The news media and risk issues: 5 Key Steps That You Need to Know (circa 2003)

Well before blogs were even contemplated, I wrote this short essay in 2003 on the importance of working with the news media during risk and crisis events. I’m pretty sure that I sent it to some of my clients at the time, just to let them know that I was learning something during my doctoral studies at Syracuse University.  Just as in the crisis leadership article I posted earlier, it is obvious that this article was written before the influence of social media. Let me know what you think. Are my five steps still valid?

The news media and risk issues: 5 Key Steps That You Need to Know (2003).

The news media are a powerful and important force within society. Some researchers have called the media the world’s main source of information and knowledge (Rogers, 1996), others see the media as agents of social control (Shoemaker, 1984) , while still others view them as the champion of social problems (Yanovitzky & Bennett, 1999). Overall, the media are in a pivotal place to prompt social change either through helping to set the political agenda or by keeping issues and groups out of the public discussion.

Because the media are the channels through which information from environmental organizations will pass to their key audiences, it is essential that your organization become a recognized and dependable force in promoting your views on risk issues. According to Shoemaker (1991), interested groups can do this by becoming a formidable fore in the gatekeeping process; providing information and messages as a regular part of the media routine and as a result becoming a credible source of ongoing information for the media.

The media can greatly influence the nature, development, and ultimate success of an environmental risk issue. According to Ball-Rokeach, Power, Guthrie, and Waring (1990), interested groups need the media more than the media need them. Even with the explosion of the Internet, a more direct method of communicating with environmental stakeholders and policy makers, the mass media remain ” the primary link between the public and the political system” (p. 254).

Given that “most Americans know what they know about the environment from watching television news and reading newspapers” (Salomone, Greenberg, Sandman & Sachsman, 1990, p. 117), and furthermore, that much of what most people discuss about risk issues comes from the media, it is important for us to learn how to work with the media to bring environmental information to the public (Shanahan, Morgan, & Stenbjerre, 1997; Archibald, 1999).

Step 1:       This is your issue!

 There is no one in the world that knows your issue better than you do. That’s the good news. The bad news is, there is no one in the world that knows your issue better than you do! Our primary challenge during risk controversies is to distill a complex, technical issue into a manageable and meaningful media message. Environmental risk issues that have been managed effectively in the public arena have often been the result of a detailed, strategic media relations approach. The first step for any successful campaign is to do your homework – to understand how your issue fits within the current political and public landscape. The easiest way to achieve this understanding is to perform an external issues analysis by conducting “top-line” research with a systematic sample of your key stakeholder groups and target media outlets. What do they know about your organization? What kind of information are they looking for? How would they like to receive information from you? What other issues are competing for their attention. The purpose of this step is to begin to frame your issue in the eyes and ears of your audience. This is your opportunity to begin to develop your message in a way that will be acceptable and ultimately received by those groups that could eventually

determine the success or failure of your campaign. Remember, this takes time and starting this program well in advance of the public release of your issue is critical – think months and weeks and not days and hours and you will establish a solid issue foundation.

Step 2:       Media Relationships

 The media have a constitutionally guaranteed role to play in all political and risk issues: we may not like the job they are doing or believe that they are well-equipped to communicate about risk issues, but in reality, they are here to stay.  Once we come to grips with their place in the communication of risk issues, we can begin to think more clearly about how and when to work with the media to bring our issues to the public. It’s a basic tenant of human relation but it’s one that we sometimes fail to think about during risk controversies: the public and the media will believe you and see you as a credible source if they know you and have an ongoing relationship with you. Obviously, this is a difficult and somewhat challenging step but in today’s 24/7 media world, you have something that the media needs… information. Think of it as a quid pro quo type of system. You need them to carry your message to the public, and they need your information. But they need that information in a manner, style and at a time that bestsuits their needs. Your objective is to develop, as best as you can, working relationships with those journalists that may cover your issue: local, regional, national, broadcast, print and electronic. It takes time and research to find them and develop relations with them, but in the end, when your issue is hitting the public arena, it ‘ s better to systematically deliver your message to reporters who have a working knowledge of your issue and know where they can reach you for comment.

