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Chapter 10.4 Communications, information, education

Communication methods

Photo: Vicki Francis/Department for International Development;

[:en]The individual methods that can be used to raise awareness about risk reduction are very diverse. A few commonly used ones are described in this section, but the range of possibilities is wide.

10.4.1 Interpersonal communication

Face-to-face communication – formally and informally, through field workers, community mobilisers, extension workers, local meetings and workshops – is generally reckoned to be one of the most effective approaches to communication, in terms of knowledge sharing, learning and dialogue. Community mobilisers and educators are important channels of communication: some may be project workers; others are community leaders and local volunteers. Participatory vulnerability analysis and community action planning events develop common understanding and encourage interest and action at the grass roots.

Exchange visits are an excellent way of allowing people to learn from their peers about new or alternative practices and technologies. They have been used in many contexts, notably in agriculture and food security, where farmer-to-farmer exchanges have encouraged the transmission of knowledge about such matters as seed varieties, land use practices, irrigation technologies and crop storage. Agencies often facilitate these processes, for instance by making arrangements and providing transport, but the discussion and information-sharing take place between community members.+For exchange visits and how to organise them, see Capitalising on Local Knowledge: Community Knowledge Exchange (two online toolkits by the World Bank Africa Region Indigenous Knowledge for Development Programme: and

Games can engage and motivate people, especially young people, to think about risk reduction: they are increasingly being used in participatory project planning, for example using scenario exercises. The UNISDR has developed Stop Disasters, an open-access online simulation game which sets challenges of decision-making and priority-setting in defending against a range of hazards. With UNICEF, UNISDR has also developed a disaster board game for children, Riskland, which has been translated into several languages.+See;

Projects should be aware of how information is normally shared within and between communities, and who may be left out of the process. A great deal of information exchange takes place informally, for example within families, at village meetings, while collecting water at the well or at markets. It is oral, not written. It reaches people who are often not reached by newspapers, radio or government extension workers. These communication mechanisms cannot be managed or directed from outside, but by knowing how informal communication takes place it is possible to feed information into social networks through key stakeholders or communicators. Project workers should be imaginative here. For example, in the early 1990s an NGO in Peru seeking to promote alternative technologies for earthquake-resistant housing focused on local taxi drivers after it discovered that they played an important role in spreading information when talking to their passengers.+A. Maskrey and J. Vicuna, ‘Taxi Drivers – Communicators on Wheels’, Appropriate Technology, 19(2), 1992, pp: 30–31. In the field, informal and casual conversations between project staff and local people – in cafes and markets, on the street, at public events and roadsides – are often mutually productive and far less likely to be dominated by local leaders and elites. However, it is often difficult to document and assess the impact of informal communications channels.

10.4.2 Printed, visual and audio-visual media

The production and distribution of printed public information materials (e.g. leaflets, magazines and newsletters, posters, factsheets, fliers, brochures, information cards, bookmarks) is still one of the main communications methods used because it is relatively cheap and easy to manage, and in theory reaches large numbers of people. However, the impact of many activities of this kind can be seriously weakened because of inappropriate presentation. If presented in a clear, understandable format, hazard and risk maps can be a good way of explaining threats to communities and stimulating action, but careful thought should be given to how people interpret and understand maps (see Box 10.4: Maps as a communications tool).

Box 10.4 Maps as a communications tool

Community mapping is widely used in participatory, community-based DRR projects, particularly to identify hazard threats, vulnerable people and property, and to plan interventions (see chapters 3 and 7). Maps are also widely used by disaster management organisations as a communications tool to warn communities about hazards and risks, identify dangerous locations and mark evacuation routes and safe places such as shelters.

Formal maps use a variety of visual conventions to identify features of the landscape and built environment. These are not necessarily obvious or intuitive, and in many cases must be learnt. Where community members do not have this prior learning (which is often related their level of formal education), maps will not be understood, they will cause confusion and may even mislead. There are many examples of such ineffective applications of maps in emergency planning and DRR projects. There is some evidence that aerial photographs are easier to understand, even by people who have not used them before.

K. Haynes et al., ‘Volcanic Hazard Communication Using Maps: An Evaluation of Their Effectiveness’, Bulletin of Volcanology, 70 (2), 2007; C. Zarcadoolas et al., ‘GIS Maps To Communicate Emergency Preparedness: How Usable Are They for Inner City Residents?’, Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, 4 (3), 2007.

Print and broadcast media (e.g. newspapers, television) can be used to promote safety messages and share information about new initiatives. These reach large audiences and can be cost-effective if used well and targeted carefully. Mass media communication is most likely to be successful if linked to other actions on the ground and if audiences can get involved (e.g. through community radio stations, audience feedback or competitions). Disaster professionals sometimes make use of the broadcast entertainment media to provide what is called entertainment education – that is, embedding educational messages in entertainment programmes, such as TV and radio soap operas (see Case Study 10.2: Uses of radio in DRR).

