PERIODS of crises can lead to intense chaos and communication meltdowns, especially when strategies to disseminate crucial information are not in place. This was evident when Covid-19 swept over the nation last year, and higher education institutions (HEIs) were caught up in the communication chaos that ensued.To avoid a recurrence, a local university has come up with a course called the Risk and Crisis Communication Module, which serves to better prepare and organise HEIs in the face of crises and emergencies.
The module and its guidelines, according to Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) School of Business and Economics professor Prof Dr Azmawani Abd Rahman, can also be adopted and applied by corporations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
To understand the outcome and objectives of the module better, StarEdu caught up with Prof Azmawani, who led the project.Being involved in the management of UPM’s Covid-19 response and a part of the varsity’s Emergency Response Team, she learned a valuable lesson about the management of communication during crisis and emergency situations.
Communication during such a period, she said, is a challenging task due to the “asymmetric knowledge, lack of accurate and timely information, and increasing uncertainty in many aspects”.
Failure to establish effective risk communication, she explained, can deter team coordination and exacerbate a crisis, which can threaten the safety and health of people within an institution and the surrounding community.
This experience pushed her and her team to come up with the module.
“If communication during an emergency is handled improperly, an issue can escalate into a crisis, which can be detrimental to an institution in terms of its reputation, image, operations and performance.
“During the first three months of the pandemic, I noticed there was much confusion, and slow and redundant interaction with higher-level authorities.
“Sometimes, communication management is also ineffective due to inexperience and loose governance, which can endanger the safety and health of varsity communities and the public at large.
“HEIs and other organisations need a framework, especially due to the absence of standardised and uniform guidelines within and between sectors,” she said.
Through the Risk and Crisis Communication Module, Prof Azmawani hopes HEIs and organisations will learn from their Covid-19 experiences and not repeat the same mistakes.
During its launch on Sept 30, Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Dr Noraini Ahmad described the Risk and Crisis Communication Module for HEIs as timely, stating that Covid-19 has accelerated HEIs’ efforts to bring up questions on risk and crisis communication to ensure the sustainability of their respective institutions.
Since the implementation of the movement control order in March last year, Noraini said all HEIs had been instructed to suspend their administrative operations and academic activities.
“Undoubtedly, this challenge has put our HEIs in an uncertain environment, facing complicated situations amid volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity,” she added.
Not just HEIs, but most organisations were also in a similar situation and as such, Prof Azmawani said it is important to learn how to strengthen risk and crisis communication strategies.
She said the varsity, along with UPM Holdings Sdn Bhd, will hold training sessions for HEIs, organisations, community colleges, polytechnics and even individuals interested in the module.
Such training, she said, should be held every year for all organisations in the country to help people and corporations understand their roles during an emergency.
“There will be less confusion and chaos compared to the early days of Covid-19, communication will be smoother, and information will be more streamlined, especially in an era where networking platforms are filled with misinformation,” she said.
UPM collaborated with the Higher Education Ministry in creating the module.
The engagement session with the ministry began in March, while sessions with experts from various HEIs stretched from February to April.
The module provides best practices and important guidelines for the management of risk communication.
It aims to improve and streamline coordination processes within and between organisations, Prof Azmawani said, adding that it will help the country mitigate the negative effects of a crisis.
The module (see infobox) relies on two core premises – the two significant facets of why communication is important during disaster and emergency situations, as Prof Azmawani puts it.
The first is the risk-based perspective, which highlights how communities, institutions and establishments are prone to various types of risks in the face of a disaster.
The second is the communication barriers perspective, which highlights rising challenges for effective communication during disaster and emergency situations.
Both perspectives show how constraints are identified while offering best practices and suggestions for improvement.
The module can be utilised by administrators, and policy and decision makers responsible for managing emergency preparedness, response and risk communications, particularly regarding infectious diseases in public and private HEIs.
“Other groups expected to use this module are NGOs, main stakeholders of HEIs, and public and private institutions that need to understand risk communication within the context of HEIs or apply the concept of risk communication in their institutions,” she added.
The evolution of communications technology poses challenges for risk communication, Prof Azmawani believes, more so with the “increasingly powerful” influence of social media, and the sharing of fake news and misinformation.
The module, therefore, conceptualises a holistic view of communication management from the perspective of risk and crisis communication, she explained.
Evidence used in the module, she shared, is drawn from the Covid-19 experience.
“However, it is also applicable to other emergency and disaster situations, and the applicability of the guidelines, procedures and lessons offered can be extended beyond HEIs.
“Risk communication is critical for disseminating information and ensuring that a risk management decision is understood.
“This comprehension and information should enable stakeholders to make an informed judgement about the impact of a decision on their interests and values.
“HEIs, for example, face bigger challenges in managing risk communication not only because of a lack of experience, but also because of many other challenges that come with emergency and crisis situations,” she said.
Organisations must communicate the issues they face before the situation escalates into a larger crisis and poses greater risks, especially for those who are less informed or have a different understanding of the specific issues, Prof Azmawani said.
“This module will be beneficial as guidelines, or training and learning material for HEIs and other related institutions.
“While it cannot provide all the answers, it can assist in decision making that will lead to effective risk communication.”