Maintaining Collaboration and Communication with Community Stakeholders

To maintain public trust and support through the duration of your public health work, you must keep lines of communication open. You can do this by providing regular updates on the status of your public health work and by conducting or participating in public health work in the community. A lack of ongoing communication or collaboration can lead to mistrust of the agency. Remember, saying “there is no update” is an update. There are many reasons why it may not be possible to be physically present in a community. In these cases, using the telephone, email, videoconferencing, and hosting virtual meetings to connect with community members and leaders can allow for ongoing engagement. The usual principles of relationship-building and maintenance apply (e.g., trust, reciprocity, empathy, and exchange). Your tactics must be adaptable to remote contact. When possible, engaging in person is always best.

Keep in Mind

Continue the collaboration! Identify opportunities for communication outside of meetings. This communication can go a long way in maintaining relationships. Depending on the needs of the community, you may want to consider providing routine and consistent updates by phone, email, or controlled correspondence.

Where to Start
  • Seek opportunities to work with community members to enhance local understanding of environmental public health. You can do this by joining or organizing community health fairs, local health care provider medical education, health workshops, or participating in existing community events or fairs.
  • Remember that regular collaboration is needed to keep the community aware of ATSDR’s public health work. Regular collaboration also prepares state, territorial, local, and tribal (STLT) partners to receive our final report.
  • Look at the calendar and identify any periods in your planned activities where you may be missing opportunities to continue the dialogue with community members.
  • Establish frequent communication to keep in touch with stakeholders. Communication may involve the development of e-newsletters, listservs, and mailings.
  • Proactively seek feedback from community members and monitor the community’s perception of your work. Be prepared to adjust your approach based on community input.
Tips from the Field

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Ask community members and STLT partners about community events, gatherings, and other happenings in the community. Local events can offer unique opportunities interact with community members and organizations.

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Be careful not to focus all your communication on the contamination itself. People inherently want to know who is involved, so always introduce ATSDR, and clarify your role and the role of other stakeholders and government agencies.

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Don’t develop activities for the community without consulting and collaborating with community members first.

Cultural Awareness

Every person has a culture. Culture refers to the many customs and beliefs that shape our perspectives and create a lens through which we see others. We are our own experts in the cultural experiences that influence our lives. When we try to communicate with people from other cultures, we need to ask ourselves whether we are doing so in an effective and appropriate manner. It is impossible to become an expert in every culture. Still, we can become more culturally aware, understand our own cultural influences, and respect and value the differences of other individuals and groups. (See Resource: Guide to Cultural Awareness for Disaster Response Volunteerspdf iconexternal icon)

Understanding Concerns and Dealing with Emotions

When a community member expresses concerns, do not panic! Listen and acknowledge their concerns. Although identifying the type and cause of the concern is helpful, how you manage, respond, and defuse the situation is key to maintaining relationships and accomplishing your public health goals and objectives. Keep the following tips in mind when having difficult conversations in a community:

  1. ACTIVELY LISTEN. When a community member is speaking to you about their concerns, listen carefully and do not interrupt. Ask questions when appropriate. Be sure you have a reasonable understanding of the issue before moving on. (See callout box: Listen Up!)
  2. SHOW EMPATHY. When working with community members, put yourself in their shoes. Take a step back from your own emotions and beliefs and try to see the issue from their perspective before responding.
  3. REMAIN CALM. Conversations can be hard. Focus on maintaining a good attitude and stay positive. When a situation escalates, remaining calm and professional can establish trust and make finding a resolution much easier.
  4. COMMUNICATE. Demonstrate an understanding of the community member’s concerns and take proactive approaches to include their concerns in your public health work. Consider collaborating with community members from the start to determine most appropriate community engagement approaches and activities. Remember to keep lines of communication open. Provide community members with your contact information and regular updates. Ask regularly for their input.
Case Study: Enhancing Community Collaborations

A local environmental justice (EJ) advocate petitioned ATSDR to conduct a public health assessment on behalf of a group of neighborhoods located adjacent to and near a factory. Community residents expressed concerns about chemical air emissions and odors from the factory. Residents had health concerns about lung cancer, bronchitis, asthma, attention deficit disorders, skin rashes, nausea, vomiting, and headaches. For years, the communities had filed complaints with factory managers, city officials, the local health department, and the state environmental protection agency. However, the residents believed their concerns were not being addressed. ATSDR accepted the petition and visited the communities to meet with residents, community leaders, local EJ advocates, the local health department, and industry leaders. During discussions, ATSDR learned that the communities lacked trust in federal, state, and local agencies. In addition, residents wanted help engaging and bringing other agencies to the table. In conversations with factory management, ATSDR learned that negative media coverage was the reason that factory management was not willing to sit down with local EJ advocates.

ATSDR participated in community visioning sessions and planning charettes—a structured, collaborative session in which a group comes together to develop a solution to a problem. The agency collaborated with the EJ advocate, community members, local elected officials, the EPA, the state environmental agency, the redevelopment authority, the local health department and school district, churches, and local universities. During the events, participants identified and ranked the communities’ needs and assets.

This collaborative approach helped foster relationships between residents and local officials who were positioned to address environmental, public safety, housing, zoning, and workforce development issues. ATSDR’s actions supported a more open dialogue between the residents and local officials.

Furthermore, ATSDR’s community engagement efforts identified the need for health care provider education on air exposures and environmental odors and the need for community public education. Knowing the communities’ preferences, ATSDR chose to engage local chapters of the American Lung Association, American Cancer Society, and the Black Nurses’ Association to deliver the health education.

Additional Resources
Page last reviewed: December 15, 2021