Radioactive Water and Crisis Communications

Note: I know about some of the subjects in this article, and know some of the people. My discussion of this topic is informed solely from the content of the linked article and should not be construed as the official policy or stance of my Department. In addition, because I know some of the people whose actions are presented, I feel confident in saying that each is acting in the very best interest of the people of Philadelphia and working as hard as possible to remediate the situation. I present this article solely to illustrate a point about the difficulty in speaking about difficult situations and believe that I would write the same thing about any spokespeople in this situation.

And now onto the meat.

In the aftermath of the unfolding disaster in Japan, the US EPA has been testing drinking water supplies for radioactivity. One of the treatment plants in Philadelphia was identified as having the highest concentration of Iodine-131 of the 23 sites in 13 states where particles were found. Finding radioactivity is to be expected as radioactive particles are known to spread on prevailing winds, and it was further expected that they would fall out into communities around the globe. The real problem, though, is that the EPA released to the local newspaper that the levels collected after the earthquake are just about half of what were collected in August of last year. The full article that I’m referring to can be found here.

This obviously raises a ton of questions. How safe is it, where is it coming from, what’s being done to stop it, who is at risk, and on and on.

“At this point, that is not really know,” said EPA spokesman David Sternberg. “We’re investigating.”

The thing I wanted to talk about is two comments made to the paper by two different spokespeople at the local Water Department. Neither are wrong, neither are egregious mistakes. Both actually speak to good crisis communications concepts. But the messages, when presented together, show the thin line between coordinated communication and mixed messages.

“This is just unacceptable that this stuff is showing up.” “We’re not happy about this. To find that this stuff showed up in the river before [the Fukushima emissions] means that something is coming from somewhere that is not Japan and we need to track that down and stop it.”


“The water is safe. We were all drinking it today.”

Again, neither is incorrect. In fact, both are valid statements that speak to different parts of an agency’s response. And maybe the statements are intended for wholly different audiences. One is, we’re going to figure this out and fix it. The second is, but in the meantime, we’re all perfectly safe.

I see two problems. The first is, why are you fixing something that’s not a problem? The second is, they’ve assigned a level of acceptable risk to the public (read: it’s good enough for me, so it must be good enough for you).

Be careful with assigning levels of acceptable risk. What’s acceptable to people who have studied radiation in drinking water and seen all the studies is much different than people who only know the scary myths (and realities, in some cases) of radioactivity. Instead of dismissing their fears, use this as a teaching opportunity. It is scary, even if there’s nothing to be afraid of.

I do, however, like the statement about how they are doing something to fix this. “We’re working to figure out the problem, and in the meantime, this is what we’re doing to fix it until something more permanent is identified.” It didn’t come across in the article, but I would’ve loved to have seen an announcement of how they’ll keep the public up-to-date on the situation.

All in all, I think that the Water folks did a good job with their crisis communications. Not perfect, but which crisis comms effort ever is. Both statements attributed to the agency were positive and showed effort. I think this is a great time to take this situation to another level and become a leader on the topic by making public as much information as they can about the situation, as often as it becomes available and publicly announcing what’s being done and what the public can do to feel safer. Maybe that’s in the works, but in the meantime, I think they’re doing a great job.