Communication researchers and meteorologists talk about…

…the weather.

Well, what did you expect? If, as Mark Twain says, everyone talks about the weather, then that must necessarily include the National Communication Association and the American Meteorological Society, right?

And talk about the weather they did, at Wednesday’s 2011 NCA Preconference Session on Communicating Coastal Risks and Crises.

The history of this pre-conference, and its goals, can be simply stated. Meteorologists want the nation to be weather-ready. They’ve worked for decades to improve the accuracy and timeliness of forecasts, but in recent years have come to realize they have a communication problem. As consumers of their services, you and I don’t always understand what we’re being told. Or how to use the information we’re given.

Hard to be ready under those circumstances.

But meteorologists aren’t the only ones with communication problems. So communication researchers have no shortage of competing claims for their attention. They can teach marketers a thing or two. They can help journalists ply their trade. Want to zoom in on risk communication? There is still a universe of applications. Health risks (smoking, asbestos, obesity,…). Terrorism.  Get the idea? Fact is, there aren’t enough communication experts to go around.

So, what will it take for meteorologists to get a little more attention and help from communication researchers? And, along those lines, what research opportunities does meteorology offer the communication world?  

Bottom line? Participants saw incentive to partner up, and saw that over time, such collaboration would provide enormous societal benefit. The 30-40 people in the room also saw the need and opportunity to broaden the discussion across their larger communities. The program organizers will be working up a more structured set of notes and action items from the day, but here are a few preliminary impressions, some big, some small, in no particular order:

Bill Read, director of the National Hurricane Center, gave a great keynote on the communication dimensions of his work…the mainstream, legacy piece to the major broadcast and print media…and the emerging social network piece.

One speaker spoke about therapeutic versus corrosive community. His point was that natural hazards tend to foster the emergence of the former (everyone helping everyone else), while industrial accidents such as the BP oil spill tended to foster the latter (lots of finger-pointing, mounting distrust). Important idea. I hadn’t heard that particular terminology. But the distinction between so-called natural and manmade hazards is not always clear cut. Take Katrina. Faults in levee design, engineering, and construction contributed to the loss of life and property in New Orleans.  And maybe, we need to pay more attention to whether and in what ways pre-event community atmosphere in towns and cities tends to be therapeutic or corrosive. What difference might that make?

Another speaker spoke to importance of avoiding risk comparisons, especially when talking with non-experts. Case in point? When Katrina was bearing down on the Gulf Coast, some folks on the media made comparisons to Hurricane Camille, which were misinterpreted by the public. Because Camille was smaller in geographic extent, many were falsely reassured instead of being alarmed.

The University of New Orleans Center for Hazards Assessment, Research, and Technology (CHART) has released a risk literacy manual that combines disaster education and literacy-building skills. For more information, including a link to the manual itself, click here.

Shirley Laska gave a very thoughtful lunchtime talk which brought together a lot of recent scholarship on risk communication and community resiliency/social capital, etc. Only the rudiments of a synthesis but I can’t wait to see how her work develops.

The energy level in the room started high and remained high all day. No one left early. The room was packed to start and at the end. In fact (one of my favorite metrics for meetings) after the formal adjournment, folks hung around. No one wanted to leave.

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With apologies to Mark Twain, when the experts on “talk” and the experts on “weather” get together and “talk about the weather,” the rest of us should do something.

We should listen. More soon.

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