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Clear communication in a government report

By April 23, 2019 No Comments

The Clear Communication Awards have gone global! Andrew Tzembelicos – writer, editor and strategic comms specialist living in Canada – recently got in touch. He asked if he could share his story of clear communication with our followers. His feature project was a major report that followed unprecedented bushfire and flood seasons that occurred in British Columbia in 2017.

Andrew was engaged to write a report that explored what had happened and recommend next steps. As an example of clear communication for the public, on a subject close to home for Australians, we thought his story worth sharing. See if you agree.

“We have tried to keep this report as straightforward as possible for one simple reason: we want it to be read, absorbed and understood by the widest possible audience. In turn, it is our hope that the recommendations we are making… and how we reached them, will be more clearly understood. Whether readers agree with some, all or none of our recommendations, it is our hope they will appreciate how we arrived there.”  p.11, Addressing the New Normal: 21st Century Disaster Management in British Columbia.

By Andrew Tzembelicos

In July 2017, a massive lightning storm sparked the first of 160 wildfires that raged out of control throughout the summer in British Columbia (BC). The fires prompted a 10-week state of emergency — the longest in BC’s history — displacing more than 65,000 residents. The year was also significant for flood-related events which had occurred some months prior. With natural disaster on multiple fronts, the Government of BC wanted clarity on how to better prepare going forward and mitigate the potential effects of future disasters.

An independent review was announced in December 2017. In mid-January 2018, as two review co-chairs and a team were beginning 12 weeks of public consultation, I was contracted to plan, develop and write a final report. Working closely with the co-chairs, we had just over three months to meet the Government’s 30 April deadline.

The challenge

Beyond the tight timeframe to develop a substantial document, which ultimately totalled 140 pages, other challenges involved:

  • capturing as much public perspective as possible in the report
  • communicating the devastating impacts of flooding and bushfires to British Columbians who had not experienced the disasters
  • meeting report parameters outlined by the Government, and
  • developing a report that readers of all abilities could understand.

The approach

As report writer, a successful final product was all about clear communication. That included an effective table of contents with straightforward headings to instantly ground the reader, and establishing context for the reader by answering ‘how’ and the ‘five Ws’ (who, what, where, when, why).

Other strategies included limiting acronym use, carefully spelling out those we did, and including an acronyms list in the report’s early pages. As a newcomer to the subject matter, much of my work involved wading through volumes of scientific information on flooding and bushfires to educate myself, then presenting critical parts of that background without reinventing work done by others or being too technical.

We used the report’s early chapters to set the stage and later chapters to share public input, recommendations and conclusions. Guiding my work was one overarching goal: being as clear as possible with everything we included so a reader in BC, elsewhere in Canada or abroad could digest the report, understand the recommendations and how the co-chairs reached their conclusions.

Beyond the report narrative, we featured first-person accounts based on interviews I conducted. Told in a very personal way, their intent was to give readers valuable perspective on living through disaster — what happened, and how people were managing nearly one year later. To distinguish them from the rest of the report, these accounts were given special graphic treatment and selectively placed for impact. Other stories conveyed practices that could be implemented by communities and British Columbians, referred to as ‘Best Practice.’ We also included ‘Learn More’ boxes to provide added context on concepts critical to understanding flood, debris flow and bushfires.

The final product

The report, Addressing the New Normal: 21st Century Disaster Management in British Columbia, was delivered to the BC Government and launched publicly in early May 2018. In turn, it released its action plan and response in October 2018. I was overseas for six months when the report was released, but remote media monitoring showed it was well received.

One of the most powerful pieces I’ve delivered in my career, it’s a report British Columbians will consult in the years and decades ahead. Although technically a report for government, the report team was steadfast about making it a report for the people — a document that took complex ideas and subject matter and aimed to make it accessible to the widest possible audience. The rationale was simply this: the more people who understood what we were trying to convey, the greater the likelihood action would happen. Be it action by Government or the public, today everyone has a role to play in mitigating the effects of disaster and being better prepared.

Andrew Tzembelicos has more than 22 years of experience in writing, editing and strategic communications. He is chief wordsmith and strategist of WERDNA Communications (Andrew spelled backwards) and divides his time between Vancouver and Athens.

Carolyn Alexander

Author Carolyn Alexander

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