State of the Art: Elite training for emergency risk communication specialists

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State of the Art: Elite training for emergency risk communication specialists

What can we learn from the World Health Organization’s Emergency Communication Network?

By Ben Duncan, Melinda Frost and John Rainford

“I barely managed to press the buttons on the radio let alone remember the call signs. We had just been robbed at gun point at a rebel check point and urgently needed help. Back in the classroom they had told us fear impairs cognitive ability: you become clumsy and stupid. Guess what? They were dead right.

It’s four o’clock in the afternoon in the fictional country of Zambre. Our multi-national multi-skilled team of communicators are sleep deprived, stressed and running on adrenaline. The road block incident has shaken us. The guns might have been plastic, but the situation being rehearsed was deadly serious. There are hugs, tears and stories from the field as we celebrate our survival.

“Does anyone feel like giving a press conference?” asks the facilitator. We all laugh together, no – nobody is in the mood for a press conference. “That’s too bad, because one of you has to update the media in 10 minutes on the health response to the earthquake”.  Our social media expert, steps up to the challenge. The team works together to perfect our speaking points and prep our new spokesman. The appointed time comes and he absolutely nails it. We are all elated.”  

— Participant, World Health Organization’s Emergency Communication Network (ECN) training course, 2016.


With rare exception, the effective communication of risk in the form of warning, guidance, engagement and listening is understood to be the difference between success and failure in response to a health emergency.

As more and more organizational leaders understand this reality, efforts turn to the question: how do we get better at this? The answer, either from an emergency preparedness expert or a high school basketball coach, is always the same: you practice.

But usually tacked on at the last minute to an emergency exercise, the risk communication challenge of these sessions is often laughably naïve:

Exercise controller: “OK, we have a smallpox outbreak, a dirty bomb explosion, and a category five hurricane on its way…you have two media calls.”

Part of this detachment from reality is practical. Exercise designers often don’t have either the experience or resources to simulate the real risk communication challenges of a complex emergency. But part of it to is an antiquated emergency preparedness culture that says: let’s manage the emergency first, then we can talk about it. Of course, as has been painfully illustrated in recent emergencies such as Ebola, this ignores the truth of the matter. You don’t communicate about the response: communication is the response.   

This has long been a lament of the emergency risk communication community, but as we’ve noted in other articles, complaining only gets you so far. Indeed, there’s another approach for the emergency risk communicator wanting a better training and exercise experience which gets closer to really understanding the challenge: do it yourself. 

The World Health Organisation’s Emergency Communication Network (ECN) Pre-Deployment Training Course is ten days of combined classroom setting training and full scale exercise. It is deliberately both intensive and intense, attempting to mirror the physical and mental exhaustion experienced in real life emergencies. This atmosphere not only provides participants an idea of the demands they are likely to face on deployment to an emergency response, but also provides evaluators an idea of how participants are likely to fare under difficult circumstances.

The classroom curriculum flows directly from the unique WHO ECN deployment program requirements. For example, ensuring participants understand what it means to be a representative of the WHO on the ground. But it also strives to be as honest and direct about the complex reality on the ground – discussing how things should work, and exploring how thinks are likely to not work.

The first six days together, from 8:00 am to 10:00 pm gradually break down the barriers in the group – sometimes cultural, sometimes linguistic – establishing the necessary cohesion in advance of the full scale exercise. For the next three days, participants are lodged in barracks and the scenario runs 24 hours a day. By the end, you can see fatigue etched on participants’ faces, just like in a real crisis.

  • The ECN model flows directly from the unique requirements of the WHO and its growing direct role in health emergency response. Other national and international organisations will have a different set of requirements. Not all aspects of the ECN training will be relevant to them, and conversely it may have important gaps in relation to their needs. Nonetheless, we propose that there are some generic best practice lessons all organisations can learn from ECN. In particular, the ECN training is:
  • Comprehensive. Participants study, and are tested on, the full range of communication techniques they will need in the field.
  • Intensive. The course and exercise enable participants to experience the pressure of a real emergency.
  • Facilitated by leading ERC practitioners
  • Informed by research but focused on practice
  • Thoroughly evaluated by participants
  • Consciously fosters peer to peer learning and networking
  • Links to a career pathway.

This last point is of key importance. It is not enough just to train a cadre of emergency risk communicators: you also need to use them in real life emergencies. Since its inception in 2013, the ECN’s deployment rate is 64% (108 deployments out of 168 members).  The WHO’s ECN operates on this principal and should be applauded for it. Nonetheless, ensuring risk communicators are deployed from the outset in emergencies is an ongoing challenge, even for the WHO. Both at national and international level, the battle against antiquated notions of emergency response: “do the response then talk about it”, is far from won.