As a public health crisis evolves beyond 24 to 48 hours, the demand for information outside traditional media channels (radio, TV, newspaper, and news Web sites) increases, and public information officials must choose the right method of delivery to address various audiences.

Achieving effective communication with your audiences depends on selecting effective methods of communication. This is especially important in health risk communication, where the audience can become disenfranchised quickly if they feel that they are not getting information.

Message Delivery Channelsvideo:  Garland on "Don't forget non-traditional channels"31

It is important to recognize that there are many message delivery channels. The following table lists several delivery channels.

Channel Examples
Face-to-face health care professional to patient, or your organization's staff member to state partner agency or individuals in the community
Group delivery small group meetings or public meetings
Organizational constituents of influential community organizations
Mass media radio, television, newspaper, or direct mail
Community employers, schools, malls, health groups, or local government agencies
Combination a combination of any of the channels listed above

To evaluate the effectiveness of a channel to your given message, consider the following questions.

  • Is the channel appropriate for the health risk problem/issue and messages?
  • Will the target audience find the channel credible and accessible?
  • Does the channel fit the program purpose (inform, allay fears, influence attitudes, or change behavior)?
  • Is the channel feasible, considering your schedule and budget? How many can you afford?

Identifying Specific Communication Tools

The tools you will use depend on your audience, how participants prefer to receive information, and the information you need to communicate. The following is a list of tools you should consider:


A briefing is a session held with key State and local officials, media representatives, and community leaders. Agency staff conduct sessions in person. Briefings help to notify key State and local officials, media representatives, and community leaders of developments at the site, such as results of studies or actions that should be taken to protect health. A briefing can be used to introduce your organization and explain its role and work process. Briefings are not usually open to the public.

Conducting a briefing:

  • Schedule the briefing in a small public room, such as a hotel meeting room or a conference room.
  • Hold the briefing in a neutral location, particularly when dealing with an antagonistic situation.
  • Prepare a fact sheet or question/answer sheet.
  • Present a short, official statement about the agency's findings, health concerns, or recent developments.
  • Use simple yet complete language.
  • Avoid jargon, acronyms, and overly technical terms.
  • Answer questions about the statement.
  • Work with your organization's office of public affairs to coordinate briefings.

Benefits of a briefing:

  • Allows State and local officials, the media, and citizens to question your organization directly about any activity before the public release of information.
  • Prepares officials and citizen leaders to answer questions from their constituents when the information becomes public.
  • Allows for the exchange of information and concerns.

Limitations of a briefing:

  • Although briefings can be effective, they could become the only means of communicating with site communities. Briefings should always be complemented by activities to inform the general public, such as small group or public meetings.
  • Bad feelings or bad publicity could result if some individuals believe they should be invited to the briefing and are not. Be sure not to exclude such persons or convey favoritism toward certain parties. (Your contact list should already be determined in your plans and procedures and should be used when preparing the invitation list.)

Community Mailings

A community mailing sends information by mail to key contacts and concerned or involved members of the community. It disseminates information quickly and easily in writing, and it is particularly useful when you have updates for the community.

If the updates are straightforward, noncontroversial, and easy to understand, the mailing can stand on its own. However, if the updates are more complicated and require discussion or further explanation, the mailing should be done in addition to public or small group meetings. The community mailing can announce upcoming meetings and provide information in advance, or serve as a follow-up for people who did not attend previous meetings.

When developing a community mailing, compile a mailing list that includes the following individuals:

  • State and local officials (check with city clerk for assistance)
  • Community leaders (check with local chamber of commerce)
  • Local residents of the affected area (check with city clerk for assistance)
  • Community members who have signed up to receive information.

When creating mailing materials, include the following items:

  • A cover letter that introduces you, briefly explains the purpose of the mailing, and provides contact information for comments or questions
  • A fact sheet, newsletter, report, or other documents to deliver to the community
  • First-class postage to deliver the mailing quickly.

Benefits of a community mailing:

  • Enables you to deliver information quickly and may require less planning time than a meeting.

Limitations of a community mailing:

  • Allows no interaction or opportunity for community members to ask questions.


Exhibits set up visual displays of maps, charts, diagrams, or photographs, and can help illustrate health issues and proposed actions associated with hazardous substance problems in a creative and informative display. Effective exhibits can make technical information accessible and understandable. Exhibits can be used during any phase of your site work.

Developing an exhibit:

  • Identify the target audience and the message.

Possible audiences include:

  • General public
  • Concerned citizens
  • Environmental groups
  • Media representatives
  • Public officials.

Possible messages include:

  • Description of the health risk
  • Historical background information related to the site
  • Community relations activities
  • Proposed remedies and actions to protect community health.