Step 3: What’s Your Message

 Researchers today tell us that the average consumer is inundated by more than 3,000 different messages each day. From television commercials, to newspaper ads, to political messages, to our own personal “to do’s” we are bombarded by products, services and family members that want a share of our mind. In this competitive environment, your message needs to be able to break through this clutter in order to frame your position and set the agenda for the media and the public. Refining your message into an easily understandable headline is both difficult and complex. What is your objective: awareness… creating a cognitive linkage between your message and the  public as a way of increasing knowledge of your issue; appreciation … while your audience maybe aware of your position, do they understand it and are they ready to form an opinion about your message; and finally, are you attempting to create an action or change a behavior through your message. Your message can only focus on one of these objectives and if you want your audience to do something with your message the n they first need to be aware of your position and second must have an appreciation for your message in relation to all the other messages that are bombarding them. These two steps are critical before they will eventually decide to act on your message.

Step 4: Anticipation, Practice and Performance

Lights, camera and… that’s right, today’s media-centered, consumer world looks at times like the Hollywood images that the entertainment industry continually projects to us. Think about the media vortex surrounding the Columbia disaster, the Beltway Sniper, the nightclub fires, and the kidnapping and disappearances of young women in recent years. The media’s ability to broadcast a disaster or an issue from any part of the world in a relatively short period of time magnifies our need to always be ready. The media’s satellite technology can beam images and comments to millions of television sets in just minutes and as such, you and your organization must be prepared to deal with the potential media hordes. I remember working with a small town on a water contamination issue, regularly briefing more than 150 journalists from throughout North America and Europe. More than 90 percent of these journalists had never visited this small town before and probably haven’t been back in the years since the crisis.  You need to establish a media management system so that you are ready for the onslaught of journalist, whether you are in control of the announcement or reacting to a crisis event. Identify the most capable spokespeople and regularly train them on your key messages and their ability to respond to, what at times seems like, an unruly mob. Your spokesperson should be able to effectively communicate your message in a confident, credible and empathetic manner. Unfortunately, their credibility and the credibility of your organization will be judged by their performance under the spotlight.

Step 5: Become A Student of Media Relations

There are literally thousands of books, videotapes, websites and consultants that can keep you up to date on the do’s and don’ts of effective media relations. Better yet, there are hundreds of minutes of daily newscasts that can provide you with the ability to critique, review and assess the most effective media performances on television. Look, listen and think about the spokespeople that you see on the news. What’s their message? How well were they able to articulate the message? How did they respond to difficult questions? Were they prepared for the media interview? If you were in their shoes, what would you do differently?

Furthermore, visit any bookstore – in person or on the web, and search for books on media training skills. Read them and take their advice to heart.  Unfortunately, it won’t be as easy as the books make it out to be. Effective media relations take time, practice and skill to implement. If you want a more hands-on approach to skills building, hire a media-training specialist, someone who has worked with risk issues, and have them train you and your team. I have found that using outside experts is a cost-effective approach to building the critical skills that enable organizations to effectively and efficiently manage risk issues in the media.

When all is said and done though, you and your organization must be comfortable participants in the media arena, therefore you need to develop the plan that best meets your goals and objectives while ensuring that you are prepared to successfully manage  the outcome.


Archibald, E. (1999). Problems with environmental reporting: Perspectives of daily newspaper reporters. The Journal of Environmental Education, 30, 27-32.

Ball-Rokeach, S.J., Power, G.J., Guthrie, K.K., & Waring, H.R. (1990). Value-framing abortion in the United States: An application of media system dependency theory. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 2, 249-273.

Rogers, E.M. (1996). The field of health communication today: An up-to-date report.Journal of Health Communication, I, 15-23.

Salome, K.L., Greenberg, M.R., Sandman, P.M., & Sachsman, D.B. (1990). A question of quality: How journalists and news sources evaluate coverage of environmental risk. Journal of Communication, 40, 117-129.

Shanahan, J. Morgan, M., & Stenbjene, M. (1997). Green or Brown? Television and the cultivation of environmental concern. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 4I, 305-323.

Shoemaker, P.J. (1984). Media treatment of deviant political groups. Journalism Quarterly, 61, 66-75, 82.

Shoemaker, P.J. (1991). Gatekeeping. Newbury, CA: Sage.

Yanovitzky, I., & Bennett, C. (I 999). Media attention, institutional response and health behavior change. Communication Research, 26, 429-453.


Establishing Trust is a Risky Proposition

In my last post (‘The Innovation Paradox: Risk versus Progress’) I reviewed and commented on the 2015 Trust Barometer’s findings and Richard Edelman’s seven imperatives for rebuilding trust in light of the public’s concern about innovation and the pace of change. In that post I suggested Edelman’s imperatives reminded me of the work that has been done in the field of risk communications over the last 30 years ago and how Richard’s suggestions are aligned with the research on the importance of trust and transparency.

