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Risk communicator

Providing information and resources to help emergency risk communicators prepare and effectively respond in the event of a crisis.

Emergency and Risk Communication on the Web

The Internet is indispensable to emergency communication in the 21st century. Based on lessons learned from emergencies over the past decade (ranging from anthrax to SARS to hurricanes to foodborne outbreaks), CDC’s Emergency Communication System (ECS) Web Team has developed a three-pronged strategy that can be applied by other emergency risk communication practitioners:

  • Blend emergency risk communication principles with Web usability principles
  • Seek out and embrace opportunities to educate the public
  • Aim your Web channels at your audiences

1) Blend Emergency Risk Communication Principles with Web Usability Principles is a broad site covering many types of public health emergencies. Nevertheless, the strategy of combining emergency risk communication principles with Web usability principles is applicable to all types of public health emergencies and threats.

This strategy has been crucial for the Winter Weather section. The highlight boxes added to the top of each content page on the winter weather website showcase the core messages of those pages in an effort to achieve several emergency risk communication principles and Web usability principles at once.

Another area of where this strategy has been important is the Hurricane section. By using a hurricane homepage design that focuses more on messages and less on documents, the pages’ setup reflects risk communication principles.

Risk Communication principles for the Web:

  • Emphasize the agency’s plan for emergencies, and where it can be found
  • Don’t over-reassure
  • Acknowledge uncertainty
  • Acknowledge people’s fears
  • Give people things to do in the moment
  • Give anticipatory guidance

Usability principles for the Web:

  • Users don’t read; they scan
  • Users have tunnel vision
  • Users are impatient and want instant gratification
  • Users will leave if they don’t quickly find what they’re looking for

2) Seek Out and Embrace Opportunities to Educate the Public

Every public health emergency requires communication with the affected populations. But emergencies also provide opportunities to reach out to those who are not at risk.

In February 2008, a man accidentally poisoned himself with the deadly biotoxin ricin. This incident led to an immediate spike in the traffic on the ricin section of the website.  Though there was no new public health information to post in response to the incident, and no affected population to reach, ECS redesigned the page in order to take advantage of the public’s interest in the topic. By adding prominent links to the “Emergency Preparedness and You” section, visitors who came to the website were encouraged to learn more about general preparedness and response.

Another important component of this strategy is the “Recent Outbreaks and Incidents” page.  This page is consistently one of the most popular pages on the entire CDC site. The page provides in-depth information about public health topics currently receiving public attention; more than 42,000 people receive an email update whenever this page is updated. With each new topic added, a surge in traffic to that subject’s website follows.  These visitors are more than just curious; users who have shown enough interest or concern about a topic to visit a related website represent a captive audience that is eager for information.

3) Aim Your Web Channels at Your Audiences

Web-based channels can be used in emergency communication to reach any audience. The two most common misconceptions about using the Internet for emergency communication are 1) that posting information on a website is the only dissemination method and 2) that visitors to that website are the only audience. A communication strategy built on these misconceptions will have only limited success.

The visitors to a website are just the beginning of a potentially unending network of online and offline audiences. In short, remember that your audiences have audiences. For example, a clinician might visit a website and then post information from that website on her blog. Another clinician might visit the same website to print off fact sheets to distribute to high-risk patients without Internet access in his community. ECS knows when it provides materials on for its audiences, those audiences will pass these materials to their own audiences (e.g., low-literacy disaster recovery fact sheets for health educators).

A website is just one of many important Web-based channels available for emergency communication. The emergence of so many new Web channels is one of the most important developments in emergency communication since 2001. The typical online user on 9/11 was forced to sit at a computer and wait for the web pages of one of a few online news media sites to slowly load (if it loaded at all).

Today, the Internet is a very different world, with new channels such as blogs, podcasts, RSS feeds, wikis, Twitter feeds, and social networking sites like Facebook. Being an online user no longer means sitting at a computer workstation; mobile phones provide their owners easy access to the Web. These new channels provide emergency risk communicators a way to more actively engage their audiences by sending the message to the point of contact rather than waiting for the user to come to a website.

With the advent of these new tools, ECS has greatly expanded its emergency communication outreach capacity:

  • RSS: the use of RSS feeds allows for instant dissemination of messages to users’ RSS readers (with more than 25,000 messages currently downloaded on a typical day).
  • Building an Email Community: more than 100,000 people are signed up to receive regular email updates about
  • Mobile Phone Outreach: in addition to email updates about the website, mobile phone text message updates are also available.  A special text-only version of certain sections of can now be accessed by mobile phone at
  • Twitter: the launch of the CDCemergency Twitter feed in 2009 allows ECS to quickly send emergency messages to the more than one million followers of the feed. The two-way communication that Twitter offers allows for greater interaction with affected persons during public health emergencies.
  • Podcasts: ECS provides many preparedness podcasts through, iTunes, and other podcast outlets. In addition, in a public health emergency, CDC often releases new podcasts that describe the response to the current situation and provide health guidance to the public.

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Risk Communicator Articles - Issue 3

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