Risk communication and engagement

Communication and engagement around flood hazards are critical to increase the safety of communities that live in flood-prone areas (Photo: Flickr - Paul Welding)
Communication and engagement around flood hazards are critical to increase the safety of communities that live in flood-prone areas (Photo: Flickr – Paul Welding)

Communication and engagement encompasses information activities through from linear media transfer to interaction with audiences and media.  In recent years we have seen an increasing recognition of the need to acknowledge and engage with a variety of defensible views on risk. This has, in turn, contributed to a  progressive change – both in the research literature and in the practice of risk communication and engagement – from an original emphasis on “public mis-perceptions of risk” (which tended to treat deviations from expert estimates as products of ignorance or stupidity), towards approaches based on partnership which promote risk communication as a two-way process in which both “expert” and “lay” perspectives should inform each other.

Risk Perception and Communication Unplugged: Twenty Years of Process. This 1995 paper by Baruch Fischhoff’s reviews the previous twenty years of process in risk communication research and practice, and is an interesting place to start from.  His review is organized within seven developmental stages that span the 20 year period from 1975 to 1995. These progressively move from “All we have to do is get the numbers right” through to an appreciation that “All we (really) have to do is make them partners” in the discussion. Many of the more recent papers below look at how this last stage can begin to be achieved …..

Communicating about risks to public health: Pointers to Good Practice. This 1998 UK Department of Health report by Peter Bennett aims to provide “pointers to good practice” based on well-established research that can be adapted to individual circumstances. It brings two main perspectives to bear. One is that offered by empirical research on reactions to risk. The second perspective considers risk communication as a decision process. The report emphasizes the need to aim for an ideal of two-way communication, throughout the process of risk assessment and management, both as a way of enhancing trust and as a guard against taking too narrow a view of the issues.

pdfA literature review on effective risk communication for the prevention and control of communicable diseases in Europe. This 2013 review by Jennifer Infanti and colleagues examines the current body of literature on risk communication related to communicable diseases, focusing on: (i) definitions and theories of risk communication; (ii) methodologies, tools and guidelines for risk communication research, policy and implementation; and (iii) implications, insights and key lessons learned from the application of risk communication principles in real-world settings.

www_iconHealth and environment: communicating the risks. Public administrations at all levels must often manage complex situations related to risk, often surrounded by controversy. In these situations there is a need to manage information, evidence and communication on possible risks, while understanding and taking into consideration the opinions, interests and values of the relevant stakeholders.  This report aims of sharing experiences in the management and communication of environmental risks.

pdfResponding to community outrage: Strategies for effective risk  communication. This book by Peter Sandman focuses on public outrage about risk: the sources of outrage, some ways to address it, and why companies and agencies find it so difficult to address (cognitively, organizationally, and psychologically). Aspects of risk communication that do not bear directly on the dilemma of outrage are omitted

pdfRisk communication, public engagement, and climate change: A role for emotions. This 2012 paper by Sabine Roeser discusses the potential role that emotions might play in enticing a lifestyle that diminishes climate change. It suggests that the current debate about climate change is conducted in too abstract terms, which leads people to accept the facts but not to do anything about them. It suggests that communication about climate change should trigger moral emotions to entice moral reflection and motivation for a more sustainable lifestyle.

pdfAvoiding outrage in risk communication. This short article by Theresa Byrd reminds us that we are often placed in the awkward position of explaining risks about which experts may disagree or in which industries are involved,sometimes leading to anger and fear among community members. It looks at how to deal with these situations recognizing outrage factors and outlining how to deal with them, the importance of caring, and building trust.

Understanding risk communication best practices: A guide for emergency managers and communicators. This 2012 report by Melissa Janoske, Brooke Liu and Ben Sheppard delves into research-driven recommendations for effective risk communication practices, and should be viewed as a discussion of the most important findings for risk communicators and managers.  The report is paired with a second report by the same authors –  Understanding risk communication theory: A guide for emergency managers and communicators . This second report by Ben Sheppard, Melissa Janoske and Brooke Liu discusses and dissects theories and models relevant to US federal, state, and local homeland security personnel and emergency managers faced with communicating risks within their communities.

www_iconWhen food is cooking up a storm – Proven recipes for risk communications. The objective of these guidelines – a joint initiative of the European Food Safety Authority and national food safety organisations in Europe – is to provide a framework to assist decision-making about appropriate communications approaches in a wide variety of situations that can occur when assessing and communicating on risks related to food safety in Europe. The aim is to provide a common framework applicable for developing communications approaches on risk across public health authorities in different countries.

The Communicating for change page has links to a number of closely aligned resources. A number of other pages and sections in this site provide information on related areas. There are, for example, a number of research approaches that support more two-way communication, as well as approaches that specifically support increased participation and engagement. A key result of how well this is done is often reflected in concepts such as social license to operate.