ARCHIVED - Guidelines for the Prevention and Control of Mumps Outbreaks in Canada


8.0. Strategic Risk Communications

8.1 Background

Strategic risk communications are collaborative, two-way processes between stakeholders and decision-makers that build trust and a shared understanding of the risk. This results in risk mitigation strategies that are grounded in the social and cultural realities of the situation.

In outbreaks, strategic risk communication plays a key role in encouraging behavioural changes within the community that can contribute to limiting the spread of infectious diseases (e.g., social distancing, immunization, hygiene practices). There will be a high demand for information from the media, the public, those in the health care sector in particular, those who are infected, and those at high risk of infection. It is important to balance the needs of each of these groups. The health care sector and at-risk populations must be communications priorities, but the media can also help to disseminate public health messages to secondary audiences.

A risk communications strategy allows public health authorities and other organizations to set communications objectives, identify stakeholders, and develop plans, activities, and messages appropriate for each stakeholder group. An understanding of stakeholder attitudes, perceptions, and behaviours is needed for communications to be effective. This understanding can be gained through research, but if time does not permit it may be more informally assessed through available knowledge and informal consultation.

Communications lessons learned during the Nova Scotia outbreak in 2007 are included in Appendix 6.

8.2 Best Practices in Outbreak Communications

Strategic risk communications are a critical component of integrated risk management during an infectious disease outbreak. The goal is to help decision-makers and stakeholders make well-informed decisions leading to responsible and ethical risk management. To facilitate the implementation of strategic risk communications, the Communications Directorates at PHAC and Health Canada have developed a Strategic Risk Communications Framework and Handbook(46).

The handbook outlines five guiding principles for strategic risk communications, which align with checkpoints that the WHO developed for best practices in infectious disease outbreaks. These WHO checkpoints focus on building trust and are good to keep in mind when managing communications during an outbreak(47):

Strategic risk communications are essential for integrated risk management
Involve communications managers early and ensure that they remain part of the team throughout the process. Collaborate on developing an opportunity statement that defines the scope of the risk as it pertains to key stakeholders, and identify the opportunity to mitigate that risk. Establish the desired behavioural outcomes, which should be measurable and form the basis of all communications objectives.

Stakeholders are a focal point
Stakeholders are an invaluable source of information, knowledge, expertise, and insight. Decisions must consider stakeholders’ perception of risks and benefits. Involve stakeholders (e.g., university students, administration, health care professionals) as soon as possible to better focus the risk management and communications approach. For example, involve stakeholders to help assess the barriers that different groups might have to following public health advice, like getting immunized or staying home when sick.

Decisions are evidence-based
Decisions should draw equally on scientific evidence and social science research concerning the attitudes and beliefs of the key stakeholders. For example, if the scientific advice is that university students are at high risk of mumps infection, social scientific evidence is needed to inform the development of effective means to reach that stakeholder group and reduce the risk. Social science research includes public opinion and focus group research, as well as information gleaned from any other available knowledge (literature review, behaviour trend analysis, etc).

Communicate openly to stakeholders about risks and benefits. Make the methods and plans used in risk management understandable and accessible. Be clear about what gaps in knowledge remain and what is being done to address them. Announce outbreaks early to control rumours and establish leadership. Even with incomplete information, a government presence early on helps to build public trust. Leave room for the unexpected, and never make promises (e.g. “We’ve already seen the worst of it”). Outbreaks are unpredictable, so spokespersons should not be overconfident or mislead the public.

Continuous Evaluation
Set clear, measurable objectives from the outset. Measure the outcomes against the objectives on an ongoing basis to monitor continuous improvement. Adjust the strategy when necessary to meet goals as well as time and cost efficiencies.

8.3 Networking and Collaboration

The communications responsibilities during an outbreak are primarily managed at the local and provincial levels. It is the responsibility of each province and territory to communicate about the situation within its jurisdiction. Mumps is a nationally notifiable disease, so PHAC can provide information from a national perspective. PHAC can also facilitate the sharing of key messages, communications materials, and best practices through established groups like the CIC and the Pan-Canadian Public Health Network.

At the provincial/territorial level, government communicators can maximize their effectiveness by working with communicators from professional associations and health care facilities. Working groups can be established to share messages and communications products. Professional associations can help get messages on the outbreak and on diagnostic testing out to health care providers and health care facilities. They can work with government communicators to promote immunization clinics. Across the country, provincial/ territorial governments can work with each other to establish best practices as well as share messages and communications products where appropriate.

Table 12. Strategic risk communications recommendations
Communication strategies

In outbreaks, strategic communications play a key role in successfully managing the risk. It is important that risk managers and communicators collaborate to identify the desired behavioural changes that will reduce the risk among stakeholders and to identify the barriers that may discourage change, in order to develop efficient strategies for risk mitigation.

The goal of strategic risk communications is to establish trust with the affected stakeholders in order to encourage them to make behavioural changes that will reduce their risk. The best way to do this is to involve stakeholders early on and be transparent with all information.

Communications activities include identifying spokespersons to speak to the media about the issue and developing media lines, backgrounders, and question and answer content. Sharing key messages, communication materials, and best practices across all jurisdictions involved is essential for managing an outbreak.


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