Friday, July 27, 2012

Public Risk Communication

Communicating risk to the general public is a vital task in managing risk. The UK government has produced a leaflet outlining a ‘Practical Guide to Public Risk Communication’. The leaflet is a very short guide to practice. The three key aspects of risk communication are to reduce anxiety around risks, to manage risk awareness and to raise awareness of certain risks. There are 5 key elements to public risk communication: assembling the evidence, acknowledgement of public perspectives, analysis of options, authority in charge and interacting with your audience.

Each of these elements is expanded and discussed via a set of questions that organisations should consider. The first element is concerned with establishing the nature of the risk and its magnitude and demonstrating a credible basis for the position taken by the orgnaization. Evidence is paramount in this element but also, implicitly, is the question of trust or belief in the evidence. Who provides the evidence and the basis of that evidence are as important as clearly articulating the risk. As part of this aspect of trust, the question of ambiguity and uncertainty is bound to arise. Despite what politicians may wish, science is inexact and often searches for and is ladened with uncertainty. How organisations deal honestly with uncertainty can have a huge bearing on the trust they emit and retain between hazardous events.

Understanding how the public understand risk is essential to getting the message across. Lumping everyone in as ‘the public’, may not be that helpful though, as the leaflet notes. Assuming everyone perceives a hazard in the same way and in a consistent manner may be hoping for too much. The leaflet uses the term ‘risk actors’ as a coverall term for individuals or groups who engage with a risk or who influence others approaches to and understanding of risk. Perception and so the message about risk should be differentiated but that differentiation may depend upon the exact mix of risk and risk actors. An issue I would like to raise here is whether once you are a risk actor you are no longer a member of the public? A home-owner who has recently experienced a flood may be much more active in their local community in taking steps to reduce the flood risk – does that make them a risk actor, a well-informed member of the public or a member of the public and does this matter fro how risk is communicated to them? Risk actors could be viewed as being bias, of having their own agendas, and so not really reflective of the views of the general public.

Analysing options suggests that organisations have rationally weighed the risk and benefits of managing public risk as well as the options for action available to them. The last sentence is interesting ‘the technical and societal interests will need to be reconciled if the solution is to be generally accepted.’ This sentence is made in relation to technical solutions that may no have public sympathy initially. The implication that through debate these solutions can be accepted implies a very hierarchical and technocratic view of hazards and risk management – the public have to be educated and brought to accept the solution. I maybe reading this aspect too cynically but may be not.

The authority in charge section, however, adds weight to the idea that this is a technocratic and hierarchical view of hazards (maybe not a surprise in a government publication!) The need for an organisation to determine if it is appropriate for them to step into manage risk and the clear limits of responsibility to risk management imply a very structured and ordered view to how to manage the world and associated risks. A telling point is made that exercising authority now is as much about building and maintaining trust as it is about lines of formal authority. Trust, or rather the perception of trust, will dramatically affect the ability of an organisation to manage risk in a sceptical society. The last sentence states ‘Organisations that are not highly trusted will increase the chances of success by enlisting the help of other organisations – such as independent scientific organisations – who have the confidence of society’. A call to collaboration or a call to objectivity?

So is it all ‘smoke and mirrors’ or does this leaflet help to further risk management? Without a doubt communicating risk and its management effectively to different audiences is essential. The leaflet does provide some very good guidance on this. The ideas should not, however, be used uncritically as they are designed with a very technocratic and hierarchical view of risk management in mind. Examples of public risk communication are also provided and for flooding the conclusions reflect this bias (starts on page 22 of the report). Risk quantification is sought for flood hazard, as are software and tools for aiding local risk planning and managing the possible clash between the expectations of more flood defence infrastructure and the new risk-based approach (risk is the focus rather than the hazard itself). Communication about risk and its management is viewed as coming from the Environment Agency , insurance companies and DEFRA – not much about local ideas or communication from the ground up! The link itself is, however, viewed as potentially corrosive to public trust. This hits at the nub of the issue, the government wants the trust of people to be able to act in a manner it views as appropriate. Actions, of necessity in a complex society, require working with organizations with their own agendas and this creates suspicion. Can risk ever be managed without trust and can you manage anything without eroding some degree of trust somewhere?

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