My Introduction To Risk Communication

Relatively early in my public relations career (1987), I had the good fortune of securing a large, long-term client, an agriculture chemical manufacturer and warehouse, whose international headquarters in Basel Switzerland mandated that all their operations engage in an open and ongoing dialogue with their communities on the safe manufacture of chemical products. It was the first significant and meaningful community relations program that I developed and my first exposure to a new and growing field of public relations practice and research: Risk Communications.

The initiative at this local plant in south-western Ontario, about 60 miles west of downtown Toronto, was actually part of a program initiated by the Canadian Chemical Producers Association (now called the Chemical Industry Association of Canada) called “Responsible Care” — to inform, engage and rebuild trust in the importance of chemicals and chemistry in our daily lives. According to the CIAC’s history on Responsible Care, “Canada’s chemistry CEOs faced the faced: the public did not trust the industry. Building public trust would require something above and beyond the law: a commitment to doing the right thing”.

This “made-in-Canada” program, which soon became the international standard for all chemical industry outreach and engagement adopted by chemical industry associations in 60 countries, was founded on the principle that the public had the right to be informed and engaged — a counter-intuitive perspective for most who worked in the industry that was separated from the community by barbed-wire fences.

Lead by the public affairs team at the Chemical Manufactures Association in Washington, DC — the community relations component of the Responsible Care program was rolled out across North America by two of the most effective trainers that I had ever met — Erin Donovan and Dr. Vince Covello. Along with my client’s plant manager, we attended a three-day training program that combined the theory and principles of this new field of risk communications and hands-on community relations/engagement principles and practices. We were inspired and committed to immediately incorporating these new learnings into our practices and our plans.

While building trust with the public shouldn’t have been a “game-changing” idea, it is important to remember the context in which this initiative was launched. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a series of “industrial” accidents captured the headlines and concern of the public and government officials. Names like “Love Canal”, “Three-Mile Island”, “Bhopal” and “Chernobyl” unleashed a growing sense of unease and fear for communities that hosted chemical and energy plants. These names soon became synonymous with how not to communicate during a community disaster. And communications researchers like Drs. Paul Slovic, Baruch Fischhoff and James Flynn (no relation) soon began to study why certain publics responded in certain ways to concerns about risks while others responded in nearly the exact opposite manner.

In 1988, Covello and Allen publish a manifesto-style list of principles that risk communicators should live by in order to build trust and credibility with their communities.

Here are the Seven Cardinal Rules:

1.  Accept and involve the public as a legitimate partner;

2. Plan carefully and evaluate your efforts;

3. Listen to your audience;

4. Be hones, frank and open;

5. Coordinate and collaborate with other credible sources;

6. Meet the needs of the media; and,

7. Speak clearly and with compassion.

If you look closely at Edelman’s seven imperatives, you will see some similarity to the nearly 30-year old cardinal rules written by Covello and Allen.

Risk communications researchers and practitioners, were well ahead of public relations scholars in identifying  two-way symmetrical, relationship-based communications as the primary means and methodology to creating trust with stakeholders and priority publics. While much of the foundational risk communication research was done in the era before social media, I still believe that the principles and imperatives identified three decades ago hold true for the practice of public relations today.

Here is my short summary on the evolution of the field or risk communications from a paper I presented at a conference a number of years ago:

In 1989, after communication missteps at Three Mile Island, Bhopal, and Love Canal that caused community outrage and fear (Covello, 1992), the U.S. National Research Council (NRC) initiated a number of research studies to understand how the public reacts to risk issues and, more specifically, how to facilitate a more meaningful dialogue between organizations and the public on risk elements. For the NRC, risk communication was “an interactive process of exchange of information and opinion among individuals, groups, and institutions; often communications involves multiple messages about the nature of the risk(s) or express concerns, opinions, or reactions to risk messages or to legal and institutional entities or organizations for risk management” (Vogt & Sorensen, 1994, p. 20).

For government agencies the development of an interactive process of exchange with the public on sensitive and, sometimes, controversial environmental issues was often very difficult. Many witnessed the almost impossible challenge that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) faced in its early days of the Love Canal crisis, to build trust and credibility with the community of Niagara Falls, NY. According to the then EPA administrator, W.D. Ruckelshaus, the only way to achieve trust with the public was to involve them in defining and deciding acceptable levels of environmental risk (Ruckelshaus, 2001). However, building trust and developing an interactive process of exchange with the public isn’t a typical public affairs model within government agencies. According to Cutlip, Center and Broom (2000), “often, but certainly not always, government public relations programs deal with one-way communication directed to constituents” (p. 490).

