Principles and Practices
Overview of Issues and Guiding Principles
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
- Unit newspaper articles
- Public: Area residents
- Community meetings
- Newspaper articles and ads
- Radio and TV talk shows
- 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
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.
Do: Define all technical terms and acronyms.
Don't: Use language that may not be understood by even a portion of your audience.
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.
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.
Do: Ask whether you have made yourself clear.
Don't: Assume you have been understood.
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.
Do: Attack the issue.
Don't: Attack the person or organization.
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.
Do: Emphasize achievements made and ongoing efforts.
Don't: Say there are no guarantees.
Do: Provide information on what is being done.
Don't: Speculate about worst cases.
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.
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.
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.
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?