Emergencies don’t discriminate. As communicators, neither should we

By Jen Juice

by Jen Juice

September, 2021

I watched with exasperation as those communications, particularly at the start of this outbreak, missed their marks and resulted in confusion, misunderstanding, division, fear and, ultimately, anger.  I have felt a breakdown in social cohesion in my local area from this, which has affected how well we can get through this together as a community.  

“Mistrust of the benefits of Western medicine and treatments is real, especially where health professionals have not built a positive relationship with our communities. As a community we rely heavily on traditional medicines and may not seek Western medical treatment. Our traditional ways have been seen as outdated and irrelevant, rather than as part of the solution. Our connection to church-based faiths and activities that underpin much of our social interactions and sense of community are not effectively engaged with.” – Sydney Morning Herald

As someone living in one of the early-identified areas of concern, and an area with incredible cultural diversity, me and my community were being targeted with desperate flurries of messaging from the NSW Government via our social media feeds.  

“…what was needed was a measured response in line with consultation with local community leaders to ensure that government-led measures were adapted and adopted, not rejected by the locals.” – ABC news online

The Covid messaging was (and still is!) even confusing to me. I have had to do a lot of extra online research and spend time on the phone to try to understand some of the questions that were affecting me and my family during this time – questions that I am sure are not all that unusual for any family, regardless of their background: 

‘Where can I go? Can I meet a friend for a walk along my LGA border?’ 

‘Can my husband go to work? Or pick up work items?’  

‘How can he access a business grant to help pay his business rent while he can’t work?’ 

‘How do I get a vaccination as quickly as possible?’  

‘How do I reschedule a vaccination because I have to wait for test results?’ 

‘After being a casual contact, do I have to isolate now?

Do all my family need to be tested and isolate too?

What about my kids’ father, who they live with half the time? And his other child? And his other child’s mother?’ 

‘What will happen to my daughter doing the HSC?  How do we register her for a vaccination? Will they do HSC trial exams?’ And then, as time went on, ‘Will they do HSC proper exams?’ 


For some of those questions, only now, almost three months into this current lockdown, I have started to be able to answer with confidence after a lot of personal effort.

I am a person with English as my first (and only) language, and who works in the areas of community resilience and communications, so have a good understanding of the issues. If I have been confused, frustrated and lost throughout these past three months, I cannot even imagine how difficult it has been for culturally and linguistically diverse families to find the answers I sought for my own family.

“On July 10, Cumberland Councillor Kun Huang facilitated an online Q&A session for the local Chinese community. He said he answered more than 100 questions from the 643 participants. “If there was no confusion with the government’s message, why did so many people come to the session?” he asked. – ABC News online

This has been a lesson in just how important it is for Government to know their communities –  to have community relationships, to help communities prepare for emergencies, to have established networks from the community up, to understand how to communicate about emergencies with culturally and linguistically diverse communities, and how to ensure information is effectively distributed both in safe times and times of high risk.

“For years we were working with countering violent extremism. And some genius in Canberra comes in and says ‘arm yourself’. How am I going to translate this in Arabic? Arm yourself, that means get a gun.”–  ABC news online

This is not fresh thinking however. The Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience, Guidelines for Emergency Management in CALD Communities (the Guidelines) which was published in 2007 states that Australia’s CALD communities may be a particularly vulnerable part of Australian society in the context of emergencies. People may not be as resilient in an emergency if their English is not proficient and they cannot access information, or they may be susceptible to particular hazards or risks as new arrivals in an unfamiliar environment.

Additionally, cultural or linguistic differences may distort the meaning of messages. The Guidelines recommend that improved engagement with CALD communities leads to increased risk awareness and resilience. It also leads to inclusiveness, mutual respect, understanding and acceptance.

“…one of the challenges facing the government is their own conceptualisation of migrant communities, which has led them to many assumptions.”

“We’re dealing with a complex virus. But the complexity of the audience you’re working with hasn’t really been acknowledged.”  – The Guardian

The Guidelines also recognise and this was reiterated by community research that Cred Consulting recently undertook for the City of Canterbury Bankstown Council, that some CALD communities already demonstrate great resilience, as they often possess a range of experiences in dealing with emergencies from their home countries. This experience should be harnessed and considered when developing emergency prevention, preparedness, response and recovery communications.

Emergency preparedness is a priority for residents of Metropolitan Sydney, as highlighted through the engagement undertaken to support the development of the Resilient Sydney Strategy 2018, revealing a serious concern over a lack of community preparedness for emergencies and highlighting opportunities for increased local connection, communication and collaboration to becoming more prepared. Resilient Sydney has partnered with the Red Cross during Emergency Ready Week and is promoting communities to better prepare for emergencies by using the Get Prepared App.

Emergency Ready Week

All of this only makes the research that we undertook with Willoughby Council more poignant, and Emergency Ready Week seemed like the time to share this piece of work.

