Annex 11: Canada's Foodborne Illness Outbreak Response Protocol (FIORP) 2010 – Guidelines for communicating with the public and those at greater risk

Guidelines for Communicating with the Public and Those at Greater Risk

Public communications activities in the event of an outbreak will be guided by the following key objectives:

  • to engage in timely and appropriate communications activities that are coordinated among all partners;
  • to reach the general public and those at greater risk;
  • to ensure the communications response reflects general risk, emergency, and crisis communications principles;
  • to develop consistent and complementary communications products in a timely manner;
  • to develop relationships and information-sharing processes among communications staff of involved partners, and
  • to ensure surge capacity and after-hours availability of communications/media relations staff of the involved partners during an outbreak as required.
Public Communications Lead
Situation Lead
Human Illnesses/Public Health Measures Food Recall Public Education
Within a single  province/territory(P/T) Affected P/T Government authority handling the recall: P/T or the CFIA Affected P/T
More than one P/T or occurring in Canada and another country or countries PHAC CFIA HC
Conveyances (trains, buses, planes, and cruise ships and cargo vessels in international waters) HC in collaboration with PHAC CFIA HC

Coordination Among Involved F/P/T Partners

Communications staff from the partners involved in the outbreak will be integrated into the Outbreak Investigation Coordinating Committee (OICC) when it is established to share information about the outbreak.

When the need for public communications is established within the OICC, communications staff from the lead organizations will convene a teleconference with their counterparts in other involved organizations to establish an Outbreak Communications Team (OCT).

The OCT will be chaired by the Public Communications Lead, as described in the chart above, and will be responsible for developing, in collaboration with the OICC, coordinated plans and messaging for communicating with the public and those at greater risk.

Once a communications plan has been agreed upon by the OICC, the OCT chairs will seek approval for it from the senior management team of their organization and those of the other involved organizations when appropriate.

The OCT will share final public communications products with the partners involved. 

The OCT members will work together and share information on an ongoing basis at regular teleconferences, via email updates, or by other means as appropriate.

In the event that F/P/T Emergency Operations Centres are activated, the appropriate communications representatives from the OCT will be integrated into those structures to maintain timely information-sharing.

Each lead organization will designate a spokesperson. Each of the partners may communicate with the general public, including those at greater risk, within its respective jurisdiction and designate its own spokespersons.

Should any organization decide to take action that was not agreed to or discussed within the OCT or the OICC, it should advise members of both groups and share draft messaging prior to releasing the information. Draft public messages must respect the confidentiality of information shared within the OICC, as outlined in the FIORP.

Communications Activities

In an outbreak situation, there will be a need to provide information and regular updates to the media, public, and other stakeholders, including those at greater risk. There will also be a need for communication among the investigative partners to ensure consistency of messaging and to draft and share messages in a coordinated manner.

The Public Communications Lead, in consultation with the OCT, will assess the need, content, timing, and appropriate activities for communicating about the outbreak. The OCT will make a recommendation to the senior management team of each organization.

Communications activities by the Public Communications Lead, in consultation with the OCT, could include the following.


Determine the appropriate media strategy (proactive or reactive), tactics (media lines, web notice, technical briefing, press release, news conference, etc.), timing, spokespersons, initial messages, and media inquiry coordination. A key media relations contact will be identified in each partner organization.


Determine the appropriate web strategy, including what information is required, how it will be presented, how it will be coordinated on the websites of each involved organization, how it will be promoted, and how frequently it will be updated.

Toll-free telephone service

Determine the level of need for toll-free telephone services. The Public Communications Lead, in consultation with the OCT, will develop information for responding to telephone inquiries and determine if an outbreak-specific, dedicated telephone service is needed.

Communications to at-risk populations

The lead organizations, in consultation with the OCT, will determine whether communications activities that target stakeholders who are at greater risk from the outbreak (due to age, gender, cultural background, or other variables) are warranted. If such a need exists, the lead organization, in consultation with the OCT, will develop and implement communications plans and products that are specifically tailored for those stakeholders.

Key Messages

Key messages and other public communications must be consistent, complementary, and developed in a timely fashion. The Public Communications Lead, in consultation with the OCT, will coordinate the development of key messages and other content, using existing message templates whenever possible. Food safety measures and illness prevention and control measures that can be taken should be described.

Each organization will secure approvals for the content it is responsible for and will submit them, once approved, to the Public Communications Lead. The OCT, with input from the OICC, will establish a timeline for approvals that the partners involved will endeavour to follow.

The following standard messages may be used to speed the response within, for example, the first news cycle. They should not necessarily replace documents already in use for more common outbreak occurrences.

Standard Messages used for Public Communications
Situation Key Message
Human illness potentially linked to food (food source not yet confirmed) (Statement of the current situation): There have been (number) of (type of pathogen, if known) illnesses reported in (city/province).

(Name of lead organization – PHAC or affected P/T) is working closely with its (provincial/territorial, municipal, and/or federal counterparts) to identify the source of the infection.

(Name of partner(s)) is/are investigating a number of possible sources. The necessary action will be taken to protect Canadian consumers.

More information will be provided as soon as it becomes available.

Some infections can spread by hand-to-hand contact with an infected person or even from surfaces he or she may have touched. Frequent hand-washing with warm water and soap will help to reduce the possibility of spreading the infection from person to person.
Identification of a food-borne hazard
(illnesses not yet confirmed)
(Name of lead organization – CFIA or affected P/T) is currently investigating the presence of (name of hazard, if known) in (name of food product (s)).

No illnesses have been confirmed at this time (give advice on how to properly handle and cook the food in question, if it will minimize the risk).

(Name of partner) is investigating in cooperation with (other federal, provincial, territorial, or municipal) counterparts.

More information will be provided as soon as it becomes available.

Communications Evaluation

Formal communications evaluation should take place during and after high-profile or complex outbreaks that involve multiple communications activities. When outbreaks are simpler in scope, communications evaluation tasks may be more informal.

During an outbreak:

Ongoing evaluation of communications plans and the activities that flow from them will be determined by the Public Communications Lead, in consultation with the OCT. Evaluation tactics will depend on the activities that are used.

Evaluation tools could include

  • media monitoring for the penetration of key messages, including the volume and tone of media coverage;
  • visitor analysis of websites;
  • tracking of public inquiries via toll-free phone lines;
  • public opinion research in the form of weekly/daily surveys, and
  • soliciting input from audiences for communications activities targeted to at-risk populations.

After an outbreak:

The post-outbreak evaluation of communications plans and the activities that flowed from them will be led by PHAC. The evaluation tools listed above may be appropriate, as well as more involved activities that could include

  • quantitative and qualitative media analysis;
  • public opinion research and analysis;
  • behavioural research, and
  • consulting audiences that received communications products targeted to at-risk populations.
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