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Interacting With the Public

Imagine it’s been three days since a flood inundated your home. Since you are still unable to enter it for safety reasons, you and your children have been living in a shelter. You attend a community meeting where a local official declares that the emergency response had been excellent and since the situation was proceeding smoothly, the city has moved from “response” mode to “recovery.” How would you feel?

Interaction with the community in the midst of a crisis requires tact and sensitivity, whether it's over the phone, via e-mail, face-to-face, or at a public forum. People will experience a wide range of responses to the crisis, so be prepared for high levels of emotion.

People raising hands at a community meeting

Be prepared to be empathetic and address these common concerns:

  • Are my family and I safe?
  • What have you found that will affect my family and me?
  • What can I do to protect my family and myself?
  • Who or what caused this problem?
  • Can you fix it? Who's in charge?
  • What are you doing? Is the situation under control?
  • What can we expect?
  • Why did this happen?
  • Without getting defensive, provide an outlet for people to ask questions and express their values and feelings. This can be a hotline, Facebook page, e-mail address, or community forum.
  • Acknowledge how people are feeling, and respond to their emotions. Show empathy by putting into words what they are going are through: “You have every reason to feel frustrated…”
  • Develop a system to respond promptly to calls and e-mails.
  • Provide training and materials (such as fact sheets) to all staff who will interact with members of the public.