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The Risk Communicator

Issue 1 (August 20, 2008)

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Photo of people holding handsMessaging Is a Matter of Trust

Most risk communicators would agree that their greatest challenge is crafting messages that drive target audiences to action. This task is even more challenging when your audience believes that the emergency or crisis is unlikely to occur, will have little to no impact on them, or that the messages or source are not credible.

The events of Hurricane Katrina illustrated this concern and reminded risk communicators to continually reevaluate their message development and dissemination strategies. Most importantly, Hurricane Katrina and subsequent emergency events have caused communicators to ask, "How do we create credible messages that move people to informed action to protect their health?"

Since the fall of 2006, faculty and staff at the University of Georgia (UGA), Southern Center for Communication, Health, and Poverty (SCCHP), have been seeking answers to this question. The overall mission of SCCHP, a CDC-funded Center of Excellence for Health Marketing and Communication, is to reduce health disparities by investigating how lower-income individuals living in the South respond to health risks, and by developing and testing interventions to enhance their health protection behaviors. SCCHP studies how low-income people living in the South, who are disproportionately Latino and African American, attend to health risks, process messages about risks, and decide whether to engage in behaviors that will help protect them from health threats.

Reaching Latino Audiences

According to Don Rubin, Ph.D., professor in the departments of Speech Communication and Language and Literacy Education, UGA SSCHP, the University immediately started planning a research initiative focused on the Latino community after hearing about the experiences of risk communicators and others involved in Hurricane Katrina's emergency preparedness and response.

"When state and local risk communicators disseminated messages to the community, they recognized that their messages weren't being trusted; therefore, not moving people to action," said Dr. Rubin. "We began to hear from state and local risk communicators and health information officers about the need to reach communities with messages members of the community would trust."

SCCHP began the project by performing a needs assessment, conducting focus groups, and researching the Latino community and media. As a result of its research, SCCHP identified several key best practices for establishing trust with Latinos. It is important to note that these findings are a result of one study conducted with Latinos living in the South, and may or may not be applicable to all communication initiatives, nor for all Latino communities.

First, SCCHP recognized that although individuals may be part of the same ethnic or racial group, when developing messages and materials, it is critical to acknowledge the diversity within the community. The Latino community originates in many nations; consequently, communicators need to be aware that more targeted messaging may be required.

Second, SCCHP discovered that it is crucial to identify a community member, or someone who knows the community well and is respected within that community, to become a promotoras de salud (health promoter), and serve as a bridge between public health and the Latino community.

Third, SCCHP found that it is important to learn about the audience's driving values and build messages around them. A core value for the Latino community is family solidarity. Effective messages should be created to link health protection messages to family.

Last, SCCHP recognized that if relationships and trust between the organization and the community have not been established, emergency materials and messages are disregarded. "The issue of trust is essential when communicating with certain racial or ethnic communities," affirmed Dr. Rubin. "Having lots of good materials is important, but if the relationship of trust isn't there, then none of the materials will do any good."

Additionally, SCCHP learned that minority media representatives often feel they do not have adequate access to health communication and risk communication information. If risk communicators are to rely on the news media to relay emergency and risk information to minority audiences, they must provide information directly to minority media just as they do for more mainstream media outlets.

Reaching African American Faith-Based Audiences

Realizing that similar communication challenges apply to public health messages intended for African American faith-based communities, SCCHP teamed with the Morehouse School of Medicine (MSM) Prevention Research Center to develop guidance for risk communicators when collaborating with this audience as they prepare for an influenza pandemic.

SCCHP and MSM engaged members of African American faith-based organizations in the South, public health risk communicators, and members of local emergency preparedness and response programs to identify best practices for disseminating messages about a pandemic flu event.

SCCHP and MSM recognized that it is important to establish relationships with spiritual leaders who are the gatekeepers for reaching many African Americans who consider themselves part of a faith-based community. This team also learned that many faith-based organizations delegate persons to run their health ministries. It is essential to identify those leaders as well.

Finally, SCCHP and MSM found out that it is most effective to conduct outreach through existing channels (e.g., phone chains, church bulletins, etc.) currently used by these organizations.

Upon completing these studies, SCCHP found that both Latino and African American communities in the South were eager to learn about health and how to reduce health risks.

In February 2008, SSCHP and MSM provided DVDs from the study to risk communicators throughout a six-state region in the Southeast. The DVDs were developed to promote involvement of African American churches in pandemic flu planning. Featuring the expertise of those working with and in the African American faith-based community, the DVD should help risk communicators better understand how to collaborate with this audience.

Streaming video of the African American faith-based community and public health panel discussions is available on SCCHP's Web site, along with a listing of online resources such as Responding Faithfully In a Time of Pandemic Flu, a document offering tips to help congregations prepare to serve their community in the event of an influenza pandemic, and Pandemic Influenza Preparedness for Faith-Based Organizations, an online course for communicating with African American populations about health-related issues. Additional materials including a top-ten list of ways to prepare congregations for a pandemic flu event, cultural competence assessments, and a list of faith-based pandemic flu Web sites are also available on the Web site.

To access these materials, or for more information, visit

For more information about the Latino project, visit:

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