Pitfalls of the Amber Alert text launch…and how to avoid them

When I received the noise-jarring, wake-up inducing Amber Alert at 11 p.m. a couple of weeks ago on my smart phone, I’ll admit it: I looked up how to turn it off, and did turn them off.  That was only after I received two more alerts, and I had no idea why I was receiving them (and how much longer I would receive them throughout the night).

Please forgive me—as the mother of two children and someone who had slept poorly the night before, I desperately needed some sleep, otherwise I would have to issue an Amber Alert for my children the next day, as they would have gone missing due to my sleep-deprived status.  Personally, receiving an Amber Alert at 11 p.m. was about as good as reading it in the paper the next day for me.

Of course, I joined the thousands of “heartless” and “unsympathetic” people who cared more about their sleep than a missing child (I did care…however, there’s not much I could have done about it when I was in my bed, thank you very much).  However, my public relations and communications side of me begged this question: “Why didn’t we know ANYTHING about this in advance?”  I considered the thousands of people, like myself, who searched the internet for “How to shut off Amber Alerts on my smartphone” and have kept them off indefinitely, rendering this potentially-effective communication vehicle ineffective.

In reality, this system—IPAWS (Integrated Public Awareness Warning System)—has been around for some time, beginning about 10 years ago.  However, ongoing hiccups, bureaucratic challenges, along with FEMA’s admission that yes, they could do a better job of educating the public about it, has led to ongoing challenges in fully and successfully launching IPAWS.   Article: “Why the government is sending emergency alerts to your smartphone”

Which brings me back to the Amber Alert—and why public outreach and education are critical in launching— and the ongoing success—ANY kind of program:

1)      Educating the public early and often will help your program win fans…and let’s face it: fans are good.  Fans will also help positively promote your program.

2)      Communicating in advance of a launch will ensure that everyone is “on board” for the launch when it does occur…and this also increases the likelihood that your organization’s messaging about the program are front and center.  This also provides your organization the opportunity to address questions and concerns before the launch—versus having the questions and concerns become the central messages about the launch.

3)      Public education and outreach provide people information about the choices they do have regarding your program—versus making them think they have no choices.  In my experience, when people feel like they have limited or no choices, they tend to react negatively, no matter how wonderful your program is.  Case in point—Amber Alerts.  We can all agree that they are an effective and amazing way to inform the public about an abducted child.  However, when people receive a jarring alert on their cell phone—without education, warning or information about their choices to receive (or verify) alerts—some of their first thoughts will be, “Here’s big brother government, forcing me to receive these alerts” or “I didn’t sign up for these!” or “This is nice, but, how do I manage these alerts?”

4)      Timing IS everything:  Look, I know child abductions can occur any time of the day.  But, launching a new alert system at 11 p.m….the worst timing ever.  In fact, had there been a notification alert sent earlier in the day, stating, “The Amber Alert system will begin sending alerts to your cell phone, starting today.  For more information, including how to manage these alerts, please visit www. Amberalert.org” I’m sure this launch would have been received with more positive feedback (and fewer people turning off the alerts) and much more effective outcomes.

So, when developing your organizations plans to launch a new alert system, new program, or changes to an existing program, don’t forget to include a good portion of time for public education and outreach before and during the planning phases, and allow for a significant amount of time prior to launching the program/changes to inform the public.  The success of your program depends on it.

About Heather McGowan

Heather McGowan increases public confidence in public education and improves opportunities for non-profit organizations to succeed through proactive communication and marketing. She provides strategic marketing and communication services that exceed her clients’ unique goals and delivers results that motivate audiences to act, change, and/or otherwise change behaviors for a greater good.

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