Communicating Risk

"The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has occurred.” George Bernard Shaw


It is not easy to communicate risk ....

It is worth taking a moment to consider what the information provided to the public is expected to achieve. There are three distinct ambitions:

1. 'Prior Information': To raise public awareness about any risks that apply to their neighbourhood. These can be general risks applicable across the UK such as risk of crime, terrorism, utility interruptions, storm, animal or human disease and so on. They also include specific local risks such as flooding or the risks associated with a nearby industrial plant or nuclear site.

Prior information is intended to encourage the reader to prepare for the potential crisis and to equip them with at least some of the knowledge they need to make informed decisions about how to respond if the risk materialises. For specific sites, such as nuclear licenced sites and COMAH sites (large chemical plant or store of hazardous material), prior information will cover why and how a warning would be promulgated.

2. 'Warning (Alerting)': This is about the arrangements to alert the public of possible, imminent and actual threats to life, the environment or property.

3. 'Informing:' This is about the arrangements and content of communications, during and after an event, that are intended to help the recipients take the appropriate action to ensure the safety and welfare of themselves and their community. This will consist of situation reports and advice. It will increasingly become a two-way conservation as time progresses.

Situation reports explain what is happening, how it may affect daily life and the steps being taken by the authorities and responders to protect the public and enable recovery. These provide the listener with context within which to make decisions.

Advice is one side of the conversation that supports the listener in making decisions and providing reassurance.

In the days and weeks after a major event the council and other authorities will be providing further support to those most affected and two-way communication will be built into the process.

It is possible to identify stages in the public communication process.

Phase Aspiration Options
Prior to event Informed and prepared population with a knowledge of the risks and potential consequences, an understanding of protective actions and, ideally, some preparation of family/business response plans. Leaflets, calendars, public events, school visits/material, media, apps
Initiation Alert the affected members of the public and initiate their response. Sirens or mobile loud hailers, phone systems, social and broadcast media, apps
Early acute phase Confirmation of alert;
Confirmation and clarification of protective actions;
Details about event.
Phone systems, social and broadcast media, apps
Later acute phase Information about course of events and further information and justification for protective actions. Social and broadcast media.
Termination Withdrawal of protective actions and notification/discussion of next steps;
Phone systems, social and broadcast media, apps, meetings
Recovery Support (this is more a dialogue than a one-way communication process). Social and broadcast media, support groups, public events.

In summary, the ambition of warning and informing is to support the efforts made to reduce the additional radiation doses (“avert dose”) that might arise during and after a nuclear accident.

The IAEA (IAEA, 2013) express another objective of the public protective action strategy, including informing, that of “to prevent the public from doing more harm than good – actions taken in the belief they are protecting themselves (e.g., not treating injured)”.

Best practices for communicating risk

The Society for Radiological Protection (SRP) have issued a “practitioner’s guide on communicating radiation risk before, during and after a radiation emergency” based on a working group meeting. This proposes a framework consisting of a series of actions to be taken prior to, during and after an emergency. This is worth a read by people responsible for nuclear emergency communications strategies.

The UK resilience guidance on communicating risk can be found on the internet (here). This suggests a seven step process:

  1. Step One Establish a team/network
  2. Step Two Decide what you want to achieve
  3. Step Three Get to know who the stakeholders are
  4. Step Four Decide what form of consultation to use
  5. Step Five Engage and involve your stakeholders
  6. Step Six Monitoring and evaluating your strategy
  7. Step Seven Maintaining the policy communication strategy

A FEMA paper Key Planning Factors and Considerations provides the following best practice advice.
  1. Embrace communication as an essential part of “front-end” decision-making.
  2. Incorporate communication experts at the outset when developing emergency management policies.
  3. Conduct pre-event communication planning that identifies potential threats or hazards, outlines risk reduction approaches, recognizes the resources needed to implement them, and spells out the responsibilities of principal actors.
  4. Build pre-crisis partnerships and alliances with other stakeholders to coordinate the sharing of communication resources and activities, enlist their help in better understanding and reaching target audiences, and establish trusted links that can be activated during the crisis period.
  5. Recognize the public’s right to know the risks that it faces as well as protective actions that it can take, and plan for the prompt sharing of this information.
  6. Accept uncertainty and ambiguity, and acknowledge the potential need to act before all the facts are known. Be prepared to explain the fluidity of conditions and the measures being taken to fill in the knowledge gaps.
  7. Listen to the public before and during the emergency. Find out what people know, think, or want done about risks, and use this to inform communication and emergency response planning. Acknowledge people’s concerns and adapt messages accordingly.
  8. Communicate with honesty, candor, and openness. Foster credibility with the public and the media. Be frank about the potential severity of the crisis. Promptly make information available. Convey information uncertainties, strengths, and weaknesses.
  9. Communicate with compassion, concern, and empathy. Recognize the human dimensions of the emergency and acknowledge people’s distress.
  10. Respect the unique communication needs of diverse audiences. Be mindful of differences in cultural background, immigrant status, education, technological adeptness, hearing and seeing abilities, and other factors that influence information uptake and processing. Use clear, nontechnical, accessible language and graphics to clarify messages; employ multiple language translations where appropriate.
  11. Meet the needs of the media and remain available. Plan to work diligently with the media before and during an incident knowing that members of the public often rely on news outlets to learn about a crisis or risk.
  12. Convey messages of self-efficacy. Provide specific information to the public on how to reduce any potential harm and what can be done to help others. Protective messages can reduce material harm as well as enhance morale by restoring a sense of control over uncertain and threatening conditions.
  13. Monitor public responses and update communication efforts to meet people’s evolving information needs

Preparing Scotland suggest that “it is important not to consider the public as a single group, but to segment it into a number of appropriate groups wherever possible dependent on their needs. One way to segment is to look at how the public can be linked by a number of factors. For example:

  1. proximity to the emergency (physical and/or emotional)
  2. demographics
  3. age, and other factors of vulnerability
  4. access to communication channels.
It is important to consider what information each of these audiences will require. Certain communities may require specific engagement work to offer reassurance or calm tensions”.

