209680 Out of the comfort zone: Applying risk communication research to alter government approaches to information sharing in an evolving environmental emergency

Monday, November 9, 2009: 8:45 AM

Jana L. Telfer, MA , National Center for Environmental Health, Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, Atlanta, GA
Dagny Olivares , National Center for Environmental Health, Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, Atlanta, GA
Techniques to communicate effectively with lay audiences in an emergency often are counter-intuitive for governmental agencies, scientists, and industry. Since the 1970's risk communication researchers have produced findings that can inform public communications in emergency responses. More recently, government agencies have adopted the Incident Command System approach to improving emergency response, including establishing Joint Information Centers to improve congruence in messages and message delivery. While these two methodologies are complimentary, they are not always nor consistently used together. When a retaining pond for fly ash, a by product of coal-fired power plants, collapsed in Western Tennessee in December 2008, flooding a neighboring residential area, the emergency response was prompt and well-organized. Nonetheless, news coverage of the environmental disaster reported community anxiety, growing concern from environmental groups, and a planned visit from a nationally known environmental activist. Several days into the emergency response, risk communication assistance was sought from experts from the CDC/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. In the aftermath of receiving a risk communication brief and recommendations regarding key messages, the nature of communications from the involved agencies changed, and the nature of news coverage began to change. Risk communication is more than message design alone, though risk communication research can inform message development and design. If organizations study and apply these tools in their planning for emergency response, they can reduce the level of mistrust that often arises regarding institutional response and they can improve understanding and uptake of messages that are protective of public health.

Learning Objectives:
Describe six elements that should be part of a government risk communication response Describe the practical steps to operationalize risk communication theory Describe how to structure key messages for greatest impact

Keywords: Government, Health Communications

Presenting author's disclosure statement:

Qualified on the content I am responsible for because: Professional in the field
Any relevant financial relationships? No

I agree to comply with the American Public Health Association Conflict of Interest and Commercial Support Guidelines, and to disclose to the participants any off-label or experimental uses of a commercial product or service discussed in my presentation.