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



Risk management from the standpoint of strategic communication

Let us agree on this apparent paradox, which is not restricted to disaster reduction—nowadays, we are suffering from information glut even as thousands of communication needs remain unmet.

Unlike disaster response, where the communication component is not invariably in the forefront, prevention is first and foremost an act of communication. Even so, the current oversupply of information coming from all directions means that traditional communication formats may no longer serve as effectively. The poster, the brochure, the video, may no longer be effective by itself, given the existence of new social actors and approaches and, particularly, the media bombardment that spares no-one. What is now called for is a comprehensive strategy, a kind of communicational logistics. The sociocultural context, specific climatic and other conditions, the stakeholders involved, determine how the message should be crafted, how it should be disseminated, and through which media.

Suddenly, a neighbourhood ballgame can serve as the excuse for a rich and illuminating exchange of views and information regarding disaster prevention—to all appearances informally, but actually the result of dissemination criteria based on timeliness and the prompt collection of feedback. Once the public is “hooked”, the discussion can proceed more formally, perhaps at the local community hall, and—why not?—incorporating those posters, brochures, and videos… but as part of an overarching strategy that starts off, almost subversively, with interpersonal communication, invariably based on a plan.

The Media Glut

Every community in the world today, whether rich or poor, with very rare and remote exceptions, is now confronted with a pandemonium of cleverly crafted media messages. Newspapers, magazines, radio, television and film now compete not only among each other but with public billboards, advertisements on the sides of buses, and supermarket displays. This is especially true in large cities, where a barrage of colours, silhouettes, typography, sounds and images are a part of daily lives, not meant for pure aesthetic enjoyment but invariably selling something, chasing us from the public sphere into the intimacy of our own bedrooms. But even small villages are not exempt from the ubiquity of soft-drink and cigarette logos and the blare of radio and television. And it is not only commercial advertisements that shriek for our increasingly divided attention, but also what goes on in between, such as news and entertainment blaring forth episodes of violence that directly contradict our desire for an enhanced quality of life.

Such saturation calls for an equally astute and sharply aligned strategy for the dissemination of disaster prevention and mitigation messages. NGOs, consumer unions, intermediary organizations and government agencies need to come together to choose their message very deliberately, based on the desired outcome—with full awareness that they will be competing against a plethora of ads and headlines, blockbuster films and hit CDs.

Communication can no longer be an afterthought, but must lie at the very core of what emergency response and disaster prevention organizations do to further their goal—which must be nothing less than a cultural shift, from reaction to self-management, from response to continual vigilance and prevention.

Savvy media workers know who their target audiences are. The same must be true of risk management communicators, except that they should not be guided by profit but by equity—and this calls for targeting the most vulnerable groups, regardless of whether their vulnerability is the result of poverty, lack of information, or electoral promises that mitigate no risk except that of losing votes.

Communicators involved in risk management should be fully, even fervently committed to their task, paying no attention to jurisdictional or institutional rivalries. Nobody owns disasters. They affect not only slums but also country clubs and five-star hotels. The only difference is that the latter usually have greater resources—including communication resources—to confront and prevent emergencies, as well as to engage in prompt and relatively pain-free reconstruction.

From this point of view, no disaster reduction plan should disregard strategic communication. Such an approach need not be costly; in fact, a rigorous communication strategy can actually reduce costs through a sharper definition of the appropriate message, medium, and target audience. At the same time, and for the very same reasons, such a communication strategy must be sharply aligned with the entire disaster reduction plan, to take full advantage of existing synergies and prove cost-effective.

Above all, it must be able to compete, in an overcrowded marketplace of ideas and inducements, for a scarce commodity: the attention of the public. This alone can allow the activities and operations of risk reduction and disaster response organizations to be heard above the din of competing messages that may not be trying to promote your own safety, but the relative merits of a given brand of blue-jeans or toothpaste.

Gloria Bratschi is a specialist in planning and prevention, earned an MSc in Institutional Communication, and works as an international consultant. She may be reached at