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Vincent T. Covello, Ph.D.
One of the most important tools available to a risk communicator is the "message map." As
illustrated in template form in Figure 1, a message map is a roadmap for displaying detailed,
hierarchically organized responses to anticipated questions or concerns. It is a visual aid that
provides at a glance the organization's messages for high concern or controversial issues.
Developing and using message maps achieves several important risk communication goals:
(1) identifying stakeholders early in the communication process
(2) anticipating stakeholder questions and concerns before they are raised;
(3) organizing our thinking and developing prepared messages in response to anticipated
stakeholder questions and concerns;
(4) developing key messages and supporting information within a clear, concise, transparent,
and accessible framework;
(5) promoting open dialogue about messages both inside and outside the organization;
(6) providing user friendly guidance to spokespersons;
(7) ensuring that the organization has a central repository of consistent messages;
(8) encouraging the organization to speak with one voice.
The process used to generate message maps can be as important as the end product. Message
mapping exercises – involving teams of scientists, communication specialists, and policy
experts – often reveal a diversity of viewpoints within an organization for the same question,
issue, or concern. Gaps in message maps often provide early warnings of message
incompleteness. They represent opportunities for focused efforts by issue management teams,
and also may provide clues for needed changes in strategy or policy.
Several steps are involved in constructing a message map. The first step is to identify
stakeholders -- interested or affected parties – for a selected issue of high concern, such as a
The second step is to identify a complete list of stakeholder questions and concerns. A partial
list of categories of stakeholder concerns is presented in Figure 2. Lists of general and
specific stakeholder questions and concerns are typically generated through research,
including media content analysis, reviews of historical documents (such as public meeting
transcripts), interviews with issue experts, facilitated discussion sessions with those who are
familiar with the issue, focus groups, and surveys. Most questions that will be raised related
to a controversy or concern can be anticipated. When questions are accumulated through a
thorough and systematic process, a realistic goal is to anticipate at least 95 percent of the
questions that will actually be asked. Figure 3 provides a partial list of questions generated
through a message mapping exercise related to bio-terrorism and smallpox.
The third step in message map construction is to analyze these questions to identify common
sets of underlying concerns. Case studies indicate that most public health issues are
associated with 8-15 primary underlying concerns – from the perspective of the intended
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