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DHS Communications: How Not to Scare and Confuse Everyone

September 05, 2016
DHS Unveils Revised Terror Alert System That Promises to Scare and Confuse Everyone [1]. This joke headline from the comedy site Cracked.com about Homeland Security’s National Terrorism Advisory System makes light of the very real frustrations that some Americans feel when dealing with the government.

By Carson Kahoe, C’19

People complain about bureaucracy, about red tape gone amok, and about redundant paperwork. These frustrations often can arise out of poor communications, and they highlight the crucial importance of clear communications in government interactions with the public. In my time interning with the Office of Public Affairs (OPA) in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), I have learned about the importance of clear communications to the public and private sectors.

Public accessibility is an integral facet of OPA’s daily operation. Within DHS, OPA is the office that deals with communicating the DHS mission to the press, private sector, and general public. In my position as a Web Publishing and Communications intern, I help answer the public’s questions about DHS, and I am part of maintaining DHS.gov to ensure it is accessible and easy to understand. Specifically, our public-facing material must meet two standards to be considered accessible: 508 compliance and plain writing.

The term “508 compliance” refers to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This statute requires federal agencies to “give disabled employees and members of the public access information that is comparable to access available to others” [2]. In my job, this usually means adding closed captioning to videos or adding alternate text to photographs. However, fulfilling 508 compliance sometimes requires that entire pages be reworked. For example, if a document does not attain an acceptable degree of color contrast, color blind Americans cannot read it, and it fails 508 compliance. Part of our duty is to make sure that everything published on DHS.gov is accessible to all Americans, regardless of physical disabilities.

In a similar way, plain writing is designed to facilitate public accessibility of government publications. In October 2010, President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act in an attempt to increase transparency. As a check on plain writing, DHS publications are frequently assessed on the readability of their more public-facing forms. In OPA, Web Publishing helps to mitigate confusion by translating jargon in pages on DHS.gov into language that the public can easily understand. All of this is an effort to promote “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use” [3].

Outside of my work in OPA, other components of DHS play a significant role in maintaining clear communications with the public, often during times of crisis. A clear line of communications between the public and private sectors is imperative to prompt economic recovery in the wake of disasters.

Look, for example, at Hurricane Katrina. The 2005 hurricane offers a clear case study of the effect of government communications on economic and physical recovery. Katrina, the costliest natural disaster in US history, displaced hundreds of thousands of people in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, most of whom were concentrated in New Orleans [4]. The Coast Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), two components of DHS, led the government’s response to the disaster. While the quick response and actions of the Coast Guard saved tens of thousands of lives, FEMA was largely criticized for its sluggish response. In part due to a lack of clear lines of communications within the agency itself, it took days for the agency to establish a base of operations in New Orleans, and even then its efforts were uncoordinated. This lack of clear lines of communication, compounded with the severity of the disaster, prolonged the recovery, keeping the Gulf’s economy crippled for weeks [5].

As a counterexample to Katrina, FEMA’s response to Hurricane Sandy illustrates the agency’s ability not only to learn from its mistakes from 2005, but also to reduce economic disruption in even the most severe disasters through clear communications. Sandy, the second costliest disaster in US history (behind Katrina), displaced thousands along the mid-Atlantic coastline [6]. New Jersey and New York City were hit particularly hard. However, unlike in 2005, FEMA approached Sandy with a far more centralized method of communications. In its Washington headquarters, FEMA utilized the National Response Coordination Center (NRCC), a control room that housed representatives of all relevant government agencies. In the NRCC, FEMA operatives had quick and easy access to members of the Coast Guard, Army Corps of Engineers, and other disaster relief agencies, allowing for a clean flow of information. Communication between agencies became less a matter of making calls and sending emails and more a matter of shouting across a room [7]. This coordination facilitated FEMA’s quick response and earned the agency broad praise, shortening the recovery period and mitigating the economic impact of the hurricane.

Whether in disaster-zones or not, everyone benefits from open avenues of communication between the people and the government. For agencies like FEMA and offices like OPA, transparency and clear communications are top priorities and key tools in working with the public. While less than clear communications in New Orleans delayed economic recovery, clear communications in New Jersey helped clean up streets and reopen businesses. Similarly, clear communications in OPA’s press releases help to keep the public in touch with DHS’s actions. Ultimately, plain language and clear communications can bridge the gap between government and people, making everything a little less scary and confusing.  


  [1] “17 Of The Top Year-End Headlines, B.S. Not Included,” cracked.com, p. 13. Jan. 3, 2016. [Online]. Available: http://www.cracked.com/photoplasty_1868_17-news-stories-altered-to-actually-tell-truth-0103/. [Accessed July 17, 2016].

[2] “Section 508 Law and Related Laws and Policies,” section508.gov, para. 1. [Online]. Available: https://www.section508.gov/content/learn/laws-and-policies. [Accessed July 16, 2016].

  [3] “Plain Writing at DHS,” dhs.gov, para. 3. [Online]. April 13, 2016. Available: https://www.dhs.gov/plain-writing-dhs. [Accessed July 17, 2016].

  [4] K. Zimmermann, “Hurricane Katrina: Facts, Damage & Aftermath,” livescience.com, para. 2, Aug. 27, 2015. [Online]. Available: http://www.livescience.com/22522-hurricane-katrina-facts.html. [Accessed July 17, 2016].

  [5] “Hurricane Katrina,” history.com, para. 6. [Online]. Available: http://www.history.com/topics/hurricane-katrina. [Accessed July 16, 2016].

  [6] T. Sharp, “Superstorm Sandy: Facts about the Frankenstorm,” livescience.com, para. 8, Nov. 27, 2012. Online. Available: http://www.livescience.com/24380-hurricane-sandy-status-data.html. [Accessed July 17, 2016].

  [7] “National Response Coordination Center,” fema.gov. Available: https://emilms.fema.gov/IS800B/lesson4/NRF0104160t.htm. [Accessed July 17, 2016].

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