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Toxic Substances and Health
Cover Page
En español
The ATSDR Mission
Community Involvement
Issues and Principles
Myths and Actions
Cardinal Rules
Knowing Your Publics
Risk Perception
Community Interaction
Communication Channels
Trust & Credibility
Avoiding Pitfalls
Assessing Effectiveness
Public Meetings
Before the Meeting
Opening Presentation
Presentation Aids
Planning & Preparation
Design Guidelines
Presentation Reminders
Using Risk Comparisons
Presentation Planner
Sins of Communication
Answering Questions
Sample Questions
DOs and DONTs
Hostile Situations
The Media
Media Perspective
Preparing a Message
An Interview
In a Crisis
Risk Documents
Cancer Policy
Risk Assessment
Evaluation Primer
Methyl Parathion
Psychologial Responses
ATSDR Resources
Case Studies (CSEM)
Exposure Pathways
HazDat Database
Health Assessments
Health Statements
Interaction Profiles
Interactive Learning
Managing Incidents
Medical Guidelines
Minimal Risk Levels
Priority List
Toxicological Profiles
Toxicology Curriculum
External Resources
Medline Plus

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
A Primer on Health Risk Communication

Principles and Practices
Overview of Issues and Guiding Principles (continued)

Selecting Channels for Communication

Achieving effective communication with your publics depends on selecting methods of communication that will reach them. Consider your messages and your target audiences in selecting the most appropriate communication media. Here are a few suggestions.

  • Public: Coworkers
    • News releases and fact sheets
    • Site tours
    • Meetings to address questions and concerns
    • Hotlines
    • Unit newspaper articles
  • Public: Area residents
    • Community meetings
    • Newspaper articles and ads
    • Radio and TV talk shows
    • Fliers
    • Films, videos, and other materials at libraries
    • Direct mailings
  • Public: Elected officials, opinion leaders, and environmental activists
    • Frequent telephone calls
    • Fact sheets
    • Personal visits
    • Invitations to community meetings
    • News releases
    • Advance notices
  • Public: Media
    • News releases that focus on your message
    • Clear, informative fact sheets
    • Site visits
    • News conferences

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Earning Trust and Building Credibility
(Covello 1992; Covello 1993)

Your ability to establish constructive communication will be determined, in large part, by whether your audiences perceive you to be trustworthy and believable. Consider how they form their judgments and perceptions.

Factors in Assessing Trust and Credibility

Research conducted by Dr. Vincent Covello at Columbia University's Center for Risk Communication shows that public assessment of how much we can be trusted and believed is based upon four factors:

  • Empathy and caring
  • Competence and expertise
  • Honesty and openness
  • Dedication and commitment

Trust and credibility are difficult to achieve; if lost, they are even more difficult to regain.

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Avoiding Pitfalls

  • Pitfall: Jargon

    Do: Define all technical terms and acronyms.
    Don't: Use language that may not be understood by even a portion of your audience.

  • Pitfall: Humor

    Do: If used, direct it at yourself.
    Don't: Use it in relation to safety, health, or environmental issues.

  • Pitfall: Negative Allegations

    Do: Refute the allegation without repeating it.
    Don't: Repeat or refer to them.

  • Pitfall: Negative Words and Phrases

    Do: Use positive or neutral terms.
    Don't: Refer to national problems, i.e., "This is not Love Canal."

  • Pitfall: Reliance on Words

    Do: Use visuals to emphasize key points.
    Don't: Rely entirely on words.

  • Pitfall: Temper

    Do: Remain calm. Use a question or allegation as a springboard to say something positive.
    Don't: Let your feelings interfere with your ability to communicate positively.

  • Pitfall: Clarity

    Do: Ask whether you have made yourself clear.
    Don't: Assume you have been understood.

  • Pitfall: Abstractions

    Do: Use examples, stories, and analogies to establish a common understanding.

  • Pitfall: Nonverbal Messages

    Do: Be sensitive to nonverbal messages you are communicating. Make them consistent with what you are saying.
    Don't: Allow your body language, your position in the room, or your dress to be inconsistent with your message.

  • Pitfall: Attacks

    Do: Attack the issue.
    Don't: Attack the person or organization.

  • Pitfall: Promises

    Do: Promise only what you can deliver. Set and follow strict orders.
    Don't: Make promises you can't keep or fail to follow up.

  • Pitfall: Guarantees

    Do: Emphasize achievements made and ongoing efforts.
    Don't: Say there are no guarantees.

  • Pitfall: Speculation

    Do: Provide information on what is being done.
    Don't: Speculate about worst cases.

  • Pitfall: Money

    Do: Refer to the importance you attach to health, safety, and environmental issues; your moral obligation to public health outweighs financial considerations.
    Don't: Refer to the amount of money spent as a representation of your concern.

  • Pitfall: Organizational Identity

    Do: Use personal pronouns ("I," "we").
    Don't: Take on the identity of a large organization.

  • Pitfall: Blame

    Do: Take responsibility for your share of the problem.
    Don't: Try to shift blame or responsibility to others.

  • Pitfall: "Off the Record"

    Do: Assume everything you say and do is part of the public record.
    Don't: Make side comments or "confidential" remarks.

  • Pitfall: Risk/Benefit/Cost Comparisons

    Do: Discuss risks and benefits in separate communications.
    Don't: Discuss your costs along with risk levels.

  • Pitfall: Risk Comparison

    Do: Use them to help put risks in perspective.
    Don't: Compare unrelated risks.

  • Pitfall: Health Risk Numbers

    Do: Stress that true risk is between zero and the worst-case estimate. Base actions on federal and state standards rather than risk numbers.
    Don't: State absolutes or expect the lay public to understand risk numbers.

  • Pitfall: Numbers

    Do: Emphasize performance, trends, and achievements.
    Don't: Mention or repeat large negative numbers.

  • Pitfall: Technical Details and Debates

    Do: Focus your remarks on empathy, competence, honesty, and dedication.
    Don't: Provide too much detail or take part in protracted technical debates.

  • Pitfall: Length of Presentations

    Do: Limit presentations to 15 minutes.
    Don't: Ramble or fail to plan the time well.

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Assessing Your Effectiveness

In designing your communication program, establish measurable objectives. For each component, determine what went well, what could have gone better, and why.

For each portion of the program, ask the following questions:

Were the objectives met?
Were the changes the result of your program?

What went well? Why?

What could have gone better? Why?
How can the program be improved?

What lessons are there to be learned?
With whom should they be shared?

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