By Patience Wall
Public information is at the core of our public safety and natural disaster resilience work. It’s a reliable source we can turn to when outcomes are uncertain and emergency responses are ambiguous. But in a world where we’re constantly bombarded with growing misinformation, contentious mistrust of government and the scripted drama of endlessly breaking news, all of the efforts that go into providing reliable public information often go unseen and perhaps even undervalued.
I was reminded of those many unseen efforts during Keith Acree’s guest lecture in the Coastal Resilience Center’s Natural Hazards and Resilience Speaker Series in April. Acree serves as a Public Information Officer with North Carolina’s Department of Public Safety. As a part of the Emergency Management team, he works with other public information officers to manage external affairs communications to the public. In natural disaster emergencies, he helps coordinate messaging through the state’s Joint Information System by collaborating with the other public information officers to ensure there’s consistent emergency communications across state agencies and departments. This external communication work extends to composing messaging for press briefings with the Governor and other administrators.
Outside of natural disaster work, Acree’s day-to-day work includes safety messaging campaigns and preparation. This messaging covers a wide array of hazards and risks from grill safety to power line warnings to mold precautions. These preparedness campaigns are supported through a host of in-person and virtual campaigns including but not limited to: ReadyNC.org, NC 211, the emergency management podcast and several Preparedness Weeks for hurricanes and other recurring severe weather events.
The sheer span of these campaigns speaks to the unseen efforts I noted earlier. While I have heard of several of the programs Acree mentioned, I often feel as if they’re taken for granted in a modern world with a short attention span and a variety of methods to receive news. In particular, creating effective messaging in this context is a challenging undertaking.
When asked how his office gauges the effectiveness of their preparedness campaigns, Acree cited social media sharing and engagement as an important indicator of the effectiveness of their outreach strategies. This makes sense considering social media’s impact and its reputation as a ubiquitous platform for constant communication and contact. Still, social media’s effectiveness can often become clouded by its low barriers to entry, which undermines the reliability of information found on its platforms. Anyone can make a social media profile and disseminate information under the guise of public welfare, and public information officers have to navigate how to ensure their verified campaigns can effectively counter misinformation campaigns in this murky context.
Concerns over misinformation campaigns and how public officials should counter them have resurfaced as of late in the midst of COVID-19 responses, and these concerns impact Acree’s work as public information does not end with natural hazards, but extends to biological threats as well. Acree says his office tries to battle misinformation by directing the public to reliable sources and noted that their news conferences and briefings as good ways to do that. But what happens when the reliability of public information is in question? The same contentious mistrust of government that I spoke to earlier has eroded the perceived reliability of public information, and regardless of where we place the blame for this mistrust, it is fueling the public’s consumption of misinformation.
Herein lies the core challenge for public information officials working in today’s world: How do we get the public to trust us? Yes, we want to know how you adequately publicize what the public needs to know in a world of crowded sources of information (both true and purposefully misleading). But we also need to know if people are getting what they need and believing it. Answering this question is key to ensuring we can reach our resilience goals. Without public trust, our public information would not only be undervalued, it may not even be used.
Patience Wall is pursuing a MBA/ MCRP dual-degree with concentrations in Economic Development and Real Estate. While at Carolina, she’s focusing on how to attain equity in regional economic development and housing opportunities through public-private partnerships. Her past work experience includes a dash of elementary education, a brief stint as a pollster and time leading research and policy engagement initiatives at Duke. She obtained her undergraduate degree in Public Policy Studies from Duke University in 2015.