Earlier last month, I was lucky enough to experience what it is like to step outside your own country (and comfort zone), share your views and experiences and find that – thankfully – you have something useful to offer at an international level.

In the last five years, I have by design and by fate found myself in hotspots that have required me to draw on every inch of my crisis communications knowledge and learn so much more along the way.

As a result, I was kindly invited to attend this year’s Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) Public Health Network risk communication workshop, hosted in Oslo by the Research Council of Norway. There were 19 communicators there from across the globe – many different Asian and European countries, along with others from the UK, Canada and two of us from New Zealand.

Not surprisingly, there was a participant from just about every major world disaster in the last five years, from the Japanese earthquakes and tsunami right up to the current Ebola crisis. Canterbury Medical Officer of Health Alistair Humphrey was the other New Zealander at the event and presented on the public health response to the February 2011 earthquake.

I expect many of us arrived in Norway believing that we had followed a best practice approach to crisis communications that would be implemented in the same way around the world. Over two days, this thinking was turned on its head as we realised the influence our culture, political environment and even physical location had on our response to emergencies.

Common ground included the desire for honesty, empathy and timeliness. The need for emergency planning; calm well-informed spokespeople and a well-resourced response was also universal.  Leadership in a crisis; strength of messaging; and the specifics of our action plans were some of the areas we discussed at length.

During our second day, the group was more than able to come together and respond successfully to a mock crisis set by the Asia-Europe Foundation. The key features of this response will be used in a guide for countries dealing with public health emergencies.

On a personal note, I am pleased to say that I now have 18 friends who would be rather handy to know if I ever find myself in another hotspot. Many thanks to the Asia-Europe Foundation for introducing me to them and the opportunity to participate in this exciting forum.

AuthorHannah McK