Building disaster resilience through authentic and coordinated storytelling

Let me set the scene for you. You are a government communication officer and today is the anniversary of a tragic international disaster. For example, it could be the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008, or the Christchurch mass shooting in March of this year.

You open the newspapers or browse social media content and sense strong, mostly negative feelings among the public, including sorrow, lament, mourning and compassion. Some people may even feel terrified, disempowered, and still not knowing what to do if a similar disaster strikes again.

Now you wonder: How can you change the doomsday-like narratives to positive ones that give people hope, strength and inspiration even after the devastating events? How can you make those people act on the instructions that you are sure you have distributed time and time again? How can you unite communities and rebuild public trust and confidence?

All these questions point to unlocking the power and potential of storytelling in disaster risk communication. As a tradition passed over thousands of years, storytelling has been used to efficiently impart or inherit knowledge, create shared values and make sense of the world.

Research has also emphasized its importance to modern communication and its effects on persuading, educating and empowering the public and communities, especially when compared with regular news reporting that states the total casualties and damages. Scholars find that narratives (e.g., stories, anecdotes, testimonials) can draw readers into a storyline, build personal connections and make audiences identify with the story.

In the case of disaster risk communication, narratives are more effective than news information in shaping people’s intentions, attitudes and behaviors in disasters. Storytelling in disaster risk communication is an emerging practice, however, research is still in its infancy.

For example, most disaster communication studies have largely focused on the immediacy, agility and accessibility of “information” disseminated through various digital and social technologies, rather than explored storytelling as a specific genre.

Nevertheless, those limited storytelling studies offered useful tips and suggestions for practitioners. Practical suggestions include adding story elements (e.g., characters, plots, causality) to critical disaster narratives, using social media platforms to tell stories directly from lay people, inviting audiences to contribute their own stories in texts, images or videos, and avoiding compassion fatigue while telling difficult stories.

There is a large void in our field to explore how disaster stories should be told across different media by multiple storytellers to achieve a unified purpose of building community resilience to disasters.

To narrow this gap, I will use Australia “Resilient Queensland Stories” as a case study to examine how government communication officials use organizational media (e.g., newsletters, manuals, booklets), mass media (e.g., newspapers, TV, radio) and social media (e.g., Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube) to tell different facets of the overarching ‘resilient’ stories and mobilize audience agency to tell their own stories about resilience building.

The main features of my inquiry lie in the authenticity of storytelling, namely, whether there is personal touch and human voice embedded in stories. Ultimately, my project aims to develop a ‘story matrix model’ specific to disaster risk communication. This model can help most governments change their conventional, cold procedures of sending didactic, admonishing and tedious messages. Instead, they can become storytellers and efficiently inform, educate and empower the at-risk public.

For more information on this study, email Hou at Results from the project will be available next year. This study is a part of the Center’s 2019 Page/Johnson Legacy Scholar Grants call for research proposals focusing on narratives in communications.

Project team


Project funding

  • Arthur W. Page/Johnson Legacy Scholar Grant