vulnerable to attack or marginalization. Other dangers associated with the failure to understand information could result in unknowingly moving through or establishing facilities in areas with landmines or prone to floods and landslides. Institutions engaged in the implementation of disaster and humanitarian relief interventions will often be key actors and targeted for co-option to legitimize false or misleading information to support the cause of unscrupulous stakeholders.

All information, irrespective of the source, must be subject to objective scrutiny. Misinformation and the omission of key facts are equally useful to understanding a situation and the position of certain stakeholders. Information must be carefully weighted and contextualized against relevant trends. Patterns will quickly emerge, but facts should be crossed referenced against as many different (primary, secondary and informal) sources across the social, political and economic spectrum before being considered credible. Once fully cognizant of the situation including the positions of different stakeholders, a communications strategy can be developed with the messaging and content tailored appropriately.

About the Author: Christopher Burke

Christopher has 30 years’ experience working with media and managing communications, advocacy and advisory in Africa and East Asia. He has a deep understanding of marketing, brand positioning and strategic communication and has worked with a diverse range of companies, governments and multilateral institutions in public affairs and policy development.

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