In what is generally regarded as one of the first attempts to define the field of risk communication, social scientists Vincent T. Covello and Fred Allen joined together in drafting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Seven Cardinal Rules for Risk Communication. Within that 1988 guidance document, Covello and Allen stated that “risk communication is any purposeful exchange of scientific information between interested parties regarding health or environmental risks” (as quoted USEPA, 1992, p. 37).

With respect to the first cardinal rule, “accept and involve the public as a legitimate partner,” Covello (1992) stated that, “the goal of risk communication in a democracy should be to produce an informed public that is involved, interested, reasonable, thoughtful, solution-focused, and collaborative; it should not be to diffuse public concerns or replace action” (p. 13). For the third rule, “listen to the public’s specific concerns,” Covello (1992) says that “people in the community are often more concerned about trust, credibility, control, competence, voluntariness, fairness, caring and compassion than about mortality statistics and the details of quantitative risk assessment. If you do no listen to people, you cannot expect them to listen to you. Communication is a two-way activity” (p. 14).

In 1996, the Presidential/Congressional Commission on Risk Assessment and Risk Management published its definition of risk communication: “An interactive process of exchange of information and opinion among individuals, groups, and institutions” (as quoted in Department of Navy, 2001, p. 21). That same year, the NRC, whose 1989 definition set the stage for a more involved and engaging process, stated that: “Many decisions can be better informed and their information base can be more credible if the interested and affected parties are appropriately and actively involved” (as quoted in Department of Navy, 2001, p. 20). More recently, the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine, in response to the Gulf War Illness crisis, stated in 2000 that “risk communication should be a dynamic process that is responsive to input from several sources, changing concerns of affected populations, modifications in scientific risk evidence, and newly identified needs for communication” (as quoted in Department of Navy, 2001, p. 19).

According to Heath and Palenchar (2000), risk communication “is a sub-discipline of public relations devoted to address risks that befall citizens who live and work near dangerous industries or who encounter potentially harmful technologies” (p. 131). It is the act of conveying or transmitting information between interested parties about (a) levels of health risks; (b) the significance of meaning of health or environmental risks; (c) decisions, actions or policies aimed at managing or controlling health or environmental risks (Covello, von Winterfeldt, & Slovic, 1986, p. 171).

According to Rich, Griffin and Friedman (1999), public involvement in risk decisions is critical, “effective risk communication that allows citizens to participate fully in decisions about those risks is essential to democratizing our society’s allocation of risks” (p. 194). Covello and Sandman (2001) point to the ultimate success of risk communication:

“We knew that it was going to alter the ways in which the public deals with organizations about risk, and in which organizations deal with the public. What we did not realize was that it would transform the way organizations think of themselves as well. We have discovered, at the most fundamental level that engaging in meaningful, respectful, and frank dialogue with the public involves changes in basic values and organizational culture. But we have also found that much more often than not, the improvements that come of it all prove well worth the effort (p. 177).”


Covello, V.T. (1992). Informing people about risks from chemicals, radiation, and other toxic substances: A review of obstacles to public understanding and effective risk communication. In W. Leiss (Ed.). Prospects and problems in risk communications (pp. 1-49). Waterloo, ON: University of Waterloo Press.

Covello, V.T., von Winterfeldt, D., & Slovic, P. (1986) Risk communication: A review of the literature. Risk Abstracts 3 (4), 171-82.

Covello, V.T., & Sandman, P.M. (2001). Risk communication: Evolution and revolution (pp 164- 177). In A.B. Wolbarst (Ed.). Solutions for an environment in peril. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Cutlip, S.M., A.H. Center, and G.M. Broom. (2000). Effective public relations (8th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Heath, R.L. & Palenchar, M. (2000). Community relations and risk communication: A longitudinal study of the impact of emergency response messages. Journal of Public Relations Research, 12, 131-161

Rich, R.C., Griffin, R.J., & Friedman, S.M. (1999). The challenge of risk communication in a democratic society: Introduction. Risk: Health, Safety & Environment, 10, 189-196.

Ruckelshaus, W.D. (2001). Ethics and social regulation in America (pp. 43-52). In A.B. Wolbarst (Ed.). Solutions for an environment in peril. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency. (1992, June). Environmental equity: Reducing risk for all communities. Office of Policy, Planning, and Evaluation. Washington, D.C.