Risk analysis | Definition of Risk Communication | Evolution | Risk perception | Cardinal rules | Planning
In our daily lives we come up against different kinds of risks, and we assign a value to these risks based on our perception of them. We are so familiar with certain risks that we underestimate them. The perception of each person and social group and their scales of values determine the way they classify risks.
By “risk” we understand the probability that damage will result from exposure to a chemical, physical, or biological agent.
Risk analysis includes the assessment, description, communication, and management of the risk, and the policies associated with it. Risk assessment is a process that enables us to evaluate the information on the hazardous properties of certain substances, their exposure potential, and their effects on health.
Risk analysis framework
Risk management is a decision-making process which is used to establish policies and indicate the hazards identified during risk assessment and their impacts on public health. Control aspects, and technological, financial, and regulatory matters are dealt with in the risk manual. Risk communication is one of the elements of risk management; it is a process made up of clearly defined steps that help in decision-making and contribute to a better understanding of the risk and its impact.
The National Research Council of the United States gave the following definition in 1989: “Risk communication is an interactive process of exchange of information and opinions among individuals, groups, and institutions. It is a dialog involving multiple messages that express concerns, opinions, or reactions to risk messages or to legal and institutional arrangements for risk management.”
The communication of health risks is an area of growing importance in Latin America and the Caribbean, particularly in certain public health sectors.
Health risk communication identifies the community’s concerns and responds to them; it reduces tension between the community and personnel belonging to the institution; and it explains health risks to the community more effectively. It provides an opportunity to communicate the risks in a planned way while remaining sensitive to the needs of the community; it incorporates the community into the risk management process; and it helps to establish trust and alleviate fear and outrage.
Public health professionals must understand the needs of the community and be capable of facilitating dialog about technical aspects of public health risks; they must also be able to identify the psychological, political, social, and economic needs of the community.
According to Covello and Sandman (2001), the evolution of health risk communication has passed through the following four stages:
Stage 1: Ignore the
In recent years, health risk communication has played an important role in the prevention and mitigation of adverse consequences to human health from exposure to hazardous substances.
Technology and globalization are important factors in the evolution of risk communication strategies. Rapid technological advances in communications tools are increasing both the speed of information flow, to and from the source and recipient, and the scope of the audience. This results in acceleration of the development of social attitudes and risk perception.
Different environmental risks, such as pollution of the air, water, and soil, have added new concerns to society at large. At the same time that these new hazards have appeared, in today’s society there is an unprecedented amount of information available. When something new is discovered that is considered potentially harmful, within only a few days everyone has heard about it.
Increasingly, the majority of sources of information are owned by a small number of corporations that seek to maximize their profits. This means that the mass media tend to magnify risks in order to draw greater numbers of individuals who will buy their newspapers and magazines, listen to their radio newscasts, or watch their television news programs.
Governments worldwide are beginning to recognize that the traditional methods of involving citizens in policy-making are not always effective. Traditional methods of communicating risk which are generally associated with the "technical view" of risk communication or the "factual information model" are no longer considered to be the best and only means of developing public policy around risk. It is now recognized by authorities at all levels that a genuinely deliberative and interactive citizen involvement is a more effective means of managing risk. For government this will imply making adjustments in the way it interacts with the public.
Participatory approaches to risk communication may lead to better consensus, but cannot guarantee absolute harmony. From the perspective of government, responsive risk communication respects both the public (by being participatory) and its right to know (by being as transparent as possible), while also appreciating the limitations of responsible government.
Local governments face increased pressure due to improved public access to information. The rise in the educational level of the population combined with today’s technological development, means that people in most urban areas now have more access to information through Internet and news programs. Better informed and higher educated citizens are less likely to accept the direction of an authority without questioning events that affect them in their day-to-day lives.
The widespread crisis of confidence in public institutions is a difficult factor to face, in particular in Latin American societies. Every government should set itself the goal of rebuilding trust as a medium- and long-term process. Credibility, safety, and trust are the pillars of a democratic society and they are also essential elements in any successful risk communication exercise.
Governments face the challenge of maintaining a clear distinction between communication techniques seen by the public as propaganda and those designed to provide technical information, and to promote, educate, and change attitudes. This poses a further problem when the government has the double role of communicator and regulator.
When risks are fully understood, predictable, and measurable, risk communication can be clear and direct. However, more often than not governments are called on to inform citizens about risks that are little known, unpredictable, and about which there is disagreement even among experts. Scientific uncertainty is considered to be one of the factors that enables risk to be politicized.
Risk perception is both analytical and emotional. This explains why the public’s fears are not always in proportion to the real facts. Acting on this point of view enables governments to do a more effective job of risk communication by applying appropriate policies and taking into account the opinions arising from these policies.
Research has shown that public perceptions of risk are constantly changing and evolving as the dynamics of public opinion shift in response to the environment in which we all live. Results of research into the factors influencing the evolution of public opinion will most certainly help to structure, develop and evolve communication strategies related to risk.
This will help individuals
to make the soundest and most effective decisions for themselves,
and it will help focus social concern on major risks. Governments
and social and private institutions will thus be able to make good
decisions for the protection of the public and the promotion of environmental
The seven cardinal rules of risk communication:
Most risk communication professionals will agree that even when these seven rules are effectively applied, risk communication will not solve all problems nor will it avoid conflict on issues. However, it is also true that poor risk communication or a complete lack of it will undoubtedly lead to a failure to manage risk effectively.
Planning is basic if a program is to meet its goals successfully. The success or failure of risk communication may depend to a large extent on whether clear goals have been set. Such goals will vary according to the nature of the risk: they may include information, education, persuasion, negotiation, assurance, and prevention. The strategies employed to meet these goals should include an interactive discussion between the source of the information and the recipient.
Promoting the community’s participation in the gathering of information gives greater credibility to the process and sets the bases for community participation in solving problems. The communities need and want to be actively involved in the identification, description, and solution of the problems that affect their lives. All this implies far more than working in coordination with the community. The crucially important point is that once the initial linkage has taken place, the community should adopt self-help strategies to seek solutions to its problems in conjunction with the pertinent institutions. This will ensure the sustainability of the process with neither impositions nor paternalism from outside the community.
Risk communication is defined as two-way communication between the individuals involved regarding the existence, nature, form, severity, and acceptability of the risks in question. It is vital that the basic concepts of health risk communication be properly understood and that communication be ensured with the individuals participating in risk management.