Case Study 10.2 Uses of radio in DRR

Radio can be an effective tool in DRR, particularly if broadcasts are professionally produced. Programmes are relatively cheap to make, and radio sets are affordable, portable and widely used. This case study contains examples of two different approaches to radio in DRR.

Public information broadcasting
In 2001, a radio project was launched in Central America to highlight risks from hurricanes and disseminate advice about hurricane preparedness. The initiative was funded by several regional and international agencies. The broadcasts took the form of short dramas (radionovelas), each consisting of five half-hour instalments, with the series title of Tiempos de huracanas (‘Hurricane Season’). Programmes were broadcast in the morning and reached mostly women managing their households and younger people. The Costa Rican NGO Voces Nuestras (Our Voices) coordinated the project.

In the first year of broadcasting, 2002, 46 radio stations took part; in the second year there were 86, from six Central American countries. The broadcasts were supplemented by a broader awareness-raising campaign, which included community workshops. Audience feedback and evaluations indicated that listeners related the stories to their own daily lives, valued the guidance given and generally understood the key messages. There was also evidence of people mapping risk zones in their localities for the first time as a result of the programme.

Participatory radio
To test the effectiveness of participatory radio, Farm Radio International and World University Service of Canada set up the African Farm Radio Research Initiative (AFRRI) in partnership with 25 radio stations in Ghana, Malawi, Mali, Tanzania and Uganda. The project partners created a series of radio programmes to help farmers improve their agricultural practices, using a participatory model that allowed farmers to contribute at every stage.

Each radio station established an Active Learning Community (ALC) of local farmers, who were surveyed about their needs and agricultural practices, as well as their radio listening habits. The ALCs then took part in designing radio programmes that focused on specific practices to improve food security and livelihoods. The three-and-a-half year initiative reached 40m farmers. Evaluation showed that farmers had learnt a great deal from the broadcasts, and that a significant proportion of them had adopted agricultural improvements and were continuing to practice them.

World Disasters Report 2005: Focus on Information in Disasters (Geneva: IFRC, 2005), p. 152; Tiempos de huracanas,; K. Perkins, D. Ward and M. Leclair, Participatory Radio Campaigns and Food Security: How Radio Can Help Farmers Make Informed Decisions (Ottowa: Farm Radio International, 2011),

Visual communication transcends language, and in the digital age images can be transmitted widely. It is often assumed that images are easy to understand and will be widely understood, but this is not necessarily the case, and in many cases images can be misleading. It takes time and skill to create images that are appropriate and clear in their messages (see Box 10.5: Presenting and interpreting images).

Box 10.5 Presenting and interpreting images

Pictures have a powerful impact. People are moved by visual messages more than verbal or written ones, and tend to remember them better. This is obviously likely to be the case in societies with low literacy levels, but it is also true in well-educated communities. However, it is easy to go wrong in producing material based on visual images. Do not assume that images speak for themselves: they must be interpreted. The way in which they are interpreted is strongly conditioned by local cultures and visual traditions. A diagram that is easily understood by a community in one place may not make any sense to another group of people somewhere else (see Figure 10.2: Interpreting images). Trainers and field workers can use images effectively in their work, but they must take time to explain them and answer questions. Their skills as communicators will determine how effective the images will be.

E. Dudley and A. Haaland, Communicating Building for Safety: Guidelines for Methods of Communicating Technical Information to Local Builders and Householders (London: IT Publications, 1993).


Figure 10.2 Interpreting images

ODI 2015

Interpreting images

E. Dudley and A. Haaland, Communicating Building For Safety: Guidelines for Methods of Communicating Technical Information to Local Builders and Householders (London: IT Publications, 1993), p. 43.

Video is an effective and increasingly accessible method of conveying information. Modern digital technologies have reduced the cost and difficulty of making videos, and the internet has greatly increased their potential reach. Although videos can now be made quite cheaply and easily, a high level of technical and editorial skill is needed to make good ones. Video can supplement community exchange programmes by allowing communities to see what is actually happening elsewhere. Participatory video (like participatory mapping and photography) can also be a means of giving poor and vulnerable people a voice. It allows them to tell their own stories and present their own concerns, and to share these with other communities or disaster professionals through public events such as film screenings and workshops.

