Risk Communication

Fear that a site contaminated by hazardous waste may be putting one's family at risk can create a high degree of concern to a community and affects the community's response. Assistance providers can expect angry reactions from citizens because of the fear of unknown risks and feelings of betrayal. Understanding both the science and the uncertainty about risk assessments can create greater trust relations between assistance providers and citizens.

Communicating about the risks of a contaminated site to citizens can provide as much uncertainty as assessing the risk itself. There are some things that are certain: a contaminated site will be of high-concern, sensitive and controversial to the community. Good communication is essential to being effective in working with the public in decision-making about the contaminated site. To manage the risk, stakeholders must be involved. For stakeholders to be engaged, communication must occur. Assume the citizens will be angry (or outraged). That outrage must be addressed before effective planning occurs. Even though communication is two-way, to engage stakeholders the service provider must listen first.

Listening will help build trust with the public you are serving. First understand the community and its specific issues and concerns. Each community has different goals, attitudes, history and leadership.

The goal of risk communication is to earn trust and gain credibility. The technical expert may be more comfortable focusing on the hazard and unintentionally ignore the outrage of the citizens. The public is focused on the outrage and may misperceive the hazard. To truly begin communicating, the outrage must be addressed first. The three formulas of risk communication are:

P = R
Perception = Reality
G = T + K
Goal = Trust + Knowledge
C = C2
Communication = Credibility x Competence

Perception and Reality: Risk perception is reality. Paul Slovic has developed theories of risk perception and measurement. It is important to realize that the science of predicting harm is uncertain. Risk perception of the individual is the reality to that individual. Telling someone that they do not have to worry will not relieve this reality. Most hazards are unpredictable and uncontrolled. Therefore the degree of control and the degree of knowledge about a risk affect the perception of the risk. Education can make a difference in risk perception; however, the education must come from a trusted source.

Trust. To communicate effectively in risk communication, the assistance provider must gain the trust of the citizens. Communication practices that can help build trust and credibility include: empathy and caring; competence and expertise; honesty and openness; and dedication and commitment. Peter Sandman has written extensively about building trust in risk communication.

In a situation where the citizens have a high level of concern about a site and the provider has low credibility, the citizens will have little trust. They may already believe that someone is hiding something. To build trust, accept the citizens as legitimate partners and listen to their concerns. Evaluate what has gone well and what has gone poorly. Work with credible community members. Do not promise what you cannot do. Be available and helpful. Be clear and be honest about what you do not know.

Knowledge: Some research has found that risk perception is lessened when knowledge is greater. However, that is not always true. In some cases the drama of an event may make the risk seem higher than the probability would suggest (e.g., the risk of a nuclear power plant accident). To add to the complexity of lay knowledge about risk, consider the difference in perception of the risk of a natural hazard as compared with a technical hazard, the differences in direct and indirect knowledge of hazards, and the differences in the presence or absence sensory signals (such as odors) of a hazard. In summary, knowledge levels will vary dramatically given the variables. In a contaminated site, the drama can be high, complex, technically caused, known through direct experience and visible to the senses. Such a combination should be considered in communication efforts.

Credibility and Competence: A certain amount of credibility comes just by being in a certain role or profession. For instance, local citizens, non-managers, health professionals and educators have greater credibility than industry officials, government officials, lawyers or consultants. One of the reasons for low credibility among the latter group is a tendency to use technology and the tendency for the officials to hold tightly to beliefs.

There are ways that credibility can be improved. Similar to building trust, credibility is gained through empathy, competence, honesty and commitment. To override low credibility work closely with credible, local residents or trusted professionals. Contextual expertise about the particular site will go a long way to build credibility. And finally, be very aware of body language (arms folded, wandering attention). Convey openness and avoid negative words (such as don't, can't, never, nothing, etc.).

Building competence on the team means bringing the needed expertise to the project, studying the issues and being prepared for every meeting. Inform the group of your experience and background and be honest about what you do NOT know. It is important to be accessible to the citizens and to follow-up with the answers you do not know at the time, (e.g., "I don't know the answer to that but I will find out for you.").

Dedication and Commitment: Finally, showing the community that you will put the time needed on the project will demonstrate the commitment needed to foster good risk communication. Go to all lengths to get the right people involved in the project. Be careful to avoid the need to apologize by because you did not attend to an issue as expected. Do not make comparisons that make the citizens of this community feel you have more important projects than theirs. Being clear about what can be expected from your team and risk communication can improve dramatically.

Overall, risk assessments can be used to establish clean-up goals and help to prioritize site remediation efforts.

Click here for Steps of Assessment. This page describes detailed descriptions of the steps in risk assessment, with emphasis on human health risk assessment.
Click here for Risk Assessment Standards This page provides a discussion on standards for risk assessment based on the American Society for Testing and Materials.
Click here for Ecological Risk Assessment This page focuses on the unique aspects of ecological risk assessment.
Click here for Risk Management This page provides information about plans for managing and/or preventing risk.

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