How does official crisis communication work? Students tried out the roles of journalist and social media commenter

Students of political science and communication participated in the Loviisa19 emergency exercise. They gained important insights into the openness of communications and accessible language.

News of a leak at the Loviisa nuclear power plant is first received at eight o’clock in the morning. Shock waves move through Twitter and Facebook, journalists start reporting, and authorities make comments.

“Well this isn’t very reassuring! It’s unbelievable that even STUK has no instructions! Who am I supposed to turn to here?” an exasperated stay-at-home dad posts.

STUK, the Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, has issued a warning of elevated radiation levels in the Loviisa region. Fortum, the energy company that runs the plant, announces that they are fixing the leak, but the discussion on social media has already gone off the deep end, as rumours travel fast.

“What are Fortum and the authorities hiding from us?” asks Kari, a self-proclaimed freedom-of-speech activist, adding the hashtags #Loviisa and #terrorism.

More pressure on communications

Luckily these are not real events, but the Loviisa19 emergency exercise in which the authorities test the rescue plan at the Eastern Uusimaa Emergency Services Department for the Loviisa nuclear power plant, as well as overall crisis communications.

The all-day operation included a group of 40 University of Helsinki students who wrote articles and posts about the situation, acting as journalists or social media commenters. The intention is to test crisis communication practices and official procedures under pressure.

The staff of STUK, Fortum as well as the fire and police departments from Eastern Uusimaa participated in the exercise in their regular professional capacities. All in all, the exercise involved about 50 organisations, including ministries, municipalities, regional governments, expert institutions and government agencies.

Crisis communications and employment skills

Rauna Nerelli, a student at the Open University, played the role of a journalist at Finland’s public broadcasting company YLE. She is writing her first article of the day on the situation.

“Crisis communications and leadership go hand in hand. Officials should be able to tell the public openly what they know about the situation and how the problem is being solved,” says Nerelli, while keeping an eye on what people are saying about the accident on Twitter.

The discussion is taking place on closed-off social media servers which the University has set up specifically for the exercise.

Salli Hakala, university lecturer in media and communication studies, studies crisis communications and has been through many emergency exercises. Along with her students, Hakala has been involved in similar exercises twice at the Loviisa nuclear plant and once at the Olkiluoto plant.

This time Hakala is taking part with the students in her course on practices in digital communications. The course participants spend the day working either in University of Helsinki lecture rooms or the media centre set up at STUK in Helsinki’s Roihupelto district.

Hakala has investigated communications both in these exercises and in actual emergencies. The purpose of the course is to increase the students’ understanding of the role of public services and the ways authorities operate. According to Hakala, in crisis situations, communication must be real-time, taking the emotional impact into consideration.

“Citizens are entitled to both information and protection from the authorities. This is another thing we test in the exercise.”

In addition to crisis communications, the course deals with companies’ social responsibility and practices in the world of work.

“You have to be ready to jump right into the work, even though the situations and schedules will keep changing throughout the day,” says Hakala.

The language of authorities makes a difference

In the afternoon, Kaisa Raitio, head of communications at STUK, opens the media briefing at the STUK auditorium. The student-journalists interrogate Nici Bergroth, senior advisor at Fortum; Tomi Routamo, deputy director at STUK; Ilkka Eskelinen, fire protection engineer at the Eastern-Uusimaa Emergency Service Department; and Chief Inspector Tomi Salosyrjä from the Eastern-Uusimaa Police Department.

No, you don’t have to pick up your children from kindergarten or school; the municipality will take care of them. Refrain from using your mobile phone near Loviisa to avoid jamming the network. Fortum’s stock will go down, as the accident decreases trust in the company.

After the media briefing, the students emphasise the need for clear language. Journalists should understand what the authorities are saying and convey it to the public so that they understand as well.

“Professional jargon can increase uncertainty and anxiety,” says Johanna Kare-Haavisto, a mature student of politics and communication.

“The protective measures are preventative, no immediate danger exists. I can’t write that,” exclaims Helena Utti, media and communication student, while working on a headline for her piece.

Praise for practicality

In the evening, eight hours after the first media release and tweet were sent out, the officials also say they learned something.

“Communication by the authorities is central for the public. We could post more information on social media,” says Tomi Routamo of STUK.

Students are praising the course for its practical bent.

“I’ve really understood all the things I’d have to consider if I were really making announcements to journalists in a crisis,” says Essi Puustinen, social policy student.

Henri Nevalainen, social psychology student, played the social media role of author Jari Tervo in the operation. Nevalainen-as-Tervo was worried about how the situation in Loviisa would impact the football match between Finland and Liechtenstein.

“It’s interesting how accurately you can simulate a conversation,” comments Nevalainen.

Social media commenter Kari also goes silent on Twitter, as Sebastian Stenvall, the communications student who played him, logs off. He spent a full working day spreading disinformation, but did not manage to cause any major chaos.

The Practices in Digital Communication course was organised by the Open University. University of Helsinki students were able to participate through the degree programme in politics, media and communication.