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Volume 32, Issue 3

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The recent nuclear crisis in Japan, triggered by an earthquake and complicated by the resulting tsunami, exemplifies the need for effective risk and crisis communication before, during, and after such an event. To cope with a disaster of this magnitude, a distrustful and resistant public needs more than an explanation of potential health and safety risks. It needs risk communication that indicates a solid understanding of stakeholders’ in-crisis and post-crisis needs. The public needs a multi-component strategy that addresses its concerns, establishes trust, and alleviates fear and the anger directed at the person or organization, as well as the government agency it considers responsible. The public also needs to be encouraged to participate in risk-reduction activities and in the decision-making process.

These and other challenges and opportunities must be considered when assessing the threats, vulnerabilities, and consequences of a high-stress and high-concern event and the implications for communications to affected communities and national audiences. To do that, the Washington, D.C. Chapter of the Association of Continuity Planners (ACP) hosted an expert panel in April 2011 in McLean, Va. Panelists included Tim Tinker, DrPH, a senior associate who leads Booz Allen’s Center for Risk and Crisis Communication; Marko Moscovitch, Ph.D., director of the Health Physics Graduate Program at Georgetown University; and Tony Dorsey, manager of media relations, news, and information for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

Interactive exercises, role plays, and a scenario-based exercise helped participants to learn and apply best practices for communicating science, engaging the media, and delivering effective communication in the aftermath of catastrophic events. From the expert panel discussion best practices emerged in three major communication categories: 1) communicating scientific and technical information; 2) understanding media needs and frustrations; and 3) delivering effective messages.

Communicating Scientific and Technical Information

markDr. Marko Moscovitch is often a scientific subject matter expert called on by reporters during times of crises. Most recently he was asked to comment on Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster and offered three best practices for communicating information to the public in such a situation.


The general public can understand even the most complex concepts if they are explained the right way. Consider the concept of millisievert. In scientific jargon, it is one of the units used to express the radiation quantity “dose equivalent.” This quantity is the energy per unit mass multiplied by a weighting factor that takes into account the different biological effects on an organism of the various radiation forms such as alpha, beta, and so forth. Clearly, this is not a simple concept to convey. But explain how many millisieverts people are exposed to in their daily lives to better understand what different levels of exposure mean in terms of risk. For example, the level of radiation coming from the Fukushima plant in some instances was 10 millisieverts, but a pediatric CT scan delivers 25 millisieverts, a mammogram exposes the recipient to 2 millisieverts, a round-trip flight from New York to London exposes the traveler to 1 millisievert, and living in the Washington, D.C. area exposes inhabitants to 3 millisieverts of radiation in one year. Equally effective for simplifying complex information is to make the unfamiliar familiar. For example, Dr. Moscovitch cited a New York Times reporter who had interviewed several scientists. When she asked them a question about radiation levels in spinach around the Fukushima site, the scientists answered with facts about natural radioactivity in bananas to make the point that we are always exposed to radiation in our daily life.


The public is already stressed, so it is very important to mitigate escalating fears and concerns. Do not make extreme comments; instead, be factual and empathic in explaining complex risks.


Never underestimate the public’s ability to comprehend the nature, form, and severity in a crisis situation. While showing meaningless or irrelevant pictures without context or adequate explanation will not help you communicate your points, using strong visuals to enhance your spokesperson’s credibility will. For example, when conducting broadcast interviews during the Japan catastrophe, Dr. Moscovitch was filmed in his lab, wearing his lab coat and explaining and demonstrating how scientific instruments were used in the field.

Understanding the Media’s Needs and Frustrations

dorseyTony Dorsey, an Emmy-award winning journalist in his previous career, provided a reporter’s perspective on what reporters will expect from public officials during a catastrophic event. He stressed that building a trusting relationship with reporters prior to the catastrophe is vital. Risk communicators and reporters have a symbiotic relationship and need one another to disseminate necessary information to the public – especially during a crisis.


In the first few minutes and hours of a crisis, reporters generally want to know the “5WsH” – who, what, where, when, why, and how about the event. Begin by sharing information about the names of the agencies and the key individuals, including press contacts, involved in the emergency response. During the Japan crisis, reporters wanted to know the number of dead and injured; how many people have or will be evacuated; and what the danger is to humans beginning at Ground Zero, up to at least a 5,000-mile radius. If the event was an accident they will want to know who and exactly what was responsible for causing the event and what is being done to prevent a future occurrence. If the event was intentional, reporters will want to know who was responsible, if arrests had been made, and when and if the government would retaliate.


