President’s Update

Risk communication – when traditional communications don’t work

With thanks to Dr Craig Cormick, President, Australian Science Communicators

I have been doing a lot of work on risk communications lately – demonstrating to scientists why standing up in front of a community group with the best scientific data sometimes doesn’t mean very much – and I thought it worth sharing some of the key principles, since there is probably a time in most science communicators’ careers when they will need to address risk communications and they will find that standard communication principles don’t work so well.

Traditional communication strategies need to turn to risk communication principles and methodologies when there is a predominance of:

  1. Outrage
  2. Low levels of trust
  3. High perceptions of risk
  4. High circulation of alternative reports or different positions on the science that are getting a lot of traction with the community.

Many of the problems relating to risk communication stem from the fact that scientific definitions of risk can be very different from community attitudes to risk. I sum this up as the scientific formula for risk is;

Risk = probability x impact

while the public view is;

Risk = OMG x WTF.

Very few members of a community will have a scientific view of risk and are more likely to tend to have a more emotional view of risk – but rather than trying to correct people’s views and explain the scientific view of risk to them, it is more effective to work with their views. For people who hold strongly-held beliefs will not easily abandon those beliefs – even when shown contrary evidence.

Discussions about risk need to take into account the different perspectives of risk that can exist and, to have a genuine conversation, different understandings of risk need to be accepted as valid. In some instances, risk can be perceived to be much higher than it actually is – as in the case of infant vaccination. And in other instances, risk might be perceived to be much lower than it actually is – as in the case of bushfires.

If you want to get people to understand the scientific data-driven levels of risk, you will first need to acknowledge their own perception of risk and then bring them to a scientific view in very small steps.

Trust is an important part of this. If you lack trust you are not going to have much impact on communicating a different view of risk. And when meeting spokespeople or ‘experts’, most people assess their trust in them in the first 30 seconds or so – often based on how empathetic and caring the person is, rather than how much technical expertise they have.

And to build trust with a community it is more important that you listen to them rather than speak to them, as people generally want to tell you what they feel before they are willing to even hear what you have to say.

The benefits of understanding good community engagement principles to communicate risk are that it can lead to both better understanding amongst a community to the risks they face, and empower them to become more involved in activities to mitigate these risks.

If you find you are working in a risk communication environment, some key principles to be aware of include:

  1. Managing Risk Perceptions is not about explaining the data, but about reducing the outrage
  2. Equity and control issues underlie most risk controversies
  3. Risk communication is easier when emotions are acknowledged and legitimatized,
  4. Risk decisions are better when the public shares the power
  5. The Public don’t care what you know – they want to know that you care

(For more details on effective risk communication, look up the work of Vince Covello and Peter Sandman.)

Also, on behalf of the ASC Executive I hope everyone has a risk-free holiday period over the summer and I would also like to send a very, very big thank you to our hard-working Scope Editors, Tara Roberson, who is retiring after this issue, and Jess Scholle – who will be stepping down early 2018 – and I hope that Santa Claus is especially kind to them!

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