Air Quality Index: Beyond Ozone
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

Air Quality Index: Beyond Ozone

Half of the nation’s 292 million people live in areas where air quality is designated “unhealthy” during some point in the year. More than six million children suffer from asthma in this country and can be severely affected by air pollution.

Paul Holmes

Half of the nation’s 292 million people live in areas where air quality is designated “unhealthy” during some point in the year. More than six million children suffer from asthma in this country and can be severely affected by air pollution.

For years, state and local agencies havethe United States Environmental Protection Agencyhas been forecasting ozone air pollution in the summer.  Equipped with these forecasts, broadcast meteorologists have included local Air Quality Index/ozone-only advisories in their regular summer weather coverage. As a result, the general public has become more aware of the health implications of ozone in the summer through familiar color-coded advisories.

But air is pollution is edwith more than just ozone. Particle pollution is a serious health concern   Particle pollution is directly linked to increased hospital admissions, doctor and emergency room visits, medication uses and is the leading cause of school absences by children. Unlike summertime ozone, particle pollution is an issue year-round. And it’s an issue for people with heart disease and older adults as well as those with lung disease and children.

Challenge/ Opportunity

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) planned to start issuingannouncing daily forecasts for of particle pollution nationwide on October 1, 2003. But, concerns existed. Would meteorologists include air quality forecasts in their weathercasts after September 30?  Would they deliver the message correctly?.  Would the media find the message compelling enough to pick up the story? WAnd wouldould the general public care and take heedpay attention? 

To rise to the challenge, communications about expanded Air Quality Index forecasting needed towere designed create awareness and understanding of year-round air quality forecasts and health effects associated with particle pollution. 


To lay the groundwork, we devoted the first few months of our work to planning and research.  Our work included strategic communications planning, panel discussions, message development and testing and targeted database development (national and regional media contacts, potential partnership organizations and local VIPS). 

We knew that core messaging would be critical to the ultimate success of this initiative. Therefore, we worked with state and local air agencies to develop simplified forecast messages and validated the messages in small group review sessions by broadcast meteorologists. We also previewed the messages with contacts at The Weather Channel and via formal presentations at the AMS Conference. In addition, we engaged in frequent internal message review to ensure our final messages were strong and effective.

We conducted focus groups on the east and west coasts that included people from groups sensitive to air quality, such as parents of children suffering with asthma, people with heart or lung disease and older adults. The results from these sessions affirmed the message direction.


Our strategy combined expert-to-expert outreach, targeted messaging, collateral development, aggressive national and regional media relations and key endorsements to create a deeper channel and more credibility for the EPA’s health message about particle pollution. .

Participation from the U.S. Surgeon General and respected experts from national health organizations such as American Lung Association contributed to a strong launch and provided momentum for a sustained message going forward.   

For the launch of expanded Air Quality Index forecasting, two audience channels were key:

First, we targeted Broadcast Meteorologists, mainly through the membership of the American Meteorological Society (AMS). This would be a key channel to relay the particle pollution messaging to the public.

We also targeted the Mainstream News Media. Building on the infrastructure of the EPA’s national contacts and reinforcing the local media contacts for the EPA’s 10 regional offices would bolster coverage (and the public’s awareness) of the expanded Air Quality Index forecasting.


Branding/ logo/ tag line development ensured that the collateral material resonated with target audiences and tied into the EPA’s current branding guidelines.

The AMS Conference in August provided the nations’ leading broadcast meteorologists with a “sneak peak” at what expanded Air Quality Index forecasting could mean to their audiences and a look at the science behind the forecast.  The EPA provided a speaker, a presentation, engaging giveaways  and a preview of messaging meteorologists could and should share during their broadcasts in the fall and year-round.

Collateral was developed to be both educational and useful and included both print and Web applications to maximize outreach potential.

The Regional Launch Toolkit distributed in September, included samples of all materials and messaging, customized media and local VIP contact lists, suggestions for local launch events and templates for easy adaptation. The 10 regional EPA offices and launch leaders reviewed the kit, participated in teleconference training session and brainstormed their plans for regional launches across the country.

National launch success included preview interviews given to USA Today, which resulted in day-of coverage news stories and broadcast advances for the The Weather Channel. This national work built strong momentum for the news release, distributed nationally and the video news release, which included sound bites (in both English and Spanish) and endorsements from the U.S. Surgeon General, EPA officials and noted health experts.

Outreach to meteorologists has included post-launch communications to those who attended the AMS Conference. This follow-up provided them with supplied links to current messaging for feedback and to encouraged them to include particle pollution forecasting  in their daily weathercasts.


Analysis of the news coverage from the national and regional launches is underway and we are overwhelmed by the preliminary results. Coverage includes an article in USA Today, print circulation estimated at over 2.3 million and broadcast impressions exceeding 400,000.

In addition, the list of cities forecasting for particle pollution is now 14100 cities nationwide.  USA Today and TV meteorologists from coast to coast are including the AQI forecasts for particle pollution daily.  Visits to EPA’s AirNow Web site spiked almost 140% the day of the national launch over the previous month’s average hits. Overall, October was the second-highest month for AirNow Web site hits since the program began in 1998.

These results show that the launch of expanded Air Quality Index forecasting has been a success. And better yet, the results reflect the value of the Air Quality Index as one of the most effective ways that millions of Americans can use timely, free information to manage their health.

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