Creating an exhibit:

  • Determine where it will be set up. Place it in a highly visible location, such as a public library, convention hall, or shopping center, especially if your target audience is largely the public of the town.
  • Set up a temporary exhibit at a public meeting if a segment of concerned community members is the target audience.
  • Design it according to the message to be transmitted.
  • Include photos or illustrations. Use text sparingly.
  • Keep it simple and visual. The exhibit could be a bulletin board, if appropriate.
  • Staff the exhibit with someone to answer questions, guide people through complicated issues, and gain informal feedback.

Benefits of an exhibit:

  • Stimulates public interest and understanding.
  • Creates visual impact and leaves a lasting impression.

Limitations of an exhibit:

  • Exhibits are a one-way communication tool and do not provide an opportunity for community feedback. Exhibits should be staffed with people who are subject matter experts and trained in risk communication if possible.

Fact Sheets

A fact sheet is a brief report summarizing current or proposed activities at the site. Fact sheets are appropriate whenever new information is available.

Fact sheets can be useful to:

  • Introduce your organization to the community and explain the organization's role.
  • Explain the health risk associated with a site.
  • Guide community members in precautionary health actions.
  • Announce new findings.
  • Hand out at public meetings or community gatherings.

Types of information in a fact sheet:

  • Explanation of the triggering event that caused the health risk situation
  • Timetable for proposed actions
  • Description of health issues or problems associated with the site
  • Description of the necessary health actions
  • Description of public participation opportunities
  • Name, address, and phone number of the organization's contact person who can provide additional information on request.

Presenting the information:

  • Use your organization's preferred format or select a simple format.
  • Be concise. Avoid jargon, acronyms, or highly technical language.
  • Provide written information (e.g., a news release summarizing your announcement, fact sheets, copies of your prepared statement, biographies of your speakers).
  • Open the conference to questions to be answered by organization officials, local officials, and technical staff.

Benefits of a fact sheet:

  • Effective in briefly summarizing facts and issues
  • Provides background for information discussed during a meeting.

Limitations of a fact sheet:

  • Is a one-way communication tool
  • Requires careful writing and coordination to make technical information easy to understand and easy to deliver.


A newsletter informs community members of activities, findings, health precautions, and other information concerning a health assessment.

Newsletter topic areas:

  • Overview of your organization and background of its involvement at the site
  • Plans for your organization's work on the site and findings, if available
  • Health guidelines, if applicable
  • Upcoming activities and previous organization activities, if any, that have taken place in the community
  • Frequently asked questions and answers
  • Contact information for your organization's staff.

Newsletter design:

  • Use simple, understandable language with headlines, boxes, rule lines, type variations, and other effects to make the newsletter attractive and easy to read.
  • Establish a four-page limit (an 11-by-17-inch sheet of paper folded in half makes a good four-page newsletter).
  • Ask someone not involved in the project to test-read the newsletter and provide feedback on message clarity.
  • Use two colors if resources allow.
  • Photocopy or print the newsletter.
  • Consider using electronic newsletter format.

Mail the newsletter to your mailing list and/or distribute it at public or small group meetings. If there is a central gathering place in the community, ask if you can leave copies there for community members.

Benefits of a newsletter:

  • Explains your work and findings to the community
  • Allows you to deliver a written document that community members can keep and refer to later.

Limitations of a newsletter:

  • Can backfire if community members do not understand or are angered by what you have written.
  • Does not give community members the opportunity to ask questions. (Always include contact information in your newsletter so people have a way to ask questions.)

Open Houses/Availability Sessions/Poster Sessions

An open house or availability session is an informal meeting where community members can talk to agency staff on a one-on-one basis. It is most appropriate when key milestones or major decisions have been reached.

Conducting an open house/availability session:

  • Determine community interest in the site before planning an open house.
  • Select a date, time, and location for the open house. To encourage attendance, choose evening hours or weekends at an easily accessible building familiar to residents (a public library or local meeting room).
  • Anticipate the number of attendees and plan accordingly. Consider holding two open houses, if necessary, to enable staff to greet and talk with each attendee. One staff member per 15 to 20 attendees generally fosters an informal atmosphere for conversation, which is preferable to a speaker addressing a crowd.
  • Publicize the open house at least two weeks before the event. Send announcements to newspapers, television and radio stations, citizens on the mailing list, and any interested community organizations that publish newsletters.
  • Create exhibits and fact sheets to provide background information that enables citizens to ask more informed questions about the site during the open house.
  • Include staff that are prepared to discuss technical information in an easy-to-understand manner.

Benefits of an open house:

  • Allows for one-on-one conversation
  • Helps build trust and establishes a rapport between community members and organization staff.

Limitations of an open house:

  • Can require significant staff time for planning and execution. A low turnout may not justify the effort.


A presentation can be a speech to a club, civic or church organization, school class, or similar local audience. Presentations are more effective if they focus on such major milestones as research findings or health recommendations.

Developing a presentation:

  • Describe the health risk situation.
  • Describe how the health risk affects the community.
  • Discuss what your organization is doing to alleviate the health risk situation.
  • Discuss how citizens can assist your organization and obtain additional information.
  • Select materials to support the presentation, such as slides, graphics, and exhibits that will hold the audience's attention.
  • Conduct a trial presentation in front of colleagues and rehearse the presentation as much as possible.

