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Section Three - Pulling Together

SECTION THREE: Communication

According to Healthy People 2010, health communication encompasses the study and use of communication strategies to inform and influence individual and community decisions that enhance health. It links the domains of communication and health and is increasingly recognized as a necessary element of efforts to improve personal and public health.

Concerns over hazardous waste sites can be mitigated when open and honest health communication takes place. Communication between agencies is of the utmost importance if strong, ongoing relationships are to be established and maintained. Each organization has unique skills and qualities that can complement efforts of other involved parties. However, only through effective communication can complementary activities and efforts be realized and taken advantage of.

In addition to communicating with other agencies, local health departments (LHDs) must be mindful of the importance of communicating with groups such as the community, elected officials, and the media. These groups often look to the LHD for information and assistance in dealing with hazardous waste sites. However, if they are not coming to the LHD, then the LHD must proactively seek them out and spur their interest in the available information.

Because both community members and the media will be in search of information, if they are not obtaining their information from the LHD, they will seek it elsewhere, where it may be less credible or more biased. Whether a community member is looking for information on whether it is safe to drink the water, or a journalist is looking to provide correct and credible information to the public, the LHD can serve as an effective communication liaison between the public and all agencies involved at the site. This will help to establish an effective dialogue and ensure that the community is involved in environmental problem solving.

Open communication will also ensure that community concerns are identified and addressed. This is particularly important when communicating risk, whether to the community or to other interested parties, as perceptions will likely influence their behaviors down the line.

LHD staff must have appropriate communication techniques that will allow them to effectively communicate with other agencies, as well as with other stakeholders such as the community and the media. This includes communicating risk, communicating with various media, and communicating with elected officials.

This section will highlight major themes and provide useful tips, but should not be seen as an exhaustive resource on risk communication, or communicating with the community, media, and elected officials. 

1. How do you identify a person(s) within the group to take lead?

Frequently, the person who convenes the meeting assumes the leadership role by default, at least as a facilitator for the first meeting. After introductions, the facilitator should discuss the purpose of convening and the goal/benefits of collaboration. It should be stated that to be effective, the collaborative process needs to have a long-term leader or "point person" who will be selected by the end of the meeting by informal discussion or through a formal "secret ballot". The potential role and qualities of the "point person" should be identified. Generally, a natural leader emerges during the meeting; if someone volunteers to be the point person, the group must agree to the selection. Ideally, this person should be one associated with the least amount of or no regulatory/enforcement function in the situation.