Communicating with the public following radiological terrorism: Results from a series of focus groups and national surveys in Britain and Germany

Julia M. Pearce*, G. James Rubin, Piet Selke, Richard Amlot, Fiona Mowbray, M. Brooke Rogers

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    12 Citations (Scopus)


    Introduction Incidents involving the exposure of large numbers of people to radiological material can have serious consequences for those affected, their community and wider society. In many instances, the psychological effects of these incidents have the greatest impact. People fear radiation and even incidents which result in little or no actual exposure have the potential to cause widespread anxiety and behavior change. The aim of this study was to assess public intentions, beliefs and information needs in the UK and Germany in response to a hidden radiological exposure device. By assessing how the public is likely to react to such events, strategies for more effective crisis and risk communication can be developed and designed to address any knowledge gaps, misperceptions and behavioral responses that are contrary to public health advice. Methods This study had three stages. The first stage consisted of focus groups which identified perceptions of and reactions to a covert radiological device. The incident was introduced to participants using a series of mock newspaper and broadcast injects to convey the evolving scenario. The outcomes of these focus groups were used to inform national telephone surveys, which quantified intended behaviors and assessed what perceptions were correlated with these behaviors. Focus group and survey results were used to develop video and leaflet communication interventions, which were then evaluated in a second round of focus groups. Results In the first two stages, misperceptions about the likelihood and routes of exposure were associated with higher levels of worry and greater likelihood of engaging in behaviors that might be detrimental to ongoing public health efforts. The final focus groups demonstrated that both types of misunderstanding are amenable to change following targeted communication. Conclusion Should terrorists succeed in placing a hidden radiological device in a public location, then health agencies may find that it is easier to communicate effectively with the public if they explicitly and clearly discuss the mechanisms through which someone could be affected by the radiation and the known geographical spread of any risk. Messages which explain how the risk from a hidden radiological device works should be prepared and tested in advance so that they can be rapidly deployed if the need arises.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)110-119
    Number of pages10
    JournalPrehospital and Disaster Medicine
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - Apr 2013


    • Emergency
    • Health behavior
    • Persuasive communication
    • Radiation protection
    • Terrorism


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