Communicating Risk
Information with 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 risk communication is not:
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It is no longer one-way
messages from experts
to non-experts
What drives the rethinking of risk
communication?
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“ . . . decision-making responsibility involving risk
issues must be shared with the American
people.”
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William Ruckelhaus, 1986
“ . . . we must ensure that [citizens have] a fuller
understanding of the inevitable tradeoffs . . . in
the management of risk.”
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Lee M. Thomas, 1986
There are differing goals for risk
communication.

Some seeks to change people’s behavior
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Some seeks to solve a problem in most
acceptable way
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e.g., quit smoking, wear hearing protection, wash
pesticide-laden clothes separately, take the stairs in
case of fire
e.g., expanding a landfill, cleaning up hazardous
waste
Some seeks to inform, so that people can make
up their own mind.
Functional Types of Risk
Communication
Lundgren and McMakin, 1998
Care communication seeks to inform
and advise.
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Inform public about health risks such as AIDS
Inform workers about potential workplace risks
Focuses on health and safety risks for which the
danger and what to do have already been
determined.
Consensus communication helps groups
work together to decide how to manage
risk.
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Stakeholder participation
Citizen advisory panel, e.g.
The most updated of the types – leads to a
social-constructionist approach.
Craig Waddell,
TCQ, 1995
Risk decisions must include values
of all stakeholders
Risk = Hazard + Magnitude
Won’t work for public decision-making.
Peter Sandman’s new formula:
Risk = Hazard + Outrage
My formula:
Risk = Hazard + Values/Emotions
Crisis communication includes both
during and after the emergency.
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Seeks to persuade.
Even in this type, communicator must
understand the audience.
Modes of message delivery become very
important.
All Risk Communication . . .

“is an interactive process of
exchange of information and
opinion among individuals,
groups, and institutions” -National Research Council, 1989

must include social and cultural
values, as well as the technical
risk data.
Big problem #1: Stakeholders all speak
different “languages”
 Engineers speak technical language:
“The risk of dying from cancer is 10-6.”
 Regulators speak the language of standardstranslation:
“This site is considered safe for human health and
the environment.”
 The public speaks the language of personal/social
concern:
“Is this site safe for my children to play on?”
Some Typical Stakeholders
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Government
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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
Big problem #2: “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.
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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
#3: The risks that frighten people
aren’t the same ones that kill them.

Dichotomy between expert and public
rankings of risk.
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public has until recently ranked hazardous
waste as #1 threat.
experts rank smoking and diet as #1.
People are more likely to accept risks they
perceive as controllable and voluntary.
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driving a car (controllable) vs. flying in a plane
smoking cigarettes (voluntary) vs. possibly breathing
radon from landfill
#4: Risks are difficult to compare across
the board.
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Risk comparisons help people understand
quantitative info., but they may cause resentment if
seen as suggesting that something should be an
“acceptable risk.”
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.
And then there are all these barriers to
successful 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
To say nothing of these barriers . . .
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Fragmentation of risk-control decisions:
federal, state, local governments
Liability -- legal constraints
Difficulty in determining “acceptable risk,” for
everyone
Lack of trust/credibility (lack of empowerment)
And, finally, the degree of uncertainty in
calculating all risks means taking about risk
will always be risky.
Peter Sandman says, “There is
no neutral way to present risk
data” (1986).
Framing risk options neutrally is a
real challenge.
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
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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
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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?
So, the research question for me became:
If language influences risk
perception, which
words/terms (common to
environmental-risk
situations) are perceived
as negative or confusing?
BP-Amoco had a risk-communication
problem
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Old storage tanks leaking
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Old service stations located within now-residential areas
Local regulatory agencies monitor the investigation
but no one tells neighbors what’s going on.
BP not getting in touch with neighbors until
contaminants (benzene) suspected of moving offsite (underground).
Neighbors angry and uncooperative
Residence
Service Station
Monitoring Well
Ground Water
Research project collected quantitative and
qualitative data on risk perception.

