United Methodist Association of Communicators

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UMAC 2017: Panelists Explore Best Ways to Communicate After a Disaster

by Jessica Brodie
NEW ORLEANS, March 23, 2017—When it comes to communicating after a disaster, sometimes the most important thing is figuring out how to be a non-anxious presence in an anxious time.
That was the overriding sentiment from a panel discussion, “Embracing a Crisis: Rising Waters, Rising Tension,” at the United Methodist Association of Communicators’ annual gathering.
The panel featured a variety of leaders tasked with doing the work of communications in the aftermath of disaster: Louisiana Conference Resident Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey along with Bob Mann, journalism professor at Louisiana State University; the Rev. Donnie Wilkinson, senior pastor of Broadmoor United Methodist Church, Baton Rouge; and communications consultant Mark Lambert, Lambert Media. The four shared wisdom they have garnered while serving in a state that has bounced from one crisis to another, from a host of police shootings and massive flooding in the last year to the citywide devastation spurred by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“Sometimes you have to just have to breathe and take a moment,” Harvey said, noting how when she first came to Louisiana in 2012 to serve as its bishop she crossed the Mississippi Bridge behind an American Red Cross disaster response truck—a fitting way to begin her tenure. “Our tendency is to want to communicate quickly, especially in today’s time, but first think through some scenarios of how you might respond.”
Harvey, who served as deputy general secretary for the United Methodist Committee on Relief before becoming bishop, said she has found being a voice of clarity and calm when the world is spinning out of control can be the most important part of storytelling. She said taking the time to come up with wise and thoughtful reactions that fuse practicality with care is critical.
“We have got to manage the narrative before the narrative manages us,” Harvey said.
Wilkinson agreed. He said the pre-work that occurs through daily spiritual discipline brings much to how we react and respond to disaster. Wilkinson had the unique perspective of being appointed to a church in Baton Rouge last year where, right in the middle of his very first sermon, a shooting occurred less than a mile away. He had to inform his brand-new flock of the news.
“I’ve known these people 45 minutes; how do you remain a non-anxious presence in that moment?” Wilkinson asked.
But he said that’s precisely when we are able to put into practice the spiritual fruit we’ve been growing for years. For him, centering in prayer has been a core spiritual discipline for more than 20 years, so that day he was able to immediately draw from what he called “a full well” and lead his congregation in peace and prayer.
Two weeks later, Wilkinson did the same thing again—this time when 6 trillion gallons of water fell in the greater Baton Rouge area over 72 hours. The church was able to not only stay calm and rooted in prayer through the flood but also draw on the resources inherent in the UMC connection.
“I didn’t need to figure out ‘where am I going to get flood buckets from or water from;’ we knew,” Wilkinson said. “It was a blessing to come to a moment of crisis with a spirit of generosity, of what can we give?”
Mann said it’s also important to understand that after a disaster, the last thing people need is to be overwhelmed with a plethora of facts.
“As people who deal in dissemination of facts, sometimes we default to … a reflexive urge to give as many facts as possible and overwhelm the audience,” Mann said, as if smothering people with information will be helpful or make them trust the communicator. “But people won’t believe facts unless they know you. All the facts in the world won’t mean anything unless I believe in you—that you’re caring and compassionate and have my best interests at heart.”
Mann said communicators often skip out on the trust-building, personal investment aspect, but it’s not something that should be overlooked. Communicators must build ethical standing with the audience by showing they care and why.
Lambert agreed, noting that the most helpful thing communicators can do is be that non-anxious presence guiding them forward with practical next steps.
“When a crisis happens, there’s a moment when people know something is big but they’re still processing it, trying to decide how big is it. They take a lot of cues from the people communicating with them. If you give a laundry list of all the different things you’ve done, it doesn’t help anyone process it. They want to know what’s next, what’s coming up,” Lambert said.
He said being able to present the problem people are having in a way that advances “what’s next” is critical.
“They don’t need any more stories about what people are going through or the people helping,” Lambert said, urging communicators to avoid simply telling the same tale over and over. “The first three letters in the word ‘news’ are N-E-W—we need to tell them what’s new, what’s going on.”
The panel took a series of questions from audience members, all moderated by Betty Backstrom, Louisiana Conference communicator. Harvey noted that sometimes, photography can be just as powerful if not more so in telling a gut-wrenching, emotional story. Others shared how building trust and an authentic friendship with reporters can be extremely helpful. Avoiding caricatures in storytelling is also important, as is acknowledging the real divides among people.
For more on UMAC 2017, visit www.umcommunicators.org.
Jessica Brodie is editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate.

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