International Strategy for Disaster Reduction
Latin America and the Caribbean   

Newsletter ISDR Inform - Latin America and the Caribbean
Issue: 13/2006- 12/2006 - 11/2005 - 10/2005 - 9/2004 - 8/2003 - 7/2003 - 6/2002 - 5/2002 - 4/2001- 3/2001



A Communication Strategy to Build a Culture of Prevention 1
Margarita Villalobos Mora
International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UN-ISDR)
Por Margarita Villalobos Mora

The concept of disaster commu-nications refers to a planned, systemic process that does not rule out any available technical resource. Its essential aim is to facilitate dialogue among all stakeholders in order to promote cultural change. It is in everyday life that cultural changes take place; they involve a great variety of communication processes, which must all be taken into account when developing the appropriate strategy.

This cultural change can only take place if the gaps are bridged between (a) the production of scientific and technical knowledge, (b) the management of technical and social policies, and (c) the social appropriation of information. It is thus that this information is transformed into knowledge and knowledge, in turn, into concrete social decisions and actions. Hence the importance of linking communication activities to disaster prevention and response strategies.

Risk and Disasters: The Role of Social Communicators in Cultural Change For Prevention

The transformation of nature is part of the evolutionary process. Our challenge is attaining peaceful coexistence of our civilizations with nature. The relationship between a natural hazard and the conditions of vulnerability created by human beings in their physical, economic, social, political and environmental milieu is what determines the level of risk. Accelerating urbanization, population growth, environmental degradation and the increase in poverty among large sectors of the population in the region—all these factors make us more vulnerable to the fury of nature. If we add to these concerns manmade hazards such as the transport of hazardous materials, technical accidents, forest fires, and armed conflicts, the scenario becomes more complex still. A good example is the devastation wrought by Hurricane Mitch in Central America.

By the time the International Decade on Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR) came to its conclusion, individual countries and the international community had become much more aware that disasters are a grave threat to social and economic stability—in fact, an obstacle to development. What we need, then, is a global culture of prevention and a much greater understanding of the risk factors to which we are exposed. The development of this global culture of prevention depends to a critical extent on the information available and its dissemination. The use of the mass media for disaster mitigation and prevention is essential to promoting this global culture. Information management, particularly through the mass media, is a crucial link in the chain of disaster prevention measures. The population has the right to serious and timely information so that it too can contribute to disaster mitigation and awareness raising.

The Media and Disasters, Prevention and Development

A culture of prevention implies a collective attitude that can only be built by means of a long social process. Within that process, the democratization of disaster information and the increasing participation of civil society are key factors.

Social communication, given its access to mass audiences, must become a cornerstone of this culture of prevention. In tandem with educational institutions, it can promote individual and collective capacity building. The role of communication in these processes implies enlisting the collaboration of experts, governments, and communities to make the population aware of existing risks and of the best way to manage them. The best way of making this happen is to insert disaster prevention messages into the daily flow of information. That way these concepts may turn into an everyday understanding as part of people’s lives, so that the subject immediately springs to mind when it comes to discussing the evelopment of a country, region, or community.

To the extent that prevention is incorporated into the development process, the population will be less exposed to natural or technological hazards. An exposed community that is well informed and educated can implement sustainable development measures that include risk reduction and environmental protection without hindering economic growth and human development.

Since communities depend on information to make their decisions, the mass media play a key role in the way people react to disasters. This has induced several countries in the region to launch training programs aimed at journalists and other media workers about their responsibilities in preparing communities for disasters. Costa Rica, Honduras, and Colombia, among others, have conducted highly successful seminars and workshops for the national media. Efforts to raise the awareness of the international broadcast and print media have been less satisfactory.

A good example of the role the media can play took place during Hurricane Mitch. Workers at Radio Nicarao in Jalapa, Nicaragua, tuned into Honduran stations to find out about the imminence and gravity of the impact of the cyclone. In the face of the indecision of the local authorities and the lack of clear guidelines from the National Emergency Commission, the station assumed the responsibility of warning the local population, organized an evacuation to higher ground less exposed to the threat of floods, and managed the distribution of the first emergency supplies. It is estimated that 3,000 lives were saved thanks to this initiative. In Wiwili, Nicaragua, the hurricane tore down the antenna of the local radio station, and the reporters, who had also kept themselves informed through a shortwave receiver, continued warning the population through bullhorns and organized the evacuation of people dwelling on the banks of Coco River toward more protected areas.

