Communicating in a Crisis
In a crisis due to a disaster or terrorist act, delivering accurate
and timely messages that inform people without frightening them
requires careful preparation that should be part of all emergency
planning. Inadequate preparation can contribute to confusion and
misunderstanding between public officials and the media, and to
fear-driven, potentially damaging reactions from the public. Effective
communication can promote the trust and confidence that are vital
to calming any crisis situations.
To help, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, assisted
by SAMHSA, has produced a publication, Communicating in a Crisis:
Risk Communication Guidelines for Public Officials.
Understanding the Media
The booklet explains that journalists have six key questions they
must answer in their stories: who, when, where, what, how, and why.
They work under demanding time and space constraints. Effective
communication comes in adapting to these limitations. The booklet
advises public officials to:
- Be sure of your facts and be able to cite sources and
- Have information available in concise fact sheets.
- Make sure your primary message gets delivered in the time
- Discuss what you know, not what you think.
- Familiarize yourself with opinions and positions contrary
to yours and be able to answer questions about them.
The booklet emphasizes that risk communication efforts should
receive the same degree of preparation as other elements of emergency
planning. To plan, the booklet suggests the following:
- Form a risk communications team and assign responsibilities.
- Decide who will speak to the media.
- Develop and maintain media lists as well as lists of experts for media use.
- Plan press briefing logistics ahead
- Anticipate information needs and develop background materials.
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Before issuing any comment, public officials should clarify their
communication goals and key messages. Goals and messages should
be simple, straightforward, and realistic.
For example, the goal could be "to ease public concern."
The associated messages would be "the risk is low,"
"the illness is treatable," and "symptoms are
Staying "on message" is a form of artful repetition
to ensure that your messages are heard. To stay on message, the
- Take opportunities to
begin or end statements with a reiteration of your message.
- Don't repeat your message word for word.
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Scientific and Technical Information
The booklet advises that when officials must communicate about
complex scientific issues, they should use clear, non-technical language
so that information is more accessible to the public.
To communicate such information:
- Use consistent terms throughout a crisis situation.
- Avoid acronyms and jargon.
- Use familiar frames of reference and accurate analogies.
- Develop graphs and charts that illustrate your points and
use them to support key messages.
Other sections of the booklet include "Correcting Errors
and Rumor Control," "Assessing Personal Strengths and
Weaknesses," "Building Support from Colleagues and Other
Spokespersons," and "Recognizing Opportunities to Speak
Out." Suggested reading materials, resources, and references
are presented in lists at the back.
To obtain copies of the booklet, contact SAMHSA's National Mental
Health Services Knowledge Exchange Network at P.O. Box 42490, Washington,
DC 20015. Telephone: 1 (800) 789-CMHS (2647) or 1 (888) 889-2647
(TTY). Web access: www.riskcommunication.samhsa.gov/index.htm.
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