Presentation:   Low Trust, High Concern Risk Communication

Speaker:          Charles J. Lichon, RS, MPH


Risk communication is challenging under most any condition, however when the audience is of such a nature that distrust and high concern is evident, extra measures must be taken to avoid loss of credibility, embarrassment, and loss of total communication with the audience. Knowing your subject matter, will assist you in addressing such a predicament; however this is only the beginning when preparing for such public meetings.



Sanitarians are often involved directly or indirectly with public meetings and situations that require considerable insight, preparation, and people communication skills; both verbal and non-verbal. This is often not taught in our universities, and yet is critical in the public health profession. Professional environmental activists can and often do attend meetings that we may find ourselves faced with difficult questions. If we do not react in a positive manner, one that invokes our professional credibility, we may easily lose control of the audience and hence our own credibility. Examples would be an outbreak of a disease in a school setting where parents are packed into a school auditorium to hear public health officials; a public hearing for the siting of a landfill/industrial plant near a residential neighborhood; or a town meeting about a chemical spill in a residential neighborhood. Gaining the credibility of such an audience is not an easy task, however once lost, it is difficult of not impossible to regain. As health professionals, we need to have many tools at hand to work with the public; many, such as professional knowledge are easy compared to the unknowns of an untrusting public and a high concern setting. Who delivers the message, why, how, and what are the do's and don'ts when confronted in such an environment are all part of this talk; many real life examples given relative to our profession. Sanitarians at all levels will be more prepared to face this type of audience after this presentation, being more aware of techniques used by communicators whose profession is risk communication.




1.       Attendees will become more oriented in preparing for public meetings of high concern;

2.       Knowing not only what to prepare, but who is best suited to deliver the message;

3.       Being knowledgeable about the (critical) importance of body language under these conditions, often times more important than the verbal message.



Additional Information:

One thing I would like to reiterate is the fact that we, as public health professionals, are often not prepared adequately, if at all, for dealing with public meetings when high concern/low trust is involved. I have seen this many times, and even include actual videos of such meetings with government officials on the "hot seat." This type of presentation opens up the eyes of public officials, making them more aware of the audience, their actions, and the common traps we often find ourselves when under fire.