The local media, including radio and small town newspapers, are one of the most popular sources of information for many. When these outlets become partners in the building of a culture of prevention, even the poorest learn to think of them as something other than vertical purveyors of entertainment and professional news. They start to see them as a channel they can use to influence other community members and even decision-makers to encourage disaster prevention. This provides an alternative not only to local face to face communication but also to the traditional way that disaster agencies often use the media, sometimes employing concepts and terms that do not make much sense to rural communities.

At the grassroots level, deficient or incorrect information can sometimes lead to the reinforcement of dangerous myths, like the belief that disasters are a form of divine punishment, or that earthquakes only happen at certain times of the year. Lack of information also increases the level of uncertainty and anxiety of the population, particularly given the complexity with which such issues as the preservation of lives, property, and the environment can be treated, disregarding the fact that one of the missions of the media is to explain complex issues in simple ways.

Learning how to live with adverse natural phenomena involves adaptation, not fear. A true culture of prevention would not traumatize the population into interpreting every gust of wind as a coming hurricane, every muffler that backfires as the start of a volcanic eruption; it would teach people how to adapt their behavior patterns in the broadest possible sense—where and how they build, how much they know about their environment, how recklessly they deforest slopes or river banks, even whether they own battery-operated radios and flashlights—so as to reduce their vulnerability and that of their possessions.


La Comunicación en las etapas de un desastre

Aplicar sistemáticamente la comunicación a la gestión integral del riesgo, supone adscribirla metodológicamente al ciclo para el manejo del riesgo.

Acción de Comunicación
BEFORE Prevention


Early Warning

• Warning about the risk or hazard. Informing about the phenomenon.
• Disseminating prevention measures.
• Giving the lie to false rumors that disturb the population and adversely affect the decisions made.
• Obtaining information from authorized sources.
• Providing guidance to the population.
• Raising the awareness of the authorities and providing them with guidance.


Needs Assessment
Relief and rescue
Distribution of emergency supplies
• Providing news about the event.
• Reporting on the situation of the affected communities.
• Denying false rumors.
• Conveying messages from the authorities in charge of emergency management.


Setting up of shelters
• Providing news.
• Reporting on the situation of the affected areas, particularly the progress of rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts.
• Providing guidance on how the community can collaborate with rehabilitation efforts.


It is not enough for the media to limit themselves to transmitting information on prevention alone. Nor is it possible to educate the population in the middle of a crisis or disaster. Disaster prevention and response must be seen as a whole, and require the commitment and joint participation of all stakeholders, including communities at risk. (Fernández Gibbs, 1998).

A Preventive Communication Strategy

When it comes to prevention, then, communicators must be clear about the impact—particularly the usefulness—that their message will have, which medium or media they should use, and which basic concepts they should employ so as not to confuse the recipients of the message. This requires, of course, that they have the necessary knowledge, preferably through specific training, that they keep up to date on the subject, and that they compile a list of reliable sources to cover every likely major hazard or every relevant aspect of these hazards. (Salazar, 1998).

Designing a communication strategy calls for deciding how the subject will be treated, what will be the conceptual and referential framework to be used, which social groups will be the target audience and how they should be approached, when, and through which specific channels. Defining all this in advance will make the task a lot easier and—much more importantly—the results much more effective. A disaster prevention communication strategy must be based on specific goals, such as how to discourage the building of infrastructure in hazardous places, or how to encourage community organizing. Clearly, the first message would be aimed at decision-makers, a very different audience from the families and informal community leaders that the second message would try to reach.

Campaigns are a basic tool of such a communication strategy. They involve fundamental steps: planning, production, dissemination, feedback, and evaluation. The planning stage, in turn, involves setting objectives and defining the target audience, the contents, the communication channels to be employed, the resources available, and the feedback and evaluation mechanisms to be used in the latter stages.

