Emergency Media and Public Affairs
Emergency Media and Public Affairs

Emergency Media and Public Affairs

A brief history of EMPA's progress
from 2006 to 2011

The Setting

The emergency media and public affairs sector in Australia is a small yet highly motivated, committed and vital element of this country’s emergency and disaster management sector.  By virtue of Australia’s constitution, the eight states and territories have primary responsibility for emergency response and recovery.  The federal government supports the jurisdictions in a wide spectrum of ways and is connected to regions both onshore and offshore especially within the emergency response and communications stream.  Local governments also play a vital role in preparing communities for times of crisis and of more recent times with mayors in some jurisdictions given authority to manage disaster recovery.  The private sector experiences emergencies of its own kind and is increasingly aware of the need for planning to return business to normal quickly after a disaster.  And non-government organisations also have a fundamental function, especially in the important recovery phase to help a community return to a degree of normality as soon as possible.

For all these departments, agencies, organisations and companies there is a fundamental need for proficient, experienced, committed and cool-headed practitioners to manage the complex and essential verbal and written communications, media liaison, warnings wording and information presentation.

The media industry is slowly coming to recognise the importance of working in partnership with the emergency sector.

The Origins of EMPA

EMPA was founded in 2006 out of discussions between three public relations practitioners – from the Queensland Department of Emergency Services, the University of Southern Queensland and the Australian Attorney General’s Department’s Emergency Management Australia Division.  They had met to discuss ways of developing the field of emergency communication and how to bring practitioners together to network, to learn latest skills and bring education and research faculties closer to practical emergency operators.

Out of those discussions came the idea of a national conference of media liaison and public affairs professionals working in the emergency management sector and in emergency-related organisations.  The first, in Brisbane in 2007, saw 80 communicators, mostly from the three levels of government, come together to learn more about the good and the bad, and how to do things better in the field.  A significant sponsorship by Media Monitors was secured to underwrite this first gathering.

The key outcomes of this first 2007 conference were:

  • to incorporate disaster and crisis communication researchers into the conference to build connection between research and practice
  • a realisation that Australia’s emergency communicators were contributing hugely to the emergency management sector
  • confirmation that sharing lessons learned was extremely valuable for a discipline that, at times, feels isolated from mainstream public relations

A key point about this first conference was the presence of Tony Pearce the Australian Government’s Director General of Emergency Management Australia (within the Attorney-General’s Dept) who flagged to delegates the importance of the communication role within strategic emergency management practice.  His involvement became invaluable in following years in gaining higher level support for communicators in this field.

Following the conference, the EMPA Executive developed aims and objectives, and resolved to involve researchers by adding a research and development stream for which papers would be double blind peer-reviewed and published in the Australian Journal of Emergency Management and elsewhere if possible.

Moving on

The organisation developed toward the 2008 conference, which was held on the Gold Coast, Queensland, and which featured the first research stream. Eighty people attended this conference out of an estimated Australian emergency communicator population of 250-300.

The 2008 conference saw a progression from sharing experiences of the 2007 conference to more specific processes for improved c ommunication.  Speakers identified patterns and frameworks that delegates could take away with them for application in their own work.  For instance, New York mayor Rudy Guiliani’s format for providing 9/11 disaster information was given as an example of best practice:
  • this is what we know
  • this is what we don’t know
  • this is what we are doing;
  • this is what we want you to do

This principle was also applied by the London Met’s Police Commissioner after that city’s devastating series of bombings in 2005.

The messages of reassurance as well as the facts were emphasised by several speakers and the importance of getting reliable information out to communities was given and lessons from mistakes in this area were learned.  A keynote speaker from Canada presented on emergency communication training in North America.  Five papers were accepted for the research stream and a half day workshop held prior to the formal conference.  Papers were then published in the Australian Journal of Emergency Management (AJEM).

The financial success of the first two conferences, with modest sponsorship from EMA, made further development of the organisation possible.  Late in 2008, the organisation evolved to embrace two sub-committees.  A conference organising committee and the first Research and Development Committee.  This R&D group was made up of three practitioners from emergency services and police (NSW SES, EMA and WAPOL), and three academics (from La Trobe, Southern Queensland and Sunshine Coast Universities).  A website was developed.  A year on saw the addition of academics from the University of Canberra, Melbourne University and Bond University Queensland.  There is now a researcher representative at the Australian National University also.  And there are linkages to a number of Cooperative Research Centres, e.g. on the topics of cyclone and bushfire.

Registration as a Not-for Profit Association

In January 2009, the organisation was registered as a not-for-profit company, Emergency Media and Public Affairs Limited, with three directors.  The constitution for the company was ‘borrowed’ from research centres in Australia, to allow the organisation to progress towards its aim of becoming a research and development Centre of Excellence.  [Note: the constitution has since been revised to meet new federal requirements for the not-for-profit sector.]

