Government content during disasters

Posted on July 4, 2024


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Written in partnership with ProudCity.

Communication is critical to emergency management. When disaster strikes, government must share content in ways that meet the moment.

Why it matters

Effective disaster communications:

  • Lets you update faster, frequently
  • Builds trust in government
  • Removes confusion
  • Keeps people safe

How they get it

People get disaster updates from many sources:

  • Websites
  • Newsletters
  • Text/email alerts
  • Social media
  • News media

Don’t do this

Poor communications practices are made worse during disasters. Don’t do these things:

  • Use PDFs
  • Images with text
  • Wordy sentences
  • Rely on interactive maps
  • Rely only on social media

Think mobile

Mobile (phones/tablets) traffic spikes during emergencies. This is more the case during evacuations (it reached as high as 90% for the Paradise fires).

Know this

  • Traffic spikes cause networks to slow down.
  • Device battery life is precious, must be preserved.
  • Communications must be mobile-first and mobile-friendly.

Do

  • Compress images and only use them when they serve a purpose.
  • Break up text with headings to make it easier to scan and scroll.
  • Make sure your website design is responsive.
  • Caching/load balancing

Don’t

  • Use PDFs. They are confusing to download and hard to view on mobile.
  • Rely on interactive maps. They can be hard to use on mobile and require a lot of data to load.

Have a single source of truth

Your government website is the main line of official information in an emergency. Use this as the single source of truth for all communications, always referencing it in newsletters, social media, and the press.

Doing this lets you:

  • Update the message as things change.
  • Gives a timeline of events as they unfold.

Know this

  • Not everyone uses social media.
  • Anyone can view your website, without a login or account.

Do

  • Link to your website from social media and alerts.
  • Use short URL redirects. These are helpful for the media and call centers.
  • Time and date stamp information that’s changing.
  • Provide HTML text-only versions of email newsletters.

Don’t

  • Rely solely on social media.

Don’t rely on social media only

Social media is a valuable outreach tool during disasters, but government shouldn’t rely on it wholesale, because:

  • Not everyone uses social media.
  • Different people use different social media platforms.
  • Platform algorithms don’t ensure people will get your message.

Do

  • Post to multiple platforms.
  • Include direct links to your website.

Don’t

  • Publish attachments (images/PDFs) to posts.

Use clear, plain language

Plain language is clear and concise. It’s easier to translate into other languages. It helps people understand information quickly and reduces confusion. This is especially for text alerts, when every word counts.

Do

  • Lead with the main message
  • Short sentences and paragraphs
  • Bulleted and numbered lists
  • Common, familiar words
  • Pronouns (you, we)

Don’t

  • Wordy phrases
  • Idioms and metaphors
  • Jargon and technical terms
  • Glossary to define terms
  • Acronyms without initial reference

Be accessible to everyone

Government content must work for everyone. People with disabilities are more vulnerable during emergencies. Make sure your content (including maps) works with assistive technology.

Do

  • Structured content
  • Alt text on all images and maps
  • Meet WCAG standards
  • Camel case hashtags (Yes: #TropicalStormWatch, No: #tropicalstormwatch)

Don’t

Get official

Misinformation can spread quickly, especially on social media and online forums. Make your content official.

Do

  • HTTPS encryption
  • .gov domain
  • Verify social media accounts

Don’t

  • Unofficial domains (.com, .org)
  • Unofficial, unfamiliar branding

Be prepared

During emergencies, people rely on government content to make critical decisions. Follow communications best practices and ensure your community gets timely, reliable information.

Adopt these practices now so that when it comes time to meet the moment, you’re ready.

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