Social Communication: An Essential Tool for Disaster Response Teams

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Disasters are dynamic, as is the need for information arising out of the different stages of emergencies. The numbers of dead, wounded, affected, shelter, food, water, security, health risks, recovery… So many questions in the middle of the confusion and drama can paralyze and jeopardize response capacity and decision-making.

To a great extent, effective response and management of a disaster depend on the appropriate management of information and how this is communicated by technical staff, coordinators, health personnel, the national authorities and the media.

Good information management should ensure analysis, interpretation and correctness of technical data; whilst communication should ensure fluidity in exchange of information and transparency, both of which are indispensable factors in the decision-making process before, during and after an emergency.

The health sector should be prepared to respond appropriately to different information needs which arise in an emergency and PAHO/WHO should ensure that experts and necessary tools are available to accompany countries in this process.

Emergencies which have occurred in recent years in the region have brought to light the need for communicators who are experts in disasters and crisis management to be part of the response teams, and in particular of the regional response team formed by PAHO.

There are several reasons for this: the need to have quality reports at the right times, the need to change and influence people’s behaviour during an emergency, to achieve understanding on the part of the public concerning risks and how to care for health, for resource mobilization, and to satisfy the demands of the media and the international community, to prevent political and social risks or to deal with rumours and so on.

As in case of the health sciences, communication in disasters is a discipline which requires technical expertise, knowledge and specialization. The communicator makes sure that the information produced by health professionals is understandable to all audiences, designs strategies regarding the needs of these audiences, contributes to the design of messages regarding health promotion, sends information to whoever needs this, and contributes to increasing the visibility of the health sector.

Therefore, the communicator does everything necessary to make sure that information is where it needs to be at the right time so that decisions are made to facilitate response for those hit by disasters.

Experience in many recent disasters has revealed a lack of information at times when it has been most needed to take decisions which affect the protection of life, health, or the mobilization of resources and donor relations, or to avoid reports being full of technical references which make them difficult to understand.

To fill this gap, PAHO/WHO is working on the formation of a communication and information management sub-group which will be part of the Regional Response Team. As a first step, during the first week in August an international workshop was held in Lima, Peru, with the participation of communicators and journalists who are experts in disasters in the region, and during which procedures and working tools were reviewed and validated which will improve internal and external work by PAHO in emergency or disaster situations. For more information on this topic, write to Ricardo Pérez at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Relief

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202.974.3399 - Fax 202.775.4578 - disaster@paho.org - www.paho.org/disasters