In reality, being out in front with communications is easier said than done. Your communication needs to be quick, but it also needs to be right. If you release information that has not been double-checked and turns out to be inaccurate, you run the risk of misleading the public and undermining your credibility.
The national media is pursuing a story about a positive test for radiation in milk in your area. You find out about the testing and the upcoming news article from an elected official, calling you in alarm. As the public information officer for your agency, what would you do to be ready to provide information to the media and public?
When Kimberlee Papich, Public Information Officer at Spokane Regional Health District, found out that the national media were pursuing a story on the positive test for radiation in milk in her area, she and her colleagues worked with partners to piece together the situation. She had previously identified procedures for approving messages and her staff had been trained in risk communication message development. By the time that the EPA and FDA issued a joint statement to confirm the testing, Kim already had her talking points together, even without knowing all the details of the situation.
Play the following video to find out more about her experience.
It really became about focusing on the things we did know. We were concerned that if we did get a call from any national media, we knew it wouldn’t be appropriate to say “no comment.” We needed to succinctly state what we did know and what our plan was for giving more information as it became available. We knew that our governor was going to be the lead agency in issuing a press release in response to the EPA statement, but they were up against the same wall as us in terms of a highly scientific statement and trying to help translate that to the public.
Before the governor could even issue her release, I received the first call from the Associated Press asking if we were aware of the EPA's statement and what it meant. Our food safety program and the experts that we'd consulted with felt good at that point saying that the amount of radiation found was too small to be a public health threat and that no precautionary action was necessary. I was able to state those two things to the AP reporter. But you know you can just sense when a journalist is on deadline, trying to be the first to the wire. So I didn't have a chance to say anything else, which is good because I didn't have a whole lot more to say! But I just let him know we were working on it, it was early in the process, and we would certainly plan on open lines of communication with partner agencies and with the public.
Internationally, we were on the map as the first location to confirm that there had been increased monitoring for radiation. There’s a lot of fear in that for the public, just knowing that there’s increased monitoring going on. I think the natural conclusion is “well, there must be something to be worried about.”
If that reporter had called and if I had a moment of panic, if I had said, “We’re not quite sure what these results mean,” or “We think it’s safe to drink the milk,” if I had indicated at all that I was caught by surprise, I think that could’ve been a whole different outcome on an international scale, which just floors me.
My risk communication training kicked in. I was on auto pilot. At that point, we had our risk communication plan in place and I was able to easily access some templates and some preliminary strategies for first steps to take. And so we were able to put together those key messages and share them with partner agencies and solicit feedback from them. And even though we started with just two key points, each time we were able to add a few more bullet points as agencies responded.
I was really pleased with the level of collaboration we had with those messaging points even when we didn’t have all the information. We all had a few things we felt okay saying, and that gave me confidence when that reporter called. Just following the basic principles of risk communication, and knowing that my messages would need to instill trust in our agency, and assuage those fears, and let people know that there are multiple agencies that are all saying the same thing.