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.

The following articles are drawn from across the risk communication and engagement spectrum, but given the significance of the current COVID-19 crisis we begin with some links to sites and papers looking at aspects of communicating and engaging in the face of epidemics and pandemics.

Communicating and engaging in the face of epidemics and pandemics

WHO coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public
As a global starting point here is the link to the World Health Organization coronavirus disease advice for the public – more specific information can be found from the appropriate agencies in individual countries. WHO also has a technical guidance page looking at a number of aspects of Risk communication and community engagement.

7 Indispensable COVID-19  visual resources
This site from Visual Capitalist brings together a list of quality information on the virus and its impact. These visual COVID-19 resources are all from fact-driven, reliable sources, with some of them even being created by The Visual Capitalist in-house team and shared to their free daily mailing list. Many are updated daily or in real-time.

Lead Your Business Through the Coronavirus Crisis
This February 2020 HBR article by Martin Reeves , Nikolaus Lang and Philipp Carlsson-Szlezak highlight 12 lessons for business leaders responding to unfolding events, communicating, and extracting and applying some practical learnings. They also remind us of the importance of preparing for future phases and crises, and the importance of building reflection into adaptive policies from the start.

Practical Guide for Health Risk Communication
The Practical Guide for Risk Communication offers practical recommendations and tools to support the development of evidence-based messages, tailored for different sub-populations and target groups across various cultural contexts with the aim to further improve risk communication and the management of national or international public health threats at different phases of a major infectious disease outbreak. This work evolves from the TELL ME project – a 36 month (2014-2016) EU Collaborative Project, which aimed to provide evidence and to develop models for improved risk communication during infectious disease crises. A summary of the results can be found in the article Using communication to fight epidemics.

Epidemics and Pandemics, the response of society
ASSET (Action plan in Science in Society in Epidemics and Total pandemics) is a 48 month (2014-2017) EU project to learn to address effectively scientific and societal challenges raised by pandemics and associated crisis management. Paper series include: Risk communication in time of an epidemic or pandemic; and The role of citizens in times of an epidemic or pandemic.

Rethinking communication in risk interpretation and action
This 2017 paper by Shabana Khan  and colleagues shows the role of communication as a moderator of not just risk interpretation and action but also various factors responsible for shaping overall response, such as individual decision-making under uncertainty, heuristics, past experiences, learning, trust, complexity, scale and the social context.  An in-depth understanding of ongoing communication and its implications can help to plan risk management more effectively over time rather than just as as a short-term response.

A 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.

Older posts, reports and papers

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 above 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.

Health 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.

Responding 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.

Risk 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.

Avoiding 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.

When 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.