Emergency SBCC Challenges and Strategies

Below are some challenges that may be encountered during an emergency communication response, accompanied by some possible solutions for addressing them. The challenges and solutions presented are not exhaustive and may not be relevant or appropriate for every context. However, this information is included in an attempt to help you anticipate and prepare for potential difficulties.

Emergency Communication Response Challenges and Possible Solutions

Challenge Possible Solutions

Accessing Marginalized Groups

An important consideration during an emergency response is to ensure that even marginalized groups are reached. People may be marginalized due to a number of reasons: profession, ethnicity, race, religion, location and economic means. Individuals who are marginalized are not only less likely to be reached by the general emergency response, but they are also less likely to be involved in decisions that affect their well-being.

During an emergency, the priority is often that of getting messages out to the general public as quickly as possible, and this may lead to the exclusion of marginalized groups.

  • During preparedness, work with the government and relevant agencies to map known marginalized groups in the country and advocate that they be included and reached in an emergency response.
  • Identify and create partnerships with humanitarian organizations that can reach or are already reaching these groups. Examples of possible partners include the International Committee of the Red Cross, Medecins Sans Frontières, UN humanitarian agencies and local organizations. These organizations can be a vehicle for disseminating information, materials and activities to hard-to-reach communities.
  • Discuss with local leaders who the marginalized groups are and how they can best be reached.
  • Where possible, involve representatives of marginalized groups in the rapid needs assessment and as part of social mobilization teams.

Reaching Mobile Populations

Like with marginalized groups, mobile populations are difficult to reach and they are unlikely to reap the benefits of many of the planned behavior change activities. Nonetheless, mobile populations are an important target group as they too may be affected by the emergency, and could be responsible for spreading it to other areas.

  • Choose media channels that can be accessed from different locations, such as mobile phones or radio, and having established hotlines. Ensure, however, that the mobile populations concerned have access to and use such channels.
  • When delivering mid-media activities, or other activities where large groups of people participate, supplement the activity with simple print media for low literate populations that can be taken away. If people who are mobile attend these events, they will have a reminder of the key messages to take away and share with family and friends.
  • If you are able to access some mobile populations for a short time, provide them with some basic information and training that can enable them to disseminate key messages to their communities.

Lack of Trust

The fear and anxiety that accompany emergencies can lead to a lack of trust in the information provided, in service provision and in other community members. Lack of trust can therefore affect the way in which individuals respond to messages and activities.

  • Ensure a harmonized approach to messaging. Develop clear, factual messages and share them with all partners so that communities hear the same messages from all sources.
  • Engage mobilizers to serve as liaisons between e community members and the emergency response teams so that there is a feed-back loop between them
  • Involve respected community members, such as leaders, in your strategy. Work with them so that they understand the problem, contribute to the development of solutions and trust the emergency response. If leaders trust the emergency response and accompanying messages, which they contributed to develop, this will also support trust among their community members.


Some emergencies are caused by diseases that become stigmatized. An example is Ebola. During emergencies, stigmatization can increase fear, rumors and distrust, affecting the way in which people react to response activities. After emergencies, stigmatization reduces the ability of communities to rebuild themselves. Supporting communities to welcome survivors should be a key consideration in emergency responses as this promotes community cohesion and reduces the likely spread of rumors and distrust.

  • Include survivors in your community outreach activities. Although initially people may be fearful of survivors, seeing them as recognized and helpful members of their community can help reduce fear and stigma.
  • Promote testimonials of survivors as a way of showing that the dis- ease is not necessarily deadly if treated promptly and effectively.
  • Take extra precautions to support survivors. Stigma can have unexpected negative effects including the rejection of survivors by their communities and families.

Weak Health Systems

In some case, fragile governments and health systems, lack of adequate structures, personnel and coordination, leave countries unable to respond effectively to an outbreak.

  • Map all relevant partners and stakeholders as part of the preparedness phase to determine where strength and weaknesses lie. Having a clear idea of which partners do what and where allows for a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses within the system and for the development of strategies to address those weaknesses.
  • Use current coordination mechanisms within countries, if they exist, to coordinate response related activities. Some countries may not have established effective national coordination systems, but some form of coordination mechanism may still exist through UN agencies and international partners. Assess how these function and capitalize on their existence to support a more coordinated approach to the emergency response.
  • Conduct a knowledge management assessment and set up a knowledge management mechanism for sharing research finding, best practices and program materials among partners.

Physical and Mental Effect of the Crisis Situation

Emergencies inevitably change the way communities live. They spread fear and may cause personal trauma to many. Further, some emergencies will cause people to become displaced and live in crowded settings such as transit centers or refugee camps, and affect livelihoods. The numerous repercussions from an emergency include: mental health, violence and gender-based violence (GBV), illness outbreaks, increased poverty. Although not apparent at the start of an emergency, these possible ramifications must be taken into consideration by a well-elaborated preparedness and response plan.

  • Identify and establish a collaboration mechanism with existing organizations that already operate in the problem areas, which are likely to evolve from the crisis. This includes organizations that work with microfinance, survivors of violence and of GBV, with people and communities affected by mental health, and with particular health problems that can spread in crowded settings. Although the role of these organizations may not be relevant in the initial response phase, as the emergency evolves and its consequences on the lives of people and communities emerge, these organizations can provide invaluable support to the overall emergency response.
  • Establish referral systems between partners to ensure that all those affected by the sequels of the emergency can be referred to and assisted promptly by the most appropriate services.
  • Identify a roster of partners and the types of assistance they provide to pinpoint requests for assistance.

Inability or reluctance to declare a state of emergency at the proper time

Some emergencies may have severe consequences on the country’s economic and social landscape. Government may therefore be reluctant to accept and declare the emergency, which will delay and hamper any response effort.

  • Ensure government partners are included in the development of a preparedness plan. Although they may still be reluctant to declare a state of emergency once an outbreak occurs, involving governments from the start increases their understanding of the importance of a prompt response and may allow partner organizations to identify allies within the government.
  • Meet with relevant government representatives to discuss the ad- vantages and disadvantages of declaring an emergency. Repeated meetings with decision makers can be a way of highlighting how denying the emergency will be more detrimental to the country than taking immediate action.
  • Use alternative channels to reach communities and support them in taking protective action. Although the government may not officially announce the state of emergency, communities and individuals are likely to be already aware of the risks they are facing. Working with partners who are present on the ground, setting up networks of social mobilizers, and passing through local leaders can help to promote risk reduction behaviors among affected populations even without an official government announcement.

Misinformation and rumors

Fear and inconsistent messaging provided by authority figures are just a couple of reasons rumors and misinformation can start, and spread, in communities and beyond. It will be critical to put systems in place to monitor rumors and misinformation and to address them rapidly.

  • Conduct media monitoring to understand what information is out there, including monitoring social media.
  • Set up rumor logs at health facilities and/or use mobile technology to monitor rumors and misinformation at the community level.
  • Ensure national and community level spokespeople are clearly identified and trained to communicate effectively; ensure that others are not acting as spokespeople on behalf of the government.
  • Ensure a mechanism is in place for consistent messages to address rumors and misinformation are communicated at all levels.