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If you work in public health, during a crisis or emergency, you will likely become a risk communicator, even if your job description does not include public information or media relations. Your role might entail emailing community partners, taking calls from members of the public, or speaking at a hostile public meeting. It might even mean talking to the media.

A real life communication crisis

Play the video below to hear from Kimberlee Papich, of Spokane Health District, to find out how she got pulled into an unfolding crisis.

When I came into work, there was a flurry of activity with some of our people in the food safety program. They had been notified by our mayor’s office that the state governor was getting word that the Environmental Protection Agency would release a statement that afternoon that could negatively impact our area. It was in regard to increased radiological monitoring in milk samples from Washington state, and that samples from our area, from Spokane, had tested positive for increased radiation.

By 1 pm things started really picking up. There had been a leak from someone at the EPA to some of the national media outlets on the East Coast. Media interest was coinciding almost exactly with finally receiving the EPA's statement. I knew that our governor was going to be the lead agency in issuing a press release in response to the EPA statement.

But before we could get the governor’s release in hand, I received the first phone call from the Associated Press asking for comment. I knew it was an Associated Press reporter, but he was reporting out of Spokane. He was doing freelance. So I didn't know the breadth or depth of his coverage in terms of whether it was regional or maybe even at the state level.

I ended up Googling my own name, and the national and international reach became clear. I got to the thirtieth page of hits with my name with my exact quote—thirty pages of my name and my quote! Several of them had even been translated into different languages.

Imagine a similar situation in your own community.

Imagine a similar situation in your own community.

  • How do you think the public would react?
  • As a public health professional, what would you need to do to keep people safe and alleviate their concerns? How would you communicate how to stay safe and reassure the public with speed and accuracy?
  • Would you be prepared for the tremendous pressure for information from the public and the media?

When a public health emergency arises, communicating with the public and the media presents unique challenges. People are highly emotional. They want to know what happened and who is responsible. Most importantly, people want to know what they can do to protect themselves and their loved ones, and they want to know now. Yet the unexpected and chaotic nature of emergencies often makes it difficult to answer the public and the media’s demand for information and reassurance. Understanding the principles of emergency risk communication and developing a plan can help you meet those challenges, even under the most difficult of circumstances.