Warning: extreme weather

Cheshire East Council is testing a new mix of dry salt brine in its gritters, while West Sussex has brought in a GPS snow monitoring system called 'Coldsnap' and a Facebook app has been launched for the five millionhouseholds that the Environment Agency says are at risk from flooding.

Are newspapers and broadcasters remotely interested in covering such stories? The answer has to be a resounding 'no'.
 
However, when temperatures fall below zero or the skies open for longer than usual, Britain's preoccupation with climactic matters means weather becomes front page news and authorities come in for a media pasting. From the wrong kind of snow to too little of the right kind of grit, inadequate warnings and overzealous alerts about severe conditions that don't materialise, local government can't seem to put a foot right when dealing with Britain's weather obsession and its communications departments are used to getting the blame.
 
Extreme weather is, after all, an expensive business, with this summer's floods having left councils in Newcastle and Devon with bills of £9 million and £5 million respectively and thousands of householders and their insurers facing their own bills. The November deluge could cost insurers up to £500 million, it has been claimed.
 
With public sector communicators having to cope not only with the inevitable technology outages on such occasions but also the operational fallout from austerity cuts, it's little wonder that they struggle with the need to communicate.
 
But do they? Are local authorities failing in this regard as regularly as the media would have readers and viewers believe? Or it is just that risks make much more exciting copy than risk management?
 
Be prepared
 
There's certainly evidence supporting the latter assertion. The 'winter watch' website of the Local Government Association (LGA) details the preparation for winter weather disruptions of councils up and down the country, while the organisation's 'flood risk portal' aims to do the same for flood risk management.
 
According to 'winter watch', British councils have 1.3 million tonnes of salt in stock - nearly twice the 700,000 tonnes used last winter. One-fifth of councils have more salt than last year, while 39 per cent have bought new gritters, 27 per cent new mini-gritters and 17 per cent other equipment, such as ploughs, tractors, snow-blowers and quad bikes.
 
The LGA claims 59 per cent of councils will be supplying salt and equipment to parish councils, community groups or snow wardens, and 35 per cent are working with local farmers and owners of four-wheel drive vehicles.
 
There may be a shade of touché here after the furore two winters ago when Heathrow Airport was closed and motorways were brought to a standstill but lessons certainly seem to have been learned in communicating through social media.
 
The LGA claims that 78 per cent of councils will be providing live updates to residents on weather, gritting activity and services this winter and nearly all of these will have a resource dedicated to this effort on their website. Some 76 per cent will be using a Twitter feed and 33 per cent will be offering information on their Facebook page.
 
Ben Knowles, senior media relations officer at LGA, says: 'Technology is one of the reasons councils have become much better at communicating with local residents.
 
'Council weather communications used to be about going on local radio or putting something in the local newspaper. But with the technology available nowadays, councils are able to give up-to-the-minute updates about forecast local temperatures and which roads have been gritted and it's enabling councils to be much more interactive too as residents can comment on the Twitter feeds.'
 
Identifying flood risks
 
Similarly, the Environment Agency has become much more proactive, according to chief media officer Jason Wakeford, mapping flood risks on its website and encouraging householders to sign up to early flood warning alerts.
 
Use is being made of well-known weather forecasters on Twitter, while a 'floodalerts' app has been posted on Facebook, with localised warnings about flood risks updated every 15 minutes. Wakeford believes the agency has received the appropriate credit for its efforts. More than 90 per cent of respondents to evaluation exercises carried out this year, following the floods in Cornwall in 2010 and in Cumbria in 2009, stated that it has played a positive and factual role.
 
'It's fairly well-documented that all crises have a finger-pointing element when it comes to communications,' he states. 'But if you look at the evaluation exercises we've done in relation to flooding incidents over the last couple of years, that has not really occurred with us.
 
'I think one of the reasons is the proactive work we have done in communicating the areas that are at risk of flooding and what people can do. As far as the public is concerned, floods happen. We work with local councils and in partnerships with the police and emergency groups and the coverage we have had has been very positive and factual.'
 
Another heavy user of social media is Warwickshire County Council, whose region suffered heavily in the summer floods of 2007 and to a lesser extent this summer. The local authority provides strategic risk assessment mapping on its website and is considering developing a smartphone app through which to communicate with residents in weather emergencies.
 
Communications manager Anne Goodey, who was herself forced to move out of her home for two years due to flooding, says: 'Flood communications are about getting information. Where is it safe to travel? Where's it best to avoid? What's open and what's shut? Then it's about the aftermath, clean-up, refurbishment and lessons learned.'
 
It's not complicated
 
She says the obvious tips on flood communications are still the best, such as ensuring that council websites contain current, easy and accessible information, using the right spokespeople to highlight 24/7 emergency response teams and focusing on lines of communications with partner groups such as the police and emergency services.
 
'It's all about social media in an emergency. Love it or loathe it there's no escape, so develop yours,' Goodey advises. 'Make sure you get operational messages out. If a bridge is down, let people know. Make sure your partners retweet your key message. The more it's out there, the better the chance of getting heard. And make sure you use radio. People tune in and it is a valuable tool to reassure.'
 
Further advice in the shape of an eight-point guideline framework for improving communications around flooding comes from Kerry Waylen and Andrew Cuthbert, academics at Scottish research centre, the James Hutton Institute, who co-authored a paper published last year on designing effective flood earning systems in Scotland.
 
They suggest that lines of communication between authorities and the public are set up to combine new technologies with a personalised touch, urge the use of multiple channels to reach a wide range of people, recommend that flood preparation advice is locally or personally tailored and encourage councils to repeat campaigns for added effectiveness.
 
They also want more information, both simple and complex, to be made available by councils about flooding risks, advise that the responsibilities of local authorities to the public should be made clearer and recommend trials of preparedness, warnings and response in communities at high flood risk.
 
Lastly, they urge councils to develop understandable statements on risk, as jargon may not be understood as intended, or may simply be off-putting.
 
Imagery drives message home
 
Pictures are one highly effective way of breaking through this problem. Goodey says they help operationally with people seeing the problem areas to avoid.
 
And Mike Bomford, senior media and public relations officer for Devon County Council, reports that film footage of a section of road literally disappearing during May's floods has been given extensive airtime on the BBC, alongside opportunities to promote the council's floods prevention programme.
 
Similarly with other extreme winter weather, Ross Wigham, services manager: communications for Northumberland County Council, says the mindset is now to think digital on every issue.
 
The council has 36,000 people signed into its social networks, which provide Twitter and Facebook alerts of bad weather and real-time information on issues from school or road closures to delays to bin collections.
 
Wigham says the system is so popular that it is now open all year round. 'Generally over the past few years the weather has been very bad here but we expect it to be,' he says. 'It happens every year and our job is to let people know what we're doing to help. We have 3,000 miles of roads in Northumberland. If you make mistakes, they'll get picked up but we have good relationships with the press.
 
Where we'll be looking at things again is that there's a real opportunity to go directly to our audience because of the growth of mobile device, tablets and smartphones. We can respond to information requests directly to the public in real time and they're going to expect that more and more.'
 
If that's indeed the shape of the future, the opprobrium of Britain's traditional media may not be such a problem for local and central government, whatever their performance on communicating Britain's weather.But they're likely to find the collective power of social media an even more formidable force to satisfy.