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ORAU representative takes stage at IAEA Symposium in Vienna on October 2

Karen Carera will discuss “Lessons from Audience Research on Radiation Emergency Messaging”

OAK RIDGE, TENN.—Radiation emergencies are poorly understood but greatly feared among most people in the United States. Public health preparedness for such emergencies requires messaging and communications that will enable people to take appropriate actions to protect themselves and their loved ones.

ORAU has been working with the Radiation Studies program in the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to evaluate public messages to use in radiation emergency situations.

This research will be presented at the International Symposium on Communicating Nuclear and Radiological Emergencies to the Public, sponsored by the International Atomic Energy Agency, in Vienna, Austria on Tuesday, October 2.

Karen Carera, Ph.D, ORAU Senior Evaluation Specialist, will present on behalf of the research team. Carera’s presentation is scheduled for 11 a.m. ET (5 p.m. in Vienna). To see the presentation live, visit

From 2003 through 2017, CDC conducted focus group testing, usability assessments of website content, and individual interviews with lay audiences to evaluate the extent to which 1) messages effectively communicate the intended radiation concepts and 2) messages are relevant, comprehensible, appealing, and actionable during a radiation emergency. Messages focused on important radiation emergency concepts, including protective actions, health effects of exposure and contamination, basic concepts of radiation, special considerations for pregnant and breastfeeding women, and potential recovery issues. The usability assessment looked specifically at messaging through infographics on these topics.

For the assessments, ORAU, on behalf of CDC, worked with market research facilities to recruit participants from the public for interviews, focus groups, and usability study. Individual interviews and focus groups were conducted in various U.S. cities, and attempts were made to recruit representative demographics of the population. A professional moderator conducted the interviews and facilitated focus group discussions, using approved moderator guides.

Findings from this audience research provided specific recommendations for word choice, message structure, and presentation, including use of particular images. Additionally, the research provided broad lessons, such as:

  • People do not believe simple measures work (e.g., decontamination).
  • People will be more likely to take protective actions if they understand why.
  • Many people will not shelter-in-place, but will seek family and children even when it increases their risk.
  • People want prioritized action items in each message.
  • People want messages for different environments (home, work, school).
  • People discredit messages that contain uncertainty (that is, words such as may, might or could).

Audience research is valuable for informing targeted messages for radiation emergency preparedness.  Understanding how people receive messages about complex scientific concepts during an emergency situation will enable communicators to craft effective messages, as well as informational products and other tools, for specific audiences at each stage of the emergency. In a critical emergency, such as a nuclear detonation, effective messaging will be key in saving lives and reducing injury and illness.

About ORAU

ORAU provides innovative scientific and technical solutions to advance national priorities in science, education, security and health. Through specialized teams of experts, unique laboratory capabilities and access to a consortium of more than 150 colleges and universities, ORAU works with federal, state, local and commercial customers to advance national priorities and serve the public interest. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation and federal contractor, ORAU manages the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

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