Preparedness phase

In this phase the local authority will be attempting to inform the locals about the risks inherent in the area, how they might manifest, how the alert will be raised and which actions that could be taken by individuals and groups to reduce any adverse impacts.

REPPIR Guidance states that prior information should enhance the effectiveness of protective actions by enhancing the understanding and co-operation of those affected. It should also ensure that the public are aware of the official sources of information and, by implication, are not led into inappropriate actions by accessing unofficial and faulty advice.

Under REPPIR the local authority must, in cooperation with the operator, '''ensure''' that members of the public within the Detailed Emergency Planning Zone are made aware of the relevant information, and, where appropriate, are provided with it while members of the public in any outline planning zone have access to the relevant material.

The intent is that, should the alarm be promulgated, the public will quickly recognise the alarm and what it means and that they will promptly take the appropriate actions.

The general duty is satisfied by the local resilience forum and lead authority officers preparing web sites with risk information and preparedness advice.

The specific duties associated with the REPPIR regulations are commonly satisfied by distributing leaflets and/or calendars to households and businesses within the DEPZ (a poster also exists for industrial premises) and by web-sites for the OPZ information.

Probably the best thing that a local authority could achieve at this stage is to get a large fraction of those that live and work in the detailed and outline planning zones to register themselves with any alerting system that sends voice or text messages to listed phones in the event that an alarm is raised.

There are fewer resources for children in the UK. A good example of child-friendly resources is Prepare with Pedro” from the US website.

Alert and response phase

During a disaster, communication becomes especially critical. Language, accessibility, or other barriers can affect many individuals’ ability to receive, understand, and act on emergency information. The ability of a community to communicate accurate emergency information, alerts, warnings, and notifications saves lives. Timely and effective messages can inform people on actions to stay safe, take shelter, or evacuate. What is in the messages and who communicates them to the community is an important element of risk communication.
Brenda Silverman, US Division of State and Local Readiness.

In the response phase the aspirations are to alert the people in the affected area, to provide them with advice about have to response and to provide them with the support required to achieve the protections available.

The CCA obliges Category 1 responders to “maintain arrangements to warn the public, and to provide information and advice to the public, if an emergency is likely to occur or has occurred” (2(1)g).

REPPIR regulation 21 requires that “every local authority must prepare and keep up to date arrangements to supply, in the event of an emergency in that local authority’s area (however that emergency may arise), information about and advice on the facts of the emergency, of the steps to be taken and, as appropriate, of the protective action applicable”.p

US FEMA advice is that “Receiving several warning messages from multiple, credible, trusted sources, such as NWS, local authorities and local media, increased rates of evacuation. NWS was specifically seen as a trusted source of information.” (NWS is the US National Weather Service, this finding is in the context of severe weather warnings).

Interestingly the UK government advice “Confusion would be caused, however, if more than one organisation were to plan to warn the public about the same risk at the same time to the same extent. To avoid duplication, those organisations whose functions are affected by an emergency should aim to co-operate and identify which organisation will take lead responsibility for warning and informing in regard to a particular emergency. Organisations should also ensure that they do not duplicate warning arrangements which may already be in place in other organisations.”

FEMA maintain the Integrated Public Alert & Warning System (IPAWS) as a national system for local alerting that provides authenticated emergency and life-saving information to the public through mobile phones using Wireless Emergency Alerts, to radio and television via the Emergency Alert System, and on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Weather Radio. It is used by more than 1,500 alerting authorities. [[File : ipaws.jpg none frame IPAWS system]]

Common mechanisms for alerting the public include sirens, phone systems that call a list of phone numbers with a recorded message, social media posts and TV and radio broadcasts. The long overdue ability to send a text message to all mobile phones in an area is being developed in the UK.

Many councils have social media accounts that they recommend locals subscribe to. These give a continuous stream of useful local information which would include the notification of an emergency. Many also have social media accounts more focussed on emergency alert that do not carry general interest messages.

During an event, a media briefing process is generally established that pools the media teams of the category 1 responders to share information and agree “lines” to take. Continuous briefing of social and broadcast media aims to deliver up to date and accurate information and advice to the public.

The initial aspiration will be to reach as many of the affected people as possible and to advise them on the urgent actions to take. As time progresses the messaging should contain more reporting of the event and explanation and justification of the protective actions.

It is interesting to read the experience of the media teams involved in the Fukushima Daiichi accident (Emergency Communication What have we learned since Fukushima? . It is observed that the key question from the public is “am I safe?” and claimed that, to answer this, the public needed data. Within 24 hours of the event some real time monitoring data was available to the public and these systems grew in coverage over the following years. But as well as data, explanations are required so that the public can begin to understand what these data mean in terms of their health. In the longer term "using pictures, infographics, clear explanations and language free of scientific jargon is key to achieving public understanding of the data and addressing perceived risks”.

It was also determined that to “maintain the public’s trust, authoritative voices in an emergency must use the same message with the same tone of voice. "If one organization says one thing, and one expert another, we’ve lost trust. We can’t afford that in emergencies".