Authorities are increasingly challenged by the globalised media to improve their way of communication to the public. This applies particularly for the management of calamities. In the past government was acting at the top of the information pyramid, but this is no longer the case. Professionals and citizens have become more self reliant and active in collecting information. The hierarchical communication structure has been replaced by a network structure. In case the government is not handling this changed situation adequately it is likely to result in loss of authority and of communication efficiency.
In this paper results are presented of two studies carried out in the period 2005-2007 involving in total 110 calamities. The general purpose of the study was to analyze the changing communication landscape of risks and calamities in order to provide government authorities with recommendations to improve communication effectiveness e.g. by applying communication instruments adapted to the new situation. In this context the predictability of the size of the media attention for a calamity has been assessed. If media attention can be predicted in an early phase of the calamity this will provide extra reaction time to authorities and may help to e.g. nominate a spokesperson at the right level from the beginning.
The results show that media attention can be reasonably well predicted on the basis of a limited number of criteria. Powerful predictive criteria are e.g. economic damage, number of evacuated people, and a general criterion called the magic factor. This is a container criterion including aspects such as newness, hugeness and related aspects which have as common denominator that they stimulate imagination and have a highly emotional content.
Although the study focused on external safety calamities the predictive methodology is also applicable for other types of calamities which have similar time-space characteristics, such as terrorist attacks. Media will however never be completely predictable. Therefore intuition, local expertise, and repeated assessment of the likely media attention are needed to come to a reliable overall judgement.