AWWA Articles

Navigate with message maps in a crisis

By Randall N. Hyer, MD, and Vincent T. Covello, PhD
Center for Risk Communication

[This is Part 2 of a two-part series. In Part 1, we discussed key elements in getting your story heard. In Part 2 we discuss the importance of message mapping with some examples and principles.]

As before, with the continuing cascade of news stories about lead in water, water professionals are in a difficult spot. Message mapping is a key tool for getting your story heard.

"Message maps" are risk communication tools used to help organize complex information and make it easier to express current knowledge. The development process distils information into easily understood messages written at an approximately sixth-to eighth-grade reading level.

Messages are presented initially in no more than three-to-five short sentences that convey three-to-five key messages, in as few words as possible. The approach is based on surveys showing that lead- or front-page media and broadcast stories usually convey only three key messages -- typically in less than 9 seconds for broadcast media, and 27 words for print.

Each key message normally has three-to-five supporting messages. These can be used when and where appropriate to provide context for the issue being mapped.

Example Message Map: Smallpox

The message map has three key messages, as shown below in the example titled “shorter answer”. Each key message in the shorter answers has three supporting details, shown below in the “longer answer” format.

Here we will show an example of a message map for smallpox. This is just a model and the principles can be applied to any question or concern.

Stakeholder: Public
Question or concern: How contagious is smallpox?

Shorter Answer:

  • Smallpox spreads slowly compared to other diseases.
  • The slow spread of smallpox allows time to find those infected.
  • People infected with smallpox can be vaccinated to prevent illness.

Longer Answer:

  • Smallpox spreads slowly compared to other diseases.
  • People are only infectious when the rash appears.
  • Smallpox typically requires hours of face-to-face contact.
  • There are no smallpox carriers without symptoms.
  • The slow spread of smallpox allows time to find those infected.
  • The time period before smallpox symptoms appear is 10–14 days.
  • Resources are available for finding people who may have become infected with smallpox.
  • Finding people who have been exposed to smallpox and vaccinating them has proved successful in the past.
  • People infected with smallpox can be vaccinated to prevent illness.
  • People who have never been vaccinated are the most important to vaccinate.
  • Adults who were vaccinated for smallpox as children may still have some immunity.
  • Adequate smallpox vaccine is on hand.

Message Mapping, Water Contamination, and Flint, Michigan: A Case Study of Failed Risk and Crisis Communication

The drinking water crisis in Flint represents a classic case of a contamination situation compounded by massive risks and communication and messaging failures.

After Flint changed its water source from treated Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the Flint River, its drinking water developed serious lead contamination problems. The corrosive Flint River water caused lead from aging pipes to leach into the water supply, causing high levels of lead in the water and in the blood of children.

In January 2016, the governor declared a state of emergency in Flint. Several government officials—including one from the City of Flint, two from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and one from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—resigned over mishandling of the crisis. In April 2016, the state attorney general filed criminal charges against several government officials..

In the years ahead, many operational and legal issues need to be addressed regarding Flint. These include allegations of violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act, misconduct in office, tampering with evidence, cover-ups, and filing false information.

Compounding operational and legal problems were massive risk and crisis communication failures by officials at virtually every level of government. Among other failures, officials failed to provide accurate, caring, and timely messages in response to hundreds of questions posed by the media, regulators, health care providers, and the public. Throughout the early stages of the crisis, city and state representatives continually told Flint citizens their water was safe to drink. A final report by a task force commissioned by the Michigan governor accused officials of “intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, and inaction.”  Throughout the crisis, officials failed to follow the first and most basis cardinal rule of risk and crisis communication: “Tell the truth and tell it fast.” 

Risk and crisis communication messages were poorly prepared and delivered by Michigan officials in response to virtually every stakeholder question, representing all the 5Ws and 1H (Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How). Even basic questions were poorly prepared and delivered, including:

  • Who set the lead standards for drinking water in Flint?
  • What is the lead standard in Flint and is it the same as elsewhere?
  • Where were the most serious lead problems found in Flint?
  • When did Flint first discover lead problems in the drinking water?
  • Why is it taking so long to fix the lead problems in Flint?
  • How can the lead problems in Flint and elsewhere best be fixed?

An added tragedy and communication regret is Michigan officials could have adapted their answers to these and other water contamination questions by referring to the 205 peer-reviewed message maps published in 2007 by the EPA (see “Effective Risk and Crisis Communication During Water Security Emergencies: Summary Report of the EPA Message Mapping Workshops (V.T. Covello et al., Environmental Protection Agency, 2007).

Ten Principles of Message Mapping

  1. Limit the number of key messages to three to five  using as few words as possible, ideally no more than 9 seconds for broadcast and 27 words for print.
  2. Construct messages that can be easily understood by an adult with a sixth-to-eighth-grade education. This can be tested using the “readability” utility in word-processing programs
  3. Adhere to the “primacy/recency” or “first/last” principle. This principle states that the most important messages should occupy the first and last position in a list.
  4. Cite third parties or sources that are perceived as credible by the receiving audience.
  5. Provide a preamble to the message map that indicates genuine empathy, listening, caring and compassion – crucial factors in establishing trust in high-concern, high-stress situations.
  6. Develop graphics, visual aids, analogies and narratives (such as personal stories), which can increase an individual’s ability to hear, understand and recall a message by more than 50 percent.
  7. Construct messages while recognizing the dominant role of negative thinking in high-concern situations. Examples include: avoiding unnecessary, indefensible or non-productive uses of absolutes, and of the words “no”, “not”, “never”, “nothing” and “none”; balancing or countering a negative key message with positive, constructive or solution-oriented key messages; and providing three or more positive points to counter a single negative point or bad news.
  8. Present the full message map using the repetitive structure found in the “Tell me, Tell me more, Tell me again model (the 'Triple T Model')": tell people the information in summary form (i.e., the three key messages; tell people more (i.e., the supporting information); and tell people again what was told in summary form (i.e., repeat the three key messages).
  9. Develop key messages and supporting information that address outrage and fear factors and important risk perception -- such as trust, benefits, control, voluntariness, dread, fairness, reversibility, catastrophic potential, effects on children, morality, origin and familiarity.
  10. Ideally, each message should be able to stand alone as a quote without reference to other messages in the map.


Message mapping is a key strategy in effective risk and crisis communication. It will help organize thoughts and key points. In the high-concern, low- trust setting, the public’s ability to process information is altered. The proper use of message mapping can help crisis managers overcome this obstacle and connect with the public. They can then inform and calm a worried public, reduce misinformation, garner support, and be heard.

* Author for correspondence: Dr. Hyer,, or (855) 422-7474

Randall N. Hyer*, MD, PhD, MPH. Principal, and Deputy Director, Center for Risk Communication
Vincent T. Covello, PhD, MA. Principal, and Director, Center for Risk Communication