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K-State professor offers expertise on what to say during a crisis -- and how best to say it

By Erinn Barcomb-Peterson

 

When faced with a crisis or a risky situation, one of the first things people want to know is "will it affect me or not," said Kansas State University's Kris Boone.

Kris BooneBoone, a professor and head of K-State's department of communications in the College of Agriculture, pictured at left, is one of many K-State faculty members whose research helps make people safer. Her research at K-State has involved looking at how to communicate about risks associated with food and the best way to communicate with farmers, ranchers and rural leaders. She works with the National Center for Food Protection and Defense, which is financed by the Department of Homeland Security.

Boone said people want to feel empowered by having something constructive to do during a crisis, even if it doesn't significantly reduce their risk.

"It helps because it makes them part of the process," she said.

People also want to know that experts not only have the pertinent knowledge, but that they care about people, too. And although some may think the purpose of communicating during a crisis is to make everyone feel better, that's not always possible.

"Sometimes you need to raise the level of concern to an appropriate level," Boone said.

Communicating about food-borne risks differs from communicating about a terrorist attack, natural disaster or other crisis, Boone said, partly because of the role geography can play. Because food often is distributed across the country, people may feel more vulnerable to food contamination than a location-specific crisis like a terrorist attack on the East Coast or a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico.

Through her research, Boone has found that communicating about food-borne risks and crises can require different tactics for different groups, from older adults to immigrants.

For instance, older people may not heed warnings about food risks because they've been cooking and eating potentially hazardous foods like runny egg yolks their whole lives. And for immigrants, important information is not always available in Spanish or other languages in addition to English.

Boone's research also has shown that different groups of people are best reached in different ways. That goes beyond which medium is used to look at which agencies would best deliver the message. Boone said niche media are good resources for those doing the communicating, because they are in touch with what their audience wants to know and how they want to find out.

But strong connections between communicators and the sources the public trusts must be in place before a crisis or risk strikes.

"If you are not a trusted community partner, you need to develop a relationship with someone who is," Boone said.

Providing guidance that works to keep people safe is part of what K-State is all about, Boone said.

"I think as a university it's part of our mission to be able to address people's needs during crises," she said.

Boone can be reached at 785-532-5804 or kboone@oznet.ksu.edu

 

Summer 2006