Risk and outbreak communication

Risk communication needs to be considered at all stages of risk management. It is a sustained communication process established with a diverse audience about the likely outcomes of health and behavioural attitudes. The main goal is to engage communities in discussions about environmental and health-related risks to create public understanding about their outcomes and approaches to deal with them.

Risk communication can be about specific health-related choices, e.g. the perceived risks associated with getting immunised, or related to behaviours, as the risks associated with sexual behaviour. This approach requires a profound understanding of the distinction between the different dimensions and models of behavioural sciences.

Crisis communication

While risk communication is ongoing, crisis communication is a reactive communication effort in the face of an unforeseen event. It is often unpredictable and unexpected, develops suddenly, takes uncontrolled course and evokes uncontrollable reactions.

An open, honest, and ongoing interaction with the audience remains essential to successful communication during crisis.  Focus is kept on the message, the time of its announcement and the media used, and some common advice to improve include: 

  • Do not allow a delayed reaction; 
  • Do not abandon pro-active action or allow for no action at all; 
  • Do not allow lack of preparedness to communicate in a crisis; 
  • Do not ignore the needs and expectations of the mass traditional media; 
  • Do not allow for lack of communication with external partners and stakeholders; 
  • Do not allow lack of internal communication in health systems and organisations; 
  • Do not allow information chaos; 
  • Do not play down the complexity of audience diversity; 
  • Promote careful elaboration and proactive planning of potential actions related to crisis communication as a crucial element in eliminating the unexpected characteristic of a crisis and probably prevent it or at least avoid its uncontrolled course;

Outbreak communication

Acknowledging that “communication expertise has become as essential to outbreak control as epidemiological training and laboratory analysis”, in 2005 the World Health Organization created a communication guidelines aimed at clarifying the specific communication challenges faced by public health officials as well as the best practices for communicating with the public during an outbreak of a communicable disease.

An effective outbreak communication is one of the tools that can help achieve the public health goal of bringing an outbreak under control as quickly as possible, with as little social disruption as possible.

The guidelines identify some fundamental aspects for outbreak communication practice:

  • Trust; 
  • Announcing early; 
  • Transparency; 
  • Understanding the public; 
  • Planning;