Why is communication important?
Communication should be oriented toward helping affected people make decisions and empowering them to implement those decisions. Affected participants, agencies at all levels of government, and local organizations should be involved in communication planning.
Coherent communication planning is needed for short-term, mid-term, and long-term communication.
Agencies are devoting considerable effort to ensure that good science underpins their intervention strategy on methyl parathion (MP). Agencies avoid sampling or monitoring without at least a short-term plan. To do otherwise would lead to poor risk management. Similarly, communication without a plan is equally unwise. It can lead to confusion that is hard to overcome, as agencies have often discovered after faulty news reports on any number of environmental issues. Distrust, once created, is very difficult to dispel (Slovic, 1993).
Communication without planning can also be a great drain on agency energy and resources. For example, brochures made public before considering the content and method of distribution may languish unused; coordination failures may lead to inundations of phone calls for which staff are unprepared; misinformation of the community can be more difficult to remedy than lack of information.
Getting over the "there's not enough time" syndrome
Insufficient time is the most common reason for skipping planning. One result is that agencies spend much time fighting communication fires rather than planning for them or avoiding them. In fact, ad hoc communication efforts often take far more time than carefully planned ones. Just as a poor sampling plan can slow down assessment because of the need to rethink and resample, it is ultimately more time-consuming to develop a brochure or fact sheet without thinking through how it will further your communication goals.
If the "there's not enough time" syndrome is affecting efforts to communicate about methyl parathion, consider the following potential options:
Planning to be proactive rather than reactive. Avoid firefighting by knowing where the flashpoints may occur.
Integrating communication and technical planning. If technical planning goes on for months and communication is thought of afterwards, it is impossible for communication to be timely or effective.
Developing basic outlines of long-term plans, so short-term implementation can occur. You can't get anywhere without a map, but tracing the major highways can be sufficient to get you to the right area--where you can develop the more detailed street map for immediate use.
Too often agencies do not have well-thought out protocols for communication emergencies that can be general but flexible to the situation. Because, unfortunately, MP situations are now being found in other areas, federal agencies should have generic standard operating procedures (with sufficient flexibility to modify for local conditions) about how to handle newly found outbreaks.