Many agencies working on DRR post videos on video networking sites, including YouTube: these include case studies, technical guidance and more general ideas, and are becoming an effective means of communication. By the end of 2009 the IFRC’s YouTube channel had received 75,000 visits, 750,000 videos had been viewed and the most-viewed video had been seen 130,000 times; some of the most popular videos were on building hazard-resistant houses.+IFRC, Public Awareness and Public Education for Disaster Risk Reduction: A Guide (Geneva: IFRC, 2011),, pp. 51–52. Video is often favoured by decision-makers as a quick and convenient way of obtaining information. Scientists monitoring Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines before its eruption in 1991 used a video with footage of other similar eruptions to brief government officials (from the President down to local staff), students, teachers, religious leaders and communities about what was likely to happen. It proved highly effective in overcoming scepticism and persuading people to prepare for the impending event.+R. S. Punongbayan et al., ‘Eruption Hazard Assessments and Warnings’, in C. G. Newhall and R. S. Punongbayan (eds), Fire and Mud: Eruptions and Lahars of Mount Pinatubo, Philippines (Quezon City/Seattle, WA: PHIVOLCS/University of Washington Press),

ICTs, which play an important part in DRR (see Chapter 8), are now extensively used worldwide to raise public awareness of hazard risk and support household and community action, especially in preparedness and response. A growing number of websites provide long-range forecasts, warnings or real-time hazard information; examples include Tropical Storm Risk, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) and the UK Environment Agency’s flood warnings site.+See;; There is evidence that such sites receive large numbers of visits when there is a perceived hazard threat.

10.4.3 Public events and activities

Other approaches are based on public events and performances. Folk media such as plays, songs, story-telling, dance and festivals are widely used. These methods are based on indigenous communications practices and traditions, use local languages and are often interactive occasions allowing people to share their own views and experiences. Art and photography competitions on relevant themes are also popular, especially for young people.

Public exhibitions are another often-used way of highlighting risks, advocating protective measures and promoting new initiatives. For example, projects introducing alternative ways of building to withstand hazards may erect demonstration houses, to raise awareness and provide an informal forum for discussion with community members. Model houses are sometimes put on shaking tables in public displays to show how they stand up to earth tremors. Similar approaches are often used in food security work: for example, demonstration plots showing the benefits of alternative crops, irrigation methods or other agricultural techniques. Emergency services open days make communities familiar with emergency management systems and personnel, and are an opportunity to introduce risk and safety issues. Simple, inexpensive visual devices in public places give permanent reminders of hazards and disasters: warning signs can be put up or painted onto walls; flood levels can be marked on bridges, telegraph posts or buildings.

The anniversaries of major disasters are commonly marked through public ceremonies and publicity in the media, as a way of reminding people of the hazards in their environment and the damage they can cause. Anniversaries can be potent reminders, as well as having psychological value as rituals of grieving and healing. Some organisations hold annual events to highlight disaster issues. UNISDR has designated the second Wednesday in October as the international day for natural disaster reduction. Agencies in many countries plan events for this day, which gives them an opportunity to work together to spread public messages. Other countries may have their own special days annually; Fiji has a national disaster awareness week.

Public campaigns can be highly effective, especially if they focus on a specific issue or problem and a clear solution is identified, such as building new flood defences, clearing rubbish blocking drains, wearing seat belts in cars or introducing new safety regulations. Successful campaigns also benefit from a sustained and consistent set of messages repeated over a long period of time.

10.4.4 Social media

Social media is the term used to describe a wide range of online tools that allow people to network and communicate independently. These include email, listservs, social networks, file sharing (documents, photographs, video), wikis (collective authoring), blogs and text/SMS messaging. Social media are widely used by people affected by emergencies to share information about what is happening; identify sources of support, equipment and resources; seek technical, material and financial assistance; hold assistance organisations to account for their actions (or inaction); and stimulate public debate about what is happening and what could and should be done. In this way, they give a public voice to people who might not otherwise be heard. This use of social media is an extension of the spontaneous self-help efforts that characterise disasters: people in affected communities are always the first responders, before external assistance arrives. Electronic information networking is also a form of social capital, drawing on existing social connections and creating new ones.

Disaster responders can benefit from social media, particularly crowdsourcing of information on disasters’ impact, and about areas and people in need. Free, open-source software is now available for data collection, visualisation and interactive mapping (see Section 10.5). Emergency management systems have adopted social media techniques: crisis information websites are becoming increasingly common, for instance, and in many places it is possible to subscribe free of charge to SMS emergency messaging services. New York’s text notification system, Notify NYC33, has over 140,000 subscribers, who receive alerts about emergencies, public health issues, major events and school closures.+L. Elstow, Beyond Z-Cards and Grab Bags: Community Resilience in Urban Communities, Report for the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, 2013,, p. 28.

Case Study 10.3 Use of social media in floods

During the 2011 floods in Queensland and Victoria in Australia, social media played a significant role in providing flood-related information. The Queensland Police Service facebook page became a key source, but several facebook community pages were also created to post real-time information on what was happening in different localities. Subsequent research showed that the users of the facebook pages sought principally to obtain information relating to their communities, of their families and friends. This knowledge was then shared within family and friendship groups. Information received in this way was generally regarded as accurate, trustworthy and timely. The pages also played an important role in rapidly refuting rumours.

D. Bird, M. Ling and K. Haynes, ‘Flooding Facebook: The Use of Social Media During the Queensland and Victorian Floods’, Australian Journal of Emergency Management, 27 (1), 2012,, pp. 27–33.