Dan Markiewicz
In September 2000, the Kent County (Grand Rapids) Michigan Health Department publicly announced online postings of restaurant inspection reports. During the following week, 73,000 people visited the health department’s Web site to view the reports, a rate of information-diffusion that would have been astonishing in pre-Internet days.

This example confirms the findings of many surveys, according to Brian Patrick, Ph.D., professor of communication at the University of Toledo. “People are intensely interested in issues affecting their health and safety, and they will flood Web sites providing such information,” he says.

Patrick says most Internet users go through progressive stages of questions on environmental health and safety information: Curiosity, Concern, Controversy, and Conflict.

“The majority of people looking at the restaurant reports were probably just curious, initially. They just wanted to know how their favorite restaurant fared in health department inspections. But you can be certain that when customers go back into their favorite restaurant, some will ask questions prompted by the inspection reports,” explains Patrick.

Patrick has developed what he calls the “4C Method” to help businesses anticipate and respond to questions resulting from people accessing EHS information on the Internet. He explains that foreseeing such questions is the first step in developing the best possible responses.

“Effectively responding to questions depends a lot on knowing what stage a questioner represents,” according to Patrick.

“If restaurant owners or managers apply the 4C Method, they can anticipate questions and prep employees on proper responses,” says Patrick. “Left alone, an employee may try to impress a customer with a description of the life cycle of Escherichia coli, or worse yet say “No comment.” Curiosity now becomes concern or controversy and the stakes go higher. In public businesses where customer choices are voluntary, there probably will not be a Conflict stage, but customers and reputations may be lost.”

So… can you foresee questions that will result from people accessing your organization’s EHS information on the Internet?

Using the 4C Method

Using Patrick’s 4C Method can help. It’s similar to the process hazard analysis (PHA) “What-If/Checklist” methodology found in OSHA’s process safety management standard. But in the 4C Method the “hazard” evaluated is your company’s EHS information on the Internet.

Similar to OSHA’s PHA, the 4C Method ideally is conducted by a team. Although not required, at least one team member should be from outside your organization. Your first step is to gather all of your company’s EHS information posted on the Internet — a daunting task for some companies, but manageable for most.

A checklist determines if your Internet information might prompt sensitive questions. For example: Do your air emissions include reproductive toxins? If so, questions on birth defects are expected.

The team brainstorms to develop more questions, which are sorted into the appropriate 4C categories of Curiosity, Concern, Controversy, and Conflict. Patrick believes that once managers view a list of possible questions, they begin to understand the importance of framing correct and appropriate responses.

Managers often want to first develop responses to questions involving conflict. “This may be a mistake,” says Patrick. “Remember, the goal is to resolve questions early in the process. You don’t want them to escalate. Questions that involve simple curiosity, which should be the most frequent type of question, should be handled first.”

Businesses will need something like the 4C Method to be prepared and stay out of trouble, says Patrick. “We have entered the Information Age, and we need to adjust our communication protocols accordingly.”

Dr. Patrick can be reached by e-mail at banse@umich.edu.