The Willoughby Local Government Area is home to a highly culturally diverse community, including 45% born overseas (compared with 36.7% in Greater Sydney), and 40% speaking a language other than English at home (compared with 35.8% in Greater Sydney). Events over the 2019/20 NSW summer, as well as COVID-19, highlighted the lack of awareness amongst the general community in Willoughby about how best to prepare for and respond to emergencies such as extreme heat, storms, power outages and disease outbreaks.

In 2020, Cred Consulting with our friends at Multicultural Marketing Management (MMM) were engaged to undertake a community-informed review of a number of existing emergency communications materials prepared by various Government and non-Government agencies, charity groups and other Councils to identify their strengths and weaknesses in being effective to help local Willoughby CALD community members become more informed about and prepared for emergencies.

In the first phase of this project, we tested 23 individual communication materials with local CALD community members (including in three in-language focus groups, two bi-lingual speakers focus groups and 1 native English speakers focus group), and with independent cultural assessors (representing five language groups), interviewed nine stakeholders with experience in communicating about emergencies with CALD community members to learn from their experiences, undertook a desktop study of other Local Government examples of communication about emergency preparedness with CALD communities, and held a workshop with Council staff and local service providers who work with community to understand the Willoughby CALD community better and identify personas which could help council to develop and distribute appropriate communications materials in the future.

Bi-lingual speakers focus group. Photo credit: Matthew Duchesne, Fancy Boy Photography.

What we learned

The lessons we learned from speaking with the local CALD community in the Willoughby Council area, stakeholders with experience in communicating about emergencies with CALD community members and from other Local Government examples includes:


  • Provide local and targeted emergency preparedness information that takes into account the unique vulnerability and risk profile of the area
  • Provide specific, step-by-step procedures that convey a sense of urgency and encourage action
  • Include emergency contact details for local and relevant services including phone and web
  • Use repetitive and consistent messaging to make it easier to remember, in particular for older people and people with less English


  • App based and video emergency preparedness materials were preferred, however it was acknowledged that these methods may not be accessible for everyone.
  • Traditional communications methods (e.g. fridge magnets or simple printed checklists) need to be considered when it comes to vulnerable and/or older members of CALD communities.
  • When delivering content online, optimise website search engine terms with key terms in different community languages to make it easier to find.


  • It is important to understand who you are developing materials for – this means building an understanding of the community’s unique vulnerability and risk profile. This could be through social and demographic research and in collaboration with Council staff and service providers.
  • There may be a need to raise awareness about local hazards and emergency services particularly for newly arrived people.

Language and translation 

  • Where possible, provide translated versions of materials in community languages and bi-lingual materials
  • Avoid colloquial phrases and use plain English to ensure materials are easy to understand for people who are not fluent
  • Ensure translations are double-checked as they may contain incorrect phrases – words for common Australian emergencies (such as bushfire) may not translate well into other languages
  • Consider that people with low literacy in both English and native language may not benefit from translated materials and consider ways to target these people
  • Explore opportunities for community partnerships to ‘crowd-source’ community translations as potentially a more affordable, more timely and more relevant (in terms of local dialects etc) option
  • When developing audio/video materials, slow down so everyone can follow and consider closed captions.

Co-design approach 

  • Expert stakeholders recommended that emergency hazards communications for CALD communities is most effective if it is co-designed and co-delivered with the community and service providers already connected to communities.
  • Time and resourcing needs to be allocated to work with communities and service providers to develop and deliver materials and messaging.


  • Delivering targeted outreach through existing community leaders, influencers, events and networks
  • Supplementing any materials with face-to-face sessions to support community access including for seniors and vulnerable community members
  • Develop partnerships with local service providers to deliver emergency preparedness messaging.

On the left the first all-hazards flyer Cred designed based on the principles learned in phase one of the project. This was tested with the local CALD community. On the right the revised and final all-hazards flyer amended to reflect community feedback.

All-hazard preparedness poster designs in simplified Chinese and Korean.

How we used this knowledge

The lessons we learned from phase one led us to designing two new suites of Willoughby-specific communication materials, one around preparing for all-hazards, and one that was specifically about preparing for extreme heat. We translated these draft materials into 4 languages and then then tested whether the effectiveness of communicating the issues, creating a sense of urgency and how to prepare resonated and to see whether an all-hazards approach or a hazard specific approach was preferred, with local CALD community members (including 4 in-language focus groups and 2 bi-lingual speakers focus groups).

Changes made to the materials suggested by the community focused mostly on the graphic style, as well as further rationalising and clarifying the written text.

Being 'Emergency Ready' is for everybody 

The lessons from this project have led Council to commit to further support local CALD communities in becoming better prepared for emergencies by updating the Resilient Willoughby web page on Council website, developing a new cartoon animation with subtitles promoting the Red Cross ‘Get Prepared‘ app. These additional opportunities directly respond to the advice provided by the local CALD community, and will help to ensure, that for the Willoughby Council area community at least, being Emergency Ready is for everybody.

If you work with culturally and linguistically diverse communities, please use the lessons we have learned through the “Connecting the disaster dots” project to better communicate how to be more prepared for emergencies.

Jen Guice is an Associate Director at Cred Consulting.

Willoughby City Council Connecting the disaster dots - video animation resulting from this project