Random Survey in two communities
Steubenville
OHIO
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Asheville
NORTH CAROLINA
Focus Groups in same communities
Random Survey
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Survey looked at responses to environmental
and non-environmental risks.
Fifteen questions:
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Eleven demographic questions
Four risk scenarios
One request for comments
Questions 3 and 4 compared environmental
and non-environmental risks.
3. You live near a leaking
chemical facility.
“Qualified investigators
and experts” agree there
is no health hazard. How
much of a risk to you?
4. You do not like flying in
airplanes, but you want very
much to get to a family
reunion half-way across the
country. You do not have time
to drive or take any other form
of transportation. Please
respond to this statement:
“Modern technology has a
number of risks, and I can
accept some risks if I know I
will benefit from the advances
associated with them.”
Survey Responses to Risk Situations
Pe rce nt of re sp ond ents “un com fo rta bl e w ith risk ” on
risk -sce nario qu estio n s:
Q u est io n 1 (Tra ffi c L igh t)
80%
N on en vi ron me ntal r isk
Q u est io n 2 (C hem ica l Fa cil it y) 77%
E n viro nm ent al ri sk
Q u est io n 3 (Fa cil it y Lea ks)
61%
E n viro nm ent al ri sk
Q u est io n 4 (Mo d. Te ch.)
88%
N on en vi ron m ent al r isk
Even more astonishing . . .
Pe rce n t of re sp ond en ts “ un com fo rta bl e w ith risk ” on
risk -sce n a rio qu estio n s:
Q u est io n 1 (Tra ffi c L igh t)
80%
N on en vi ron me ntal r isk
Q u est io n 2 (C hem ica l Fa cil it y) 77%
E n viro nm ent al ri sk
Q u est io n 3 (Fa cil it y Lea ks)
61%
E n viro nm ent al ri sk
Q u est io n 4 (Mo d. Te ch.)
88%
N on en vi ron m ent al r isk
Questions 2 and 3
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You live near a facility
that stores chemicals
and is operated “in
strict accordance with
government
requirements.” How
much of a risk to you?

You live near a leaking
chemical facility.
“Qualified investigators
and experts” agree
there is no health
hazard. How much of a
risk to you?
Question 2 considered riskier
2. You live near a facility
that stores chemicals
and is operated “in
strict accordance with
government
requirements.” How
much of a risk to you?
3. You live near a leaking
chemical facility.
“Qualified
investigators and
experts” agree there
is no health hazard.
How much of a risk to
you?
Focus Group Findings on Word Usage
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The word “government” usually has negative
connotations.
People have wildly different understandings of
the word “conservative.”
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small, stingy, careful, apathetic
risk assessors use it to mean the “toughest
standard” was applied to the assessment.
Findings
These words had positive connotations:
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expert
qualified
independent
objective
unbiased
third-party
Survey Findings on Perception of Risks
 Those in the 40-59 age group are less
comfortable with taking risks (both
environmental and non) than those over 60.
 Men are less comfortable than women with
taking risks (both environmental and non).
 Home owners are less comfortable with nonenvironmental risk than those who rent.
Pre-test risk messages with a focus group.
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Groups of 6-12 stakeholders.
Get representative sample, e.g.,
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local government officials
business folks
professionals
retired folks
homemakers
Moderator keeps things on track
Ask for immediate responses to messages.
Residence
Service Station
Monitoring Well
Ground Water
Findings on graphical presentation:
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Graphics MUST be pre-tested on sample audiences.
Label every object.
Provide explanatory text (where possible), even if
only as a caption.
Water Table
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We need more research to develop a “grammar” of
visual design.
Risk-Information Design
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Graphical presentation can be most effective with
these caveats:
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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).
Findings on Communication and
Credibility
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Overwhelmingly, people
want to be informed
through face-to-face
meetings.
Second choice is written
materials.
Findings (con.)
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Many individuals want to see some black-andwhite backup to what is communicated in other
ways -- they may not read the technical reports,
but they want to know where to find them.
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Brochures are fine, but people also want to see
evidence of a scientifically produced study.
We need more readable technical reports for ALL
stakeholders.
Narratives are successful.
References
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Covello, V.T. 1994. “Communicating Risk Information: A Guide to Environmental
Communication in Crisis and Non-crisis Situations,” in Environmental Strategies
Handbook, ed. Kolluru, R.V., McGraw-Hill, pp. 497-538.
Hart, H. 1999. Report of Research on Communicating about Risk with Stakeholders.
Technical Report. University of Texas at Austin. Executive Summary available at:
http://www.ce.utexas.edu/prof/hart/documents/BPReport_Exec_Summary.doc
Lundgren, R. E. and McMakin, A.H. 1998. Risk Communication: A Handbook for
Communicating Environmental, Safety, and Health Risks. 2nd edition. Batelle, OH.
Sandman, P.M. and Weinstein, Neil D. 1993. “Some Criteria for Evaluating Risk
Messages.” Risk Analysis 13 (1).
Slovic, P. 1999. “Trust, Emotion, Sex, Politics, and Science: Surveying the RiskAssessment Battlefield.” Risk Analysis 19 (4).
Tversky, A., and Kahneman, D. (1981). “The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology
of Choice.” Science 211, Jan. 30.
Waddell, C. (1995). “Defining Sustainable Development: A Case Study in
Environmental Communication,” Technical Communication Quarterly, 4 (2).
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Communicating Risk Information to Stakeholders