Risk Communication



Risk communication describes activities that ensure messages and strategies that protect the public from threats to health, safety and the environment are communicated quickly and effectively. Risk communication promotes public awareness and increases knowledge through a two-way process of communication in order to motivate individuals to reduce their exposure to hazardous substances or situations, and/or to minimize the negative impact of their activities on one other and the natural environment. Risk communication is a process of interaction and exchange of information and opinions among individuals, groups and institutions to help everyone understand the risks to which they are exposed and encourage them to participate in minimizing or preventing these risks. (1)

Critical Elements of Risk Communication

When creating a plan for risk communication, there are four principal elements to consider:

Trusting The Source - The success of risk communication is often linked to the trustworthiness of the individual delivering the message in the eyes of the audience. Trust is characterized by a number of features including: perceived competence, objectivity, fairness, consistency and goodwill. (2) Medical and public health officials have greater credibility than elected politicians when warning the public about a disease outbreak.

Getting The Message Right - It is essential to assess the level of knowledge and perception of risk of the target audience, determining how much they already know about a given topic, what they want to know and what they need to know. This empirical evidence can be collected through surveys, interviews and focus groups with stakeholders, assessing their areas of concern and level of understanding on a given topic. Risk communicators must also pursue a sustained relationship with stakeholders to accurately predict expected levels of concern, worry and fear and be able to reassure and inform with truthful, credible and transparent risk messages and strategies. (3)

The Media - Communicating risk can be accomplished in the media through a variety of methods, depending on the type of threat being presented and the urgency with which the information must reach its audience. These methods include but are not limited to hosting news conferences and public meetings, talking to journalists, buying advertising with public education messages, maintaining a dedicated website with opportunities for feedback, posting to online forums, providing experts to radio and television call-in shows, writing letters to the editor and submitting opinion pieces to newspapers and magazines.

The Audience- The social group to which the message is directed. This group may or may not be affected, may or may not be interested. The audience may be diverse, ranging from the general public to specific, high-risk groups that need to be protected.

Four Kinds of Risk Communication

American risk communication consultant Peter Sandman has condensed the theory of risk messaging into four useful methodologies for public relations practitioners, using the formula of risk = hazard + outrage:

  • Public Relations: High Hazard, Low Outrage - Characterized by a dangerous situation that the public is not particularly interested in, usually in the domain of health education, safety training and environmental activism.
  • Stakeholder Relations: Moderate Hazard, Moderate Outrage - Stakeholders are those who know they are affected by a situation, and are attentive, active listeners with informed questions and concerns.
  • Outrage Management: Low Hazard, High Outrage - This is when the audience is outraged by something that may be justified, but the actual threat or hazard is low. The job here is to reduce outrage by listening, acknowledging, sharing control and credit. The controversy ends when the core group declares victory or their larger constituency group decides enough is enough.
  • Crisis Communication: High Hazard, High Outrage - Rare but critical form of risk communication when the audience is large and filled with fear and misery because of real danger and threats. The job of the risk communicator is to help the public bear this fear and misery, preventing it from turning into denial, terro or depression. (2)

Further Reading of Effective Risk Communication:
Kaplan, T. (1998)
The Tylenol Crisis


(1) Palenchar, M. J., Heath, R. L. (2007). Strategic risk communications: Adding Value to society, Public Relations Review, 33(2), p. 121-127.

(2) Chartier J., Gabler, S. (2001) Risk Communication and Government: Theory and Application for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Canadian

Food Inspection Agency Public and Regulatory Affairs Branch.

(3) Corvello, V., (2001) Risk Communication, the West Nile Virus Epidemic, and Bioterrorism: Responding to the Communication Challenges

Posed by the Intentional or Unintentional Release of a Pathogen in an Urban Setting. Journal of Urban Health: Bulletin of the New York

Academy of Medicine
, 78 (2) 382-391

(5) Sandman, P. (2003). Four kinds of risk communications. Retrieved from Peter Sandman web site http://www.psandman.com/col/4kind-1.htm.