Benefits of a presentation:

  • Offers the audience a chance to ask questions, giving the organization the opportunity to gauge community concerns
  • Reaches many people at one time, reducing individual inquiries.

Limitations of a presentation:

  • If poorly presented, can distort community members' view of the situation.
  • Can only address individual community concerns during a question-and-answer period following the rehearsed presentation; could try people's patience.
  • The presenter may be confronted with difficult or argumentative questions from community members.

Public Meetings

A public meeting is a large meeting, open to the public, where experts present information and answer questions, and community members ask questions and offer comments.

Arranging a public meeting:

  • Create an agenda. Involve citizens in developing the agenda.
  • Hold the meeting in a public, comfortable setting that is easily accessible, well lit, and has adequate parking and seating, especially for persons with disabilities.
  • Be sensitive to special needs of community members. Consider translations for non-English speakers or sign interpreters for hearing-impaired participants.
  • Announce the meeting in local media two weeks in advance. Distribute flyers to community members and groups interested in attending. Clarify that the meeting is not a formal public hearing, but rather, a place to exchange information and comments.
  • Follow up with media closer to the meeting time to encourage their attendance. Send a media alert, which contains brief information on where and when the meeting is and what the topic will be, and/or make phone calls to key contacts.

Conducting the meeting:

  • State the purpose of the meeting, and then outline the agenda and the procedures for making statements.
  • Present preliminary findings and proposed course of action.
  • Distribute materials, including fact sheets and other materials, for participants to take home.
  • Prepare a transcript of the meeting; make the transcript publicly available, and announce how it can be obtained.
  • Allow time for citizens' comments. Include a question and answer session. Meetings should last from one to three hours.
  • Consider audio or videotaping the meeting as a record so you can refer to it to refresh your memory on community concerns, if necessary.
  • Hire a trained facilitator/moderator.

Benefits of a public meeting:

  • Allows the community to express concerns and the organization to present information.

Limitations of a public meeting:

  • Little information is exchanged in this setting. Usually provides a stage for those who want to disrupt rather than contribute.
  • Can intensify conflicts rather than resolve controversies by bringing the public together. If public meetings at the site have failed in the past, use an alternative method (small group meetings or a formal public hearing) to transmit information and obtain feedback.

Small Group (Or Focus Group) Meetings

At small group meetings, organization staff share information with interested community members and State and local officials. It is especially useful for informing and keeping in touch with community concerns, answering questions, and clearing up any misconceptions or misunderstandings.

Preparing for a small group meeting:

  • Identify interested citizens and officials. Contact each citizen, group, or local organization that is directly affected by site activities. Offer to discuss health issues at a convenient time.
  • Limit attendance to 5 to 20 individuals. If a greater number of community members and officials are interested, schedule additional small meetings.
  • Decide whether to invite the media. However, bear in mind that media presence may intimidate the community. You may want to hold a similar meeting for the media.
  • Select a meeting place conducive to two-way interaction. Arrange chairs in a circle or other informal setting.
  • Select a date and time that allows for maximum participation. Make sure that the date and time do not conflict with other public meetings, holidays, or other special occasions.

Conducting the meeting:

  • Ask people to sign in and provide contact information so you have a record of who attended.
  • Begin with an overview of current and future health-related site activities and findings.
  • Invite citizen participation. Explain that you want to involve the community.
  • Distribute fact sheets and other written information for attendees to take home.
  • Follow up on major concerns. Stay in touch with the group and contact any new groups that have formed.

Benefits of a small group meeting:

  • Allows two-way interaction with the community.

Limitations of a small group meeting:

  • May require a day or more of staff time to reach only a few citizens.
  • May be perceived by community groups as an effort to limit attendance, or as a tactic to prevent large groups from exerting influence. (Hold additional small group meetings with those organizations that express concern about being left out of the process.)
  • Irate groups or individuals may accuse your organization's staff of telling different stories to different groups. (Avoid criticism by inviting a cross section of community interests to each small group meeting and by keeping a written record.)

Telephone Contacts

Telephone contacts are calls to State and local officials and concerned community members, informing them of your organization's activities, finding out who is involved at the site, and gathering information about the site. After this initial contact is made, you may make calls during your work on site to inform these individuals and monitor the extent of community concerns.

Calls also should be made periodically to inform key contacts of any major findings and the progress of site activities. Telephone contacts are important to understand community concerns and gather information.

When making telephone contacts, know exactly what information to request (e.g., additional references, site specifics, or background information) and tailor questions accordingly. The following is a list of information that you might request from the contact:

  • Background on the site and the problem
  • Recent Government activities at the site
  • Nature and extent of citizen involvement
  • Names, addresses, and telephone numbers of other possible contacts.


Video Clips:
video:  Garland on "Don't forget non-traditional channels"31 Garland on "Don't forget non-traditional channels"