The EMPA directors decided to apportion a major percentage of future conference profits to research projects, and to encourage participation internationally.  And they employed a conference organiser with substantial experience in the emergency sector.

EMPA was then boosted with the serious commitment of the Victorian Office of the Emergency Services Commissioner to sponsor the 2009 conference in Melbourne.  The attendance of a guest keynote speaker from the US Federal Emergency Management Agency was undoubtedly a coup along with a second keynote speaker from the disaster sector in New Zealand

EMPA had quickly become an internationally recognised association – possibly the first of its kind in the world.  How the community gets vital information promptly became the theme for 2009.  This approach was underlined almost at every turn by the loss of 173 lives in the Black Saturday bushfires that year.  A key point made by the Victorian Emergency Services Commissioner, Bruce Esplin at that time was that: ‘The community does not care what you know until it knows you care.  Messages delivered with no local knowledge or understanding will fall on deaf ears.’

The first EMPA-commissioned research paper was presented this year.  It attempted to measure the importance of communication to disaster management by counting the number of disaster review recommendations and working out the percentage of these that dealt with communication with the community.  The research found that: 20% of the disaster management activity that could be done better was about communication.  However only 1% of disaster management resources were actually dedicated to disaster communication – be that for warnings, critical directions and news media updates along with recovery and community stability advice.

Involving Real Media

One of the key features of the EMPA conferences has been the regular media panel.  Facing hard truths in these show-and-tell sessions, where prominent journalists tell us what we do both wrong and right, was warmly received.  It is heartening that we have their support, but distressing when we hear of their own frustration with emergency communicators not cooperating in the public interest or simply not being resourced well enough to be effectively responsive.

In the 2009 conference the researcher’s stream was a huge success.  The nine papers presented were, without exception, relevant and timely.  Topics ranged from crisis leadership to how prepared government departments are for crisis.  The outstanding paper was on the Black Saturday bushfires and the importance of joint agency communication, which melded research with experience. This was the paper referred to repeatedly throughout the conference. 
Note: these papers are on the EMPA website www.emergencymedia.org.au and were printed in the January 2010 issue of the AJEM journal www.ema.gov.au/ajem .  The foreword for this issue was provided by the EMPA chairman, Peter Rekers.

The principle of touring conference keynote speakers through several states following a conference was initiated.  The FEMA representative met with national SES and rural fire media directors and other senior government officials, as well as presenting to multi-agency media sector gatherings. 

Later in 2009 an EMPA committee member was sponsored to attend and speak at the FEMA National Public Affairs Conference in the US.

2010 Conference

The 2010 conference held in April in Sydney was another highly successful gathering of emergency communications practitioners.  Again a high-level FEMA keynote speaker drew praise from all quarters.  The conference theme “The Evolving Nature of Crisis Communication” created an atmosphere of forward thinking and the welcome inclusion of journalists on an interactive panel again emphasised the divide that remains between the sector and the media.

The global financial downturn seriously affected sponsorship and delegate numbers for the 2010 conference.  However the EMPA Executive was determined to stage a most effective program of speakers and a very timely social media workshop.  The enthusiasm of the 80 or so delegates to participate was clear evidence that EMPA is progressing in the right direction.  The strong support from the NSW State Emergency Service and the state’s Rural Fire Service was a vital factor in the success of this conference.

Feature speakers from a range of federal and state agencies, non-government organisations and private enterprise contributed their expertise.  Again the contribution from an experienced ABC broadcaster was welcomed, along with another excellent talk from a member of the international DART Centre for Journalism and Trauma.  The value of volunteers featured, social media (especially texting and tweeting) was experienced in real time, FOI explained and much useful networking achieved.

Subsequent to the successful visit by the US speaker and his team, and their tour through Canberra and Victoria, two EMPA committee members were invited to speak in Washington in June.


[Jenny Barrett (2nd from left) with FEMA guests; (l to r) Lyric Clark , Jennifer Roberson, Carole Cameron & Kelvin Cochran]

2011 – an important milestone

The next EMPA conference, in Canberra in April 2011 on the theme “Partnering with Media”,  was hailed not only for being a milestone 5th annual conference of emergency media practitioners, but by being held in the national capital it showed the significance of the event in the sector.

The major keynote was a former BBC news editor, a media and communications specialist, trainer and adviser to the UK Cabinet Office on resilience communications.  A senior emergency management speaker from earthquake-torn Christchurch, New Zealand gave a heart-rending expose of the torment that city’s residents have and continue to experience.

The Sunday afternoon workshop with its focus firmly on development of better cooperation between emergency media practitioners and our colleagues in the media, took the form of a ‘world café’ style inter-active session.  A major outcome from this session – Principles of Collaboration – will be embedded into the organisation’s charter and hopefully become a significant draw card for future conferences.  A report of the EMPA co-funded research by former Age newspaper editor Michael Gawenda on how media handled the Victorian bushfires proved invaluable.  And a speaker of special interest was Jess Adamson who reported for Ch7 from Banda Aceh after the Sumatra tsunami in 2004.

