Communication Currents

Using Institutions of Faith to Communicate about Crises and Emergencies

December 1, 2011
Crisis Communication

Recent accidents and disasters like Hurricane Katrina and earthquakes in Japan and Haiti have brought home graphic images of destruction, death, and human suffering. These events have also shown us the importance of communicating with those affected both before, during, and after events of these types. When state and local government, first responders, and emergency managers use effective communication strategies, they can help people prepare for disasters before they strike, and assist with aid and recovery efforts during their aftermath. Not surprisingly, when accidents and disasters take place people are compelled to seek out information, and will likely do so from a variety of sources. We can expect individuals in different circumstances to have different needs and seek out different types of information, depending on their particular concerns.

While crisis communication scholars have historically recommended the use of mass media under these circumstances, recent research suggests alternate means of reaching those at risk. For example, some research has suggested that the urban poor may be distrustful of disaster information when it comes from the news media, since disenfranchisement may breed contempt for authority.  Further, some crises and disasters will “knock out” electronic media, such as television, radio, and the internet, due to a loss of power and other infrastructure problems. For these reasons, crisis communication researchers are exploring other “grass roots” communication strategies.

Recently, they have turned their attention to the role of religious institutions in managing crises and disasters. People often look to their houses of worship and appeal to a higher power when facing circumstances that seem uncontrollable, dire, or utterly terrifying. Past research drawn from psychology and sociology tells us that religious practice can lead to community bonding under difficult circumstances, and can help reduce the feelings of helplessness and isolation so commonly associated with crises.

Religious organizations may be especially effective channels when disasters affect historically underserved communities. For example, a long tradition of research holds that religious institutions play a key role in the lives of recent immigrant groups. Members of these communities often gravitate toward religious institutions and leaders for guidance in adapting to their new home, and religious leaders in these communities are often very influential. 

Whether or not someone is a recent arrival, research evidence also indicates that members of minority communities and those in lower income brackets may also rely heavily upon religious organizations during times of crisis. Research conducted among Katrina survivors indicated that they placed a great deal of trust and credibility upon religious leaders. There is also past research evidence to suggest that those in lower income brackets are more likely to use prayer to cope with hardship or loss.  The African American community also relies more heavily than other groups on religious services, demonstrates higher percentages of church attendance, and relies more on religious institutions to define the norms of their communities. 

Since religion is such a vital part of the African American community, recent immigrant communities, and among the disadvantaged, it makes sense that religious institutions could be used to communicate critical information to members of these communities in the event of a crisis or emergency. The need for partnering with religious organizations in emergency management is further magnified by the fact that members of these communities are often the most at risk; research in disaster sociology tells us that they will experience greater hardship from disasters and emergencies. This research also tells us that members of these underserved communities have fewer economic resources, are more likely to live in disaster prone locations, less likely to have the means necessary to evacuate in the time leading up to a major disaster, less likely to receive informational materials, and less likely to have emergency supplies in place. 

Given the very specific challenges faced by these communities and their reliance on religious institutions in everyday life, there seems to be a natural connection that emergency managers can use to communicate essential information to these communities. Partnerships between emergency management agencies and local religious organizations may also help foster a greater sense of trust between these communities and government relief entities. Improving these relationships and relying on local religious organizations would help emergency workers focus on restoration and coping, while helping the community as a whole recover from otherwise devastating circumstances. For example, emergency managers may wish to consider partnering with these community organizations in the production of information campaigns, projects for aid distribution, and preparations for evacuation efforts. 

About the author (s)

Ken Lachlan

University of Massachusetts Boston