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Communicating Risk Information to Stakeholders. Much technical information is about assessing and controlling risks. Public and other stakeholders are part of process of making decisions based on risk information. . What is Risk Communication?.

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communicating risk information to stakeholders

Communicating Risk Information to Stakeholders

Much technical information is about assessing and controlling risks.

Public and other stakeholders are part of process of making decisions based on risk information.

what is risk communication
What is Risk Communication?
  • It is no longerone-way messages from experts to non-experts
communicating risk
Communicating Risk
  • “Risk communicationisan interactive process of exchange of information and opinion among individuals, groups, and institutions”

National Research Council, 1989. p. 21

  • As an engineer, your job is not simply to convey information so it is understood. You must anticipate needs of your audiences and solicit information from them.
why is risk communication necessary
Why is Risk Communication necessary?
  • “ . . . decision-making responsibility involving risk issues must be shared with the American people.”
        • William Ruckelhaus, 1986
  • “ . . . we must ensure that [citizens have] a fuller understanding of the inevitable tradeoffs . . . in the management of risk.”
        • Lee M. Thomas, 1986
risk decisions must include values of stakeholders
Risk decisions must include values of stakeholders
  • Risks cannot be weighed against each other without considering human values.
  • Which option provides the best protection at the least cost -- in terms of human values, as well as $$$$$$?
some typical stakeholders
Some Typical Stakeholders
  • Government
    • federal, state, municipal regulators
  • Scientists/engineers and subject-matter experts
  • Environmental or worker-safety groups
  • Geographical neighbors
  • Community and civic organizations
  • Educational organizations
  • Business and professional associations
barriers to risk communication
Engineers and Scientists:

Difficulty of handling uncertainty

Failure to consider qualitative factors

Failure to elicit information on social and cultural values

Difficulty of communicating quantitative info. to public

Disagreement about terms

Many others . . .

Non-technical Public:

Difficulty of understanding uncertainty

Difficulty of understanding complex information (physical, chemical, biological mechanisms)

Difficulty communicating social and other values

Little training in quantitative methods and information

Disagreement about terms

Barriers to Risk Communication
some of the many other barriers
Some of the many other barriers . . .
  • Fragmentation of risk-control decisions: federal, state, local governments
  • Liability -- legal constraints
  • Difficulty in determining “acceptable risk”
  • Lack of trust/credibility (lack of empowerment)
risk is inherently subjective qualitative
“Risk” is inherently subjective (qualitative)
  • The risk estimates of experts are “based on theoretical models, whose structure is subjective and assumption-laden and whose inputs are dependent on judgment.”
  • Risk assessments depend on judgments “at every stage of the process, from the initial structuring of a risk problem to deciding which endpoints or consequences to include in the analysis.”

Paul Slovic 1999

everyone even scientists makes errors in judgment
Everyone (even scientists) makes errors in judgment.
  • Inappropriate reliance on limited data
  • Tendency to impose order on random events
  • Tendency to fit ambiguous evidence into predispositions
  • Overconfidence in the reliability of scientific analyses
          • Nat’l Research Council, 1989
public perception categories of risk
Public-Perception Categories of Risk
  • Controllable vs. Uncontrollable
    • driving a car vs. flying in a plane
  • Voluntary vs. Involuntary
    • smoking cigarettes vs. radon from landfill
  • Macro vs. Micro
    • population risk vs. individual risk
    • regulator’s perception vs. individual’s
the risks that frighten people aren t the same ones that kill them
The risks that frighten people aren’t the same ones that kill them.
  • Dichotomy between expert and public rankings of risk.
    • public has until recently ranked hazardous waste as #1 threat.
    • experts rank smoking and diet as #1.
public perceptions of risk
Less Risky





not memorable


not fatal



More Risky










Public Perceptions of Risk
these days good risk communication considers both quantifiable and non quantifiable factors
These days, good risk communication considers both quantifiable and non-quantifiable factors.

This doesn’t work!

Radon risks can equal or exceed the 2% risk of death in an auto accident . . for anyone who lives 20 years at levels exceeding about 25 picocuries per liter.

R.A. Kerr, Science (1988)

expressing risk numbers
Expressing Risk Numbers
  • When people ask “how much?” they may really be asking, “what does it mean to me?” Martha Bean of CH2M Hill says, answering only the first question “may cause fear and confusion.”
  • See below for an example of providing a meaningful context for the numbers.
        • quoted in “Improving Dialogue with Communities” (1988)
presenting numbers
Presenting Numbers
  • Even relatively simple tables are difficult to read and interpret.
  • Bar charts are generally easier and faster to absorb.
challenge of comparing risks
Challenge of Comparing Risks
  • Risk comparisons help people understand quantitative info.
  • But be careful not to compare apples and oranges:
    • voluntary vs. involuntary risks
    • different consequences of a hazard
    • quantitative vs. qualitative risks
  • Compare risks of same hazard at different times or risks of different options for achieving same purpose.
challenge of information design especially for quantitative information
Challenge of Information Design, especially for quantitative information
  • Public is not used to interpreting scientific data in same graphical forms as scientists typically represent them.
  • Even simplified graphics can be misinterpreted.


Service Station

Monitoring Well

Ground Water

information design
Information Design
  • Graphical presentation can be most effective with these caveats:
    • Order-of-magnitude changes should be shown concretely.
    • Comparison of relative risks requires consideration of audience.
    • Y-axis should start with zero (or indicate change in scale).
    • Use relative rather than absolute terms to express risk numbers (e.g., use ranges).
    • Test the graphic on representatives of those stakeholders.
framing verbal and written risk messages
Framing Verbal and Written Risk Messages
  • “Framing” means put in a context.
    • Pictures are helpful in setting up context
    • Words themselves can also provide the context.
  • When developing messages for a mixed audience, consider not only their level of technical understanding but also the invisible assumptions that may creep into your use of language.

Challenge of Framing Risk Options Neutrally

Problem: Imagine that the US is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual foreign disease that is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed.

Science, January 1981

frame 1
Frame #1
  • If Program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved.
  • If Program B is adopted, there is 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved and 2/3 probability that no people will be saved.

Which of the two programs is best?

frame 2
Frame #2
  • If Program C is adopted, 400 people will die.
  • If Program D is adopted, there is 1/3 probability that nobody will die and

2/3 probability that 600 people will die.

Which program is best?

  • Baruch Fischoff and Paul Slovic
    • cognitive psychologists
  • Vincent T. Covello
    • risk perception guru
  • Peter Sandman
    • risk communication promoter
  • Journals: Risk Analysis; Environmental Science &Technology