Reports from EMPA-funded research projects again proved to be valuable to delegates.  Such research reporting has now become an established element of our conferences.  The federal Attorney-General’s Department again provided support funding and that department’s Deputy-Secretary gave a strong commitment to EMPA in her opening address.  A stirring contribution from Dr Lynn Arnold AO, the CEO of Anglicare (SA) and a former premier of that state, was a strong endorsement for the inclusion of a senior NGO person on the speaker panel.  Interactive social media again became a prominent element. 

The federal Attorney-General’s Department again provided support funding and that department’s Deputy-Secretary gave a strong commitment to EMPA in her opening address.  A stirring contribution from Dr Lynn Arnold AO, the CEO of Anglicare (SA) and a former premier of that state – was a strong endorsement for the inclusion of a senior NGO person on the speaker panel. Interactive social media again became a prominent element. 

The attendance by nearly one hundred delegates has shown that, despite serious financial pressures on the sector and industry generally, that the EMPA conference provides value for communications people.

Ahead to 2012

Melbourne has been chosen for the 2012 conference with the theme “From Frontline to Headline”.  This event next May, is shaping up to be another successful gathering for emergency media practitioners.  Media operatives, especially from the ABC, will again play a significant role, there will be another ‘world café’ style Sunday afternoon workshop and prominent emergency management leaders will speak.

Inaugural Fellows announced

EMPA is proud to have awarded inaugural fellowships to 10 members in recognition of their achievements and commitment to the organisation and to our industry.

The Fellows are: Jenny Barrett, Adelaide; Phil Campbell, Wollongong; Bruce Esplin, Melbourne; Dr Peter Hughes, Melbourne; Robert R. Jensen, Washington, DC USA; Anne Leadbeater, Melbourne;Catherine Matheson, Vancouver, Canada; Dr Susan Nicholls, Canberra; Peter Rekers, Brisbane; Barbara Ryan, Toowoomba; and Alastair Wilson, Canberra. (see www.emergencymedia.org.au for more details)

[l to r: Anne Leadbeater, Jenny Barrett, Phil Campbell, Susan Nicholls, Barbara Ryan, Peter Rekers & Alastair Wilson]


Accreditation launched

The 2011 conference saw the launch of EMPA’s international accreditation program.  The first two candidates – from Canberra and Wellington, NZ. – are progressing through a comprehensive two year program that involves assignments and an examination. 

The candidates, mentored by an EMPA Fellow throughout their exercises, will achieve the post-nominal of Accredited Emergency Public Information Officer (AEPIO).  This is the first such accreditation program in the world.

Membership drive

The creation of a membership structure is currently being put in place to allow practitioners, researchers and supporters, to claim a more pro-active role within EMPA.  Development of such a membership program is seen as essential for the credible expansion, appropriate application and future survival of the organisation.

Where is EMPA heading?

The organisation has exciting plans into the future:

  • in 2011 EMPA has funded two research projects in the emergency media arena from the profits of previous conferences.  These researchers will report to the 2012 conference
  • the EMPA Executive is looking to attract a Fulbright Scholar to Australia to study the effectiveness of public communication in times of emergency
  • EMPA has established a national office in Brisbane
  • EMPA Directors are taking specific responsibility for the AEPIO program and for developing a membership program, and for establishing greater contact with the private enterprise sector
  • a number of members from both the conference and the R&D committees are lecturing in specialist emergency management training programs – including for volunteer emergency services officers.

On the agenda for EMPA in the future:

  • lobbying at senior emergency management and political level for changes that will make our tasks more effective and efficient
  • greater participation with private sector organisations concerned with crisis management
  • involvement with training companies and institutions serious about raising the level of effectiveness of public disaster communication
  • greater participation in training programs for both emergency management media operatives and for journalists and other media professionals
  • scholarships for students and underfunded agencies to attend conferences and training programs
  • expansion of the website to accommodate all papers presented at conferences and to provide an on-line interactive facility
  • interaction and closer ties with the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) and the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) in the Oceania region
  • build on initiatives to develop EMPA Chapters in the USA, the UK, Canada, Singapore, New Zealand and further afield.

Board of Directors

The Board of Directors for Emergency Media and Public Affairs Ltd consists of Peter Rekers as CEO, Barbara Ryan and Alastair Wilson.
A copy of the EMPA constitution is available by contacting the EMPA office on info@empa.org.au


Rationale of the EMPA logo identity

The sphere represents the planet, with the red and yellow colours and a radiating circle indicating a crisis.  The strong red, breaking up from left to right, indicates the high energy and interest that is created during a disaster or emergency that then diminishes with time as the recovery phase takes over.  The meridian lines denote the complexity of communication around the emergency, along with the resultant reverberation of the effects of the crisis.

Empa Logo

Designed for EMPA by the USQ Media Service Unit in 2008.

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