Print media are much more effective than broadcast media at presenting in-depth information that has a longer “shelf-life”; i.e., it can be clipped and saved. Print news, for good or ill, enjoys a great deal of credibility, making it ideal for conveying messages that will influence the behavior of people when they are confronted with a disaster. If preventive communication has been reinforced and clarified through repetition and variation, if it is educational, entertaining, and makes readers feel as if their concerns are being taken into account, people will remember the recommendations, the explanations of the phenomenon, and its consequences, even if they have not saved the material, because the combination of the written word and other graphical elements will have been stored in their memories. (Bratschi, 1995).

Radio, on the other hand, has been defined as “a theater of the mind”, because it addresses the ear and not the eye of the public, allowing imagination a freer range—and saving considerable sums in production costs. Millions listen to radio, including those whose illiteracy keeps them beyond the reach of newspapers and magazines. Since listeners represent all socioeconomic and cultural strata, messages must be tailored to different levels of comprehension; at the same time, the large number of radio stations with different “listener profiles” makes it easier to target the groups we wish to reach and define in advance how best to approach them. Also, since radio is listened to while people engage in everyday activities—cooking, washing the dishes, driving to work, even doing homework—it should be used to convey messages that are directly related to those everyday actions that increase or reduce vulnerability, such as remaining aware of significant changes in the environment.

Television shares the advantage of instantaneity and lower educational barriers, but is also more compelling because it appeals to vision as well as hearing. Its effectiveness has been shown in the way it persuades people to consider certain brand-names or fashions more desirable than others, perhaps even—if some studies are correct—to find violence more acceptable or at least less shocking. Harnessed to convey prevention messages, this persuasiveness can guarantee a certain degree of assurance concerning their likelihood of success.

In this context, the Internet should not be seen as competition to the traditional media, but as a complement. Its advantages include the capacity to provide users with precisely the information they need, even organized according to their requirements. A Web site can easily provide a form asking users for their geographical location, type of dwelling, and other details, and produce in seconds a personalized page describing their risk profile, and the nearest emergency response center which they can contact to ask for additional information and guidelines.

A culture of prevention and mitigation will only flourish in Latin America and the Caribbean if the mass media play their role, informing the public of the existing hazards and educating the population about the practical measures they can take to reduce their vulnerability. For this to happen, however, it is necessary to weigh carefully the strengths of each medium and the specific groups we wish to target. Put differently, it is not only a question of what to say, but to whom, and how. Only then will the goal be reached: a lasting change in behavior and attitude.

It must not be thought that programming a preventive campaign ends with the various steps outlined. This diagram is flexible and open to modification, recycling, and adaptation to regional, national, or local needs. A campaign, after having been conceived, must give birth to the next while the first is still being produced. Prevention does not have a starting date, much less an end date. What it does have is stages, some more or less intensive depending on the circumstances.



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  • Bratschi, Gloria. Comunicando el desastre. Mendoza, Argentina: Dirección de Publicaciones de la Facultad de Ciencias Políticas y Sociales de la Universidad Nacional de Cuyo, 1995. P. 53-80.
  • IDNDR Informs: Newsletter for Latin America and the Caribbean, # 14, 1999.
  • Cícero Betancourt, Ricardo. “Comunicación para la Protección Civil”. Paper presented at the Regional Workshop on Social Communication and Disaster Prevention, IDNDR, PAHO/WHO, UNDP, Civil Defense of Ecuador, Quito, 1998.
  • Fernández Gibbs, Carmen. “Rol de la comunicación en la gestión integral de Protección y Seguridad”. Paper presented at the Regional Workshop on Social Communication and Disaster Prevention, IDNDR, PAHO/WHO, UNDP, Civil Defense of Ecuador, Quito, 1998.
  • Salazar, Sandra. Guía para la comunicación social y la prevención de desastres: la prevención de desastres comienza con la información. San José, Costa Rica: IDNDR Secretariat Unit for Latin America and the Caribbean, 1999, pp. 28-30.
  • Villalobos Mora, Margarita. “Uso de los medios de comunicación en la prevención de desastres”. Biblio-des. San José, Costa Rica: Centro Regional de Información sobre Desastres, No. 26, 1998, pp. 6-8.

1 Part of the article “e del artículo Risk and Disasters: The Role of Social Communicators in Cultural Change For Prevention”, elaborate by: Helena Molin Valdés and Margarita Villalobos, UNISDR, May 1999.