Readers who have explored the Challenges to Understanding Risks will know that a whole variety of factors contribute to an accident or cause some harm. Some of these factors may be difficult to predict so when you move on to actually communicate about those risks, the challenge becomes even greater. It is here that the authorities’ factual basis for their assessment of risk comes face to face with an enormously powerful set of human emotions and political factors.
||Many members of the public start out with their own perceptions about risks that may not be based on facts at all but rather on deep seated emotions such as trust and intuitive judgments about what types of risks are most worrisome.
||Professional risk communicators often experience pressure to put a good spin on risk reporting, particularly if they represent some product or service that some may suspect as harmful.
||It is human nature for activists or advocates who are fervent believers in their cause to stress their concerns about those risks that support their wish for political change - while at the same time drawing attention to what they see as unfavorable aspects of their opposition’s character.
Each of these three scenarios is likely to reveal different aspects of risk communication - even while all may be based on “the facts” (or a least some version of them!)
So what does this mean for anyone wanting to effectively communicate risks?
It means that we need to acknowledge that people - all people - are likely to make their decisions about risks based on a combination of their emotions and the facts. Both can be manipulated to some degree but, when it comes to the general public, emotions are likely to dominate the facts. In all situations, a lack of trust on the part of the listener will totally trump the best-prepared plans of any risk communicator trying to explain the numbers.
It also means that there are different approaches towards risk communication depending on the objective of the person doing the communicating- or doing the responding! There are consultants that specialize in teaching risk communicators from business to present the facts in the best light to suit their cause. And there are consultants who help activists and sometimes politicians generate fear and outrage in the minds of the public in order to further their own objectives too.
In other words, there are undoubtedly many professional risk communicators who start out with a clear objective of consciously reinforcing their political message while still basing their communication on the (selected?) facts. The adversarial, sound-bite nature of much news coverage and the courts further reinforces the need for advocates on both sides to deal in “politicized risk reporting”.
The Risk Communication Institute’s position is that there is a better way.
We offer simple tools for risk communicators to use with the general public in order to help lay people better understand risks and thus make better decisions for themselves and their communities. The Risk Communication Institute’s prime objective is not to “spin” risk communications with any agenda of its own but rather to empower non-technical people to come to their own conclusions. We do this by teaching them 1) what simple questions to ask to get the basic facts, and then 2) how to view risks in perspective by relating them to their own life’s experiences.
We like to treat audience members as if they were our family. We use our knowledge to empower them to see through the spin of other risk communicators and to get to a point where they can put risks into perspective for themselves.
In other words our objective is to empower rather than to manipulate.
How we do it.
We provide simple visual tools that allow non-technical people to view some new risk in the context of risks that they are already “at home with” in their own lives. Basic to this approach are a series of visual aids such as Paling Perspective Scales that have been used by a wide variety of organizations and individuals.
We also provide keynotes and seminars on all aspects of risk communication that are focused on our clients’ specific needs and interests. For more information about this, please contact us.
The greatest benefit of The Risk Communication Institute’s approach
Empowering the public to decide for themselves actually “works better” than the manipulative approach for those organizations that have positive news to report and want to get their message out to members the general public and the press.
The key reason for this is that audiences filter all risk messages according to their level of trust that they have for the spokesperson and/ or the organization that is responsible. And if any company does not actually trust the public enough to tell the facts objectively without resorting to spinning their message then it is likely that, at some level or other, the public will sense this and not trust them! It is as if the horse falls at the first hurdle.
Instead, if the risk communicator genuinely attempts to partner with her audience and share neutral visual tools to put risks into perspective, allowing the listener to be in charge, then trust is reinforced and that of itself propels the risk communicator’s message towards getting a fair hearing. The horse and jockey can now focus together on the winning post-- namely working together to put risks into perspective!
How to learn more.
Clearly this page is just a start to communicating risks. There is far more to know and other approaches to use when, for example, being asked to debate about risks against a professional advocate whose sole mission is not to seek objectively but rather to win a superficial argument in public debate.
We welcome discussing your particular concerns with you.
Print journalists and media producers:
If you are interested in interviewing Dr Paling about current risks or if you wish to print an article based on the work of The Risk Communication Institute, please make this clear when you contact us.