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Acknowledge Uncertainty

Take Your Best Guess

Imagine that you are the public health spokesperson during the early stages of an outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7, a serious bacterial infection. A reporter asks you to identify the source of the outbreak. Your department has good reason to believe that one restaurant is the source, but laboratory tests have not yet confirmed this. Take your best guess: Which of the following is the best response you can give?

Image of E. coli bacteria

The best answer is C.

Saying “I don’t know” is an acceptable response and can build credibility, especially if you give a reason why you don’t know.

During crisis events, the media ask us to explain situations that we may not fully understand and to judge how serious risks are when we haven’t made that determination yet. We want to be right, but if we wait for all the information to come to light, we risk that less credible sources will beat us to the punch.

If information is neither known nor available, the best thing to do is to be honest and open about it. It’s acceptable to acknowledge that you don’t have all the information, particularly if you:

  • Explain why you don’t have all of the information.
  • Tell the public what you will do to find out and when you will have the information, if possible.
  • Provide as much information as possible to help audiences understand that uncertainty is part of the process and that the answers available now may not be the final answers.