Lesson 5: Risk Communication

Lesson Overview

Throughout the DHS Risk Management Cycle one of the most important factors is communication. Effective risk communication brings cohesion to the decision-making process and ensures that objectives are being met at every step of the cycle.

Successful risk communication involves the knowledge of different types of communication as well as an understanding of many key considerations.

Upon completion of this lesson, you will be able to:

  • Identify the role of risk communication in risk management.
  • Describe how risk perception influences communication.
  • Recognize characteristics and principles for effective risk communication.
  • Identify examples of effective and ineffective risk communication.

Risk Management in Real Life

Hello, again. Are you familiar with the “If You See Something, Say Something TM” public awareness campaign launched by DHS in 2010? It is a program designed to raise awareness of the indicators of terrorism and violent crime, and to emphasize the importance of reporting suspicious activity to the proper local and state law enforcement authorities.

A key component of this public awareness campaign is enhancing effective communication between the public and authorities. We all know how important communication can be in many areas of our life. Well, it is no less important when it comes to risk management.

The “If You See Something, Say SomethingTM” campaign illustrates the need for effective communication when it comes to managing the risks of terrorism or violent crimes. The eyes of the public are valuable tools when it comes to identifying potential risks.

However, the average person needs to have an idea of what to look for and how to get that information to the proper authorities. Through this awareness campaign, DHS is attempting to educate the public and enhance this communication process in an effort to keep our nation safe.

Risk Communication

Risk communication is the exchange of information with the goal of improving risk understanding, affecting risk perception, and/or equipping people or groups to act appropriately in response to an identified risk.

Communications underpin the entire risk management process. Risk communication is a multidirectional process and should be ongoing throughout the life of a risk management action or strategy to ensure that everyone affected by either the risk or the risk management action will have the information they need at the time they need to have it.

Strong and effective communication is the foundation of the risk management process. For example, as part of a risk management process, an organization will maintain communication among team members, analysts, stakeholders, partners, and customers to keep a project or decision moving through the risk management process.

As with the other aspects of the Risk Management Cycle, there are a few basic questions that can help guide the Risk communications process. These are:

  • What risk information needs to be communicated?
  • Between whom does it need to be communicated?
  • How can necessary risk information be most effectively communicated?

Information to Communicate

Information that needs to be communicated can include risk perceptions, factual information about a given threat or hazard, information about consequences, the results of risk assessments, alternative courses of action, and more. However, not everyone needs to have the same information.

For example, the general public probably does not need the details of assessments or risk management actions taken with respect to internal risks. On the other hand, the public will need information on topics such as how to prepare a “go kit” or evacuate a projected hurricane impact area. This pre-event information might come through resources like the Ready.gov website. After an event, necessary information will likely come from designated spokespersons making public announcements.

The people of the United States are so diverse in so many ways that no single communication mode will satisfy the needs of the entire population. By addressing that diversity and using appropriate methods to communicate the necessary information throughout the DHS Risk Management Cycle, it will be possible for people managing risks to develop and maintain effective risk communications plans.

Risk communication can be broken down into internal and external communication. It can also be divided into pre-decisional and post-decisional, as well as pre-event and post-event. Of course, those involved and the information communicated will change depending on the context.

Below are some examples of risk communication:

  • Public addresses or alerts
  • Warning systems
  • Brochures or flyers (e.g., At health care facilities, the DMV, etc.)
  • Television ads
  • Public awareness campaigns (e.g., If You See Something, Say Something)
  • Signs, videos, and announcements at the airport (particularly in the screening area)
  • Briefs to leadership
  • Emails/memos
  • Reports
  • Meetings at work
  • Town hall meetings with the public

Internal Risk Communication

Internal communication can include communication that is between analysts and decision-makers, among subject matter experts, and across component organizations within DHS. Ensuring that information is received and shared is crucial to internal communications throughout the risk management cycle.

Being transparent about methodology, limitations, and uncertainty provides decision-makers with the most accurate, defensible, and practical information on which to base risk management decisions.

External Risk Communication

DHS employees often communicate with external stakeholders and partners (like other agencies or state and local governments) as well as the private sector and members of the public in order to better understand their perceptions of risk. Further, these external stakeholders frequently have extensive and superior knowledge which DHS should take advantage of as it begins to assess risk and develop risk management strategies. This cannot be done without effective two-way communications.

Other agencies and levels of government, as well as the public and the private sectors, often have important roles to play in reducing risk, making them an integral part of the risk management process. To fulfill these roles, other players must have information on what they need to do, as well as when, how, and why to do it.

U.S. Coast Guard team member:

So why is risk communication so important? First of all, it’s conveying information that someone can use. But it’s also a way to influence a person’s thoughts about the information that he or she is receiving. We