Seven phrases you should never say on television
By Dr. Jeff Rubin
In the preparedness business, engaging the public is a necessity and a challenge. Effective risk communication includes identifying audiences and understanding how they perceive the messages we broadcast. With that in mind, with tongue in cheek, and in memory of (and apologies to) the late, great George Carlin, here are seven phrases you should avoid when you’re communicating risk to your public. We’re all guilty of these, and we almost always mean well, but we can do better.
1) “It’s not a matter of if, but when.”
This is an issue of connotation, not accuracy: we can accurately say that most potential disasters (excluding those created by Hollywood producers), will happen sometime. The rub is the distinction between imminence and inevitability and how it gets blurred, whether by accident or design.
It’s reasonable to expect the next influenza pandemic this century, maybe within a few years. The H5N1 virus is currently the leading candidate, but we don’t know when or even if it will become the ultimate pandemic agent. In a similar vein, the Pacific Northwest will likely see a potentially catastrophic earthquake, but we don’t know whether it will be tomorrow or in decades, or beyond.
Pandemics, great earthquakes and major terrorist attacks are (fortunately) extremely rare events. It is important to advise the public of potential catastrophes, but it is equally important to try to communicate some meaningful aspect of the uncertainty behind any prediction. Oft-sounded alarms become part of the background. When was the last time someone responded to a car alarm (with anything other than a baseball bat)?
2) “Common sense.”
“Common sense” is just the collective judgment that results from knowledge, experience and training, that is, it makes sense to us. Someone with no basis of familiarity, but who may well have mistaken television fare for realism, should not be expected to reach the same conclusions that we do.
An untrained bystander may believe that a patient in a wrecked automobile is in danger of the vehicle exploding and thus may do more harm than good by jerking said patient out, rather than practicing spinal immobilization. Drop, Cover, and Hold On is less intuitive than fleeing a building during an earthquake, which is why we have to teach it.
3) “Don’t panic.” (Close relative: “Remain calm.”)
Take a look at emergency instructions for just about anything: CPR, fire extinguishers, water safety, fire escape plans. Odds are the first line advises the reader to remain calm, not to panic or something similar. Why? Do we believe that a reader looking at this (or trying to remember it) in the midst of a crisis will actually be calm? If so, will it be due to a single line of instructions? (“I was about to start screaming until I read that first line. Thanks!”)
Most people don’t panic, but they don’t necessarily know what to do. Focus on what we want them to do and how best to lead them to it.
4) “We have really good people here, and they’ll take care of business.”
Do you remember the old Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland movies that always ended with a homemade production? (“My dad has a barn. We could put on a show!”) There’s absolutely no question that there are lots of good people in lots of organizations, that motivation and improvisation count for a lot, and that trusting in one’s colleagues is both laudable and necessary.
But there’s a difference between trusting in staff capabilities and making that the sole preparedness “strategy.” People can rise to the occasion, but a response built purely on reaction and improvisation will rarely do as well as one built on realistic planning, training, exercising and updating. It’s not an insult to give “good people” some tools; even the best craftsmen can do only so much with their bare hands.
5) “We’re prepared.”
What’s as risky as leaving everything to chance? Claiming completion in an ongoing process. Whether driven by internal or external pressure, a desire to reassure stakeholders, a full "In" basket, or just undue optimism, it’s tempting to put a “done” stamp on preparedness. Aside from the fact that “calling it done” is rolling the dice on something bad not happening until after the speaker retires, it does everyone a disservice.
Projects can be completed, benchmarks met, hurdles cleared and real progress made, but preparedness — by definition — is a process destined never to reach true completion. It’s important and valuable to tell stakeholders what has been, is being and still needs to be done, but it’s just as important and valuable to emphasize the process. There’s no shame in a dynamic to-do list; preparedness, like life, is a journey.
6) “Plans are worthless.”
After Hurricane Katrina, it became popular to deride the value of plans (OK, it was always popular), but this was misdirection. There’s no question that the planning process is at least as valuable as the end product, just as reliance on a document to provide step-by-step guidance in a crisis is unrealistic (see number 5). Winging it, however, leaves a lot to be desired (see number 4).
A plan cannot and should not attempt to project every possible scenario, describe every capability or claim to provide a cookbook set of instructions. Relying on a tome big enough to have its own reinforced bookcase is like trusting your surgeon to figure out where to cut by leafing through a textbook while you’re being wheeled in.
A useful plan should consider what, and how, hazards threaten the organization and its ability to maintain critical functions. It should concisely describe the response organization at different operational levels, indicating activation thresholds and mechanisms. It should identify roles and responsibilities before, during and after an emergency; specify special and delegated authority (e.g., declarations, suspending laws, triggering special purchasing procedures); include or refer to general and hazard-specific guidelines for those in positions of responsibility; and be kept current.
The goal is to save incident managers from having to come up with everything on the fly. Hurricane Gustav had less of an impact than its predecessor of three years, but the response before and after was still far superior. Was that all due to improvisation? Suggested phraseology: “Worthless plans are worthless.”
What is peak ground acceleration? Non-structural mitigation? Morbidity and mortality? Salvage and overhaul? The list is endless. Jargon serves a useful purpose as technical shorthand; fellow practitioners understand the terminology.
But it’s counterproductive when used as a barrier between “us” and “them,” like a password to enter a club. More commonly, the barrier is due to well-meaning practitioners who forget that people outside the discipline don’t understand.
Explain how earthquakes cause damage, how to secure building contents to keep them from killing the occupants, how we assess illness/injury and death, and how the fire service minimizes property damage and ensures that the fire is actually out. Think about the last time you were frustrated when you were the customer trying to figure out what the person “serving” you was saying, and why they wouldn’t just speak plain English. Save the jargon for collegial discussions and technical presentations.
Jeff Rubin tries not to use heinous catchphrases. His views do not necessarily represent those of his employer, but he is proud to say that he does not have to fight these battles where he works.