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Communicating Clearly, Quickly is Key in Risk Mitigation during Radiological and Nuclear Emergencies: IAEA Symposium

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Keynote speaker Khammar Mrabit (Morocco) together with other speakers during the CNREP 2018 Panel C: Practicing Emergency Communication in Exercises: Experiences and Challenges at the Agency's headquarters in Vienna, Austria, 3 October 2018. (Photo: M. Otarra/IAEA)

Communicating effectively with the public in nuclear and radiological emergencies is of vital importance to prevent radiological and other health hazards. Close to 400 experts in the field discussed ways to do this best during the IAEA International Symposium on Communicating Nuclear and Radiological Emergencies to the Public held in Vienna last week.

"Communication is a challenge that we all face together," said Juan Carlos Lentijo, IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Safety and Security. "The goal for us all is to communicate effectively with the public, so that they understand what is happening, do not panic and follow instructions issued by authorities."

The symposium, the first of its kind, brought together a broad range of communicators and emergency preparedness and response practitioners from 74 countries, 13 international organizations, the media, non-governmental organizations and academia. Notably, female experts comprised the majority (53%) of the participants.

The symposium's sessions covered topics in Emergency Preparedness and Response (EPR), stakeholder engagement, public communication channels and tools in emergencies, social media, effective communication, psychology of communication, coordination of information, communicating in different types of emergencies, responses to the question "Am I safe?", and lessons learned and the future of communication.

Producing the right message and disseminating it to the appropriate audience using the relevant channels at the right time help to support the effective implementation of protective actions and to minimize fear. This requires robust advance planning and preparedness, participants noted. They also agreed that technical experts are viewed as the most reliable source of information when such events occur, and that communicators must learn to balance the need for speed with accuracy.

"If there are information vacuums, they will be filled by misinformation and disinformation," said Peter Rickwood, journalist and founder of Atomic Reporters, during a panel discussion with representatives from the media.

Communication in the age of social media was a constant topic throughout the symposium. "Social media has become the principal tool of 'citizen journalism'," said Natalia Martínez, a Communication Adviser for the Nuclear Safety Council in Spain, in the session titled Social Media in an Emergency: Opportunity or Obstacle? Participants encouraged communicators to look for accounts that help spread the message —in particular Twitter— and to develop a social media strategy to monitor the public’s concerns, better anticipate new developments and more ably manage communications should an emergency occur. "We have to 'listen' before we 'talk' and social media help us to know what people are thinking and what their fears are during an emergency," Martínez said.

The finalists of the Young Innovative Communicators Competition 2018 at the Agency's headquarters in Vienna, Austria, 4 October 2018. (Photo: M. Otarra/IAEA)

Looking to encourage the inclusion of youth into the global discussion on public communication, the IAEA invited the five finalists of the Young Innovative Communicators Competition that it organized. During the symposium, the young finalists presented their innovative methods and technologies to effectively communicate nuclear and radiological emergencies to the public. Muhammad Hassamuddin, from Pakistan, won the competition with his idea for to promote illiterate peoples’ nuclear and radiological emergency awareness.

During the closing session, Symposium President Jason Cameron, Vice-President of Regulatory Affairs and Chief Communications Officer of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, summed up the five-day event in President’s recommendations, which covered implementation of relevant IAEA's Safety Standards, training materials and tools; utilization of innovative technologies, and ways to address public concerns in an emergency.

He encouraged the IAEA and national authorities to prioritize communications in EPR events and other relevant activities. "It is important to implement these recommendations and share progress at future international events on emergency preparedness and response," Cameron said.

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