Speaking to Dorsey tongue-in-cheek, a newspaper reporter commented that “journalists are like hogs. If you keep us fed regularly on a filling diet, we’ll stay in the pen.” The reporter’s point is that it’s important that officials responding to emergencies understand what motivates reporters. They need constant access to good information so they can meet their deadlines.” He says it frustrates reports when officials are disorganized, don’t have press packets ready, provide reporters with supporting documentation, have a poor or no sound system, and poor lighting. And reporters do not want to be called to a press conference only to find they could have obtained the same information through faster and more efficient offline and online means.


Provide frequent updates to reporters and be honest about what you can share. Never lose your composure and don’t lie or mislead. If you cannot share something, just explain why a particular subject cannot be discussed. And if you don’t know something say you don’t know. Let the reporter know that you are willing to find out the information without speculating on what the answer might be. Always do a follow-up because it’s your credibility that’s on the line.

Delivering Messages That Matter

tinkerDr. Tim Tinker, a nationally and internationally recognized risk and crisis communicator, emphasized messaging as a vital component of communications during a crisis situation. Of the many techniques available, he described four in particular which he believes are integral to motivating life-saving decisions, actions, and behaviors.


A crisis has three phases and an effective strategy links the messages to the phase impact message. This message should be linked to the first few minutes and hours of the crisis. People are in one of three modes: fight, flight, or freeze. Research indicates that 25 percent of the audience is calm; 48 to 60 percent are in the shock and anxiety phase; and the remaining group is in a near paralysis phase. Examples of impact messages immediately following a catastrophic event are: Am I safe? Are my loved ones safe? What should I tell my children? Recoil message. The immediate danger has passed. Reflection sets in. The experience is shared with other people, friends, and family. A recoil message should address the audience’s physiologic, safety, and social needs, similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Post-trauma message. In this third phase, reality begins to sink in and the sense of loss becomes more pronounced – e.g., “We’ve lost our home. We’ve lost a family member.” Messaging in this phase should be about moving people from a sense of despair to a sense of hope. Messaging should include the ongoing response to the crisis and move the audience into recovery and resilience. This message should provide hope, optimism, and the sense of a better future.


What do people stand to lose during catastrophic events? Family, home, freedom, stability, and a sense of security, to name a few, and messaging should be directed at all of these. Does the messaging address the physical, the psychological, the emotional, and even the spiritual? When the message meets people at the point of loss, they can be moved from that point of loss to the point of recovery and even to the point of gain. Moving the public from the pain to the gain is incremental and it happens in micro steps – in micro-messaging techniques such as “27/9/3” and refers to parameters for the average media sound bit or 27 words, nine seconds, and three key messages.


Communication is a transactional relationship. The recipient wants or needs something, and the messenger has something to give. The recipient wants or needs competency, assurance, satisfaction, empathy, trust, and compensation. The messenger offers structure (e.g., housing, health, food, and water), compassion, points of contact, resources, and solutions. The messenger-recipient relationship engenders two components: informational and motivational, both of which have to be addressed for a message to work. The informational component appeals to the intellectual, informational side of the brain. The motivational component appeals to the emotional and psychological portion (assurance, satisfaction, empathy). If the two components are synchronic – actually working together – the result is an improved ability to move people from a present state to the desired state. Such a message helps people to envision what is termed the “present-future” or the ability to visualize a better future while in a chaotic and unpredictable present.


Numerous templates exist to help design, develop, and deliver the message. A very simple and effective one is the emotive, simple, and personal (ESP) template. The E component of the message is designed to appeal to the key emotion. In the impact phase, that emotion is fear; in the recoil phase, there are a variety of stressors and emotions; and in the post-trauma phase, the emotions are tied to resilience and recovery. The S component is a reminder to keep the message simple. The message should be clear; concise; and free of jargon, technical terms, acronyms, and negatives. The danger of the latter is that repetition of the negative reinforces that negative. The P component is perhaps the most important. Make the message personal. Make it relevant and actionable. What are we asking the public to either do or not do? In other words, what is our call to action? How will it make a difference for me, my family, and community? Following just this single message template could have had a major impact on how information was received, processed, and either acted or not acted upon during the Japan disaster.

wehrheimStephanie Wehrheim is an associate with Booz Allen Hamiliton and vice president of the Association of Contingency Planners (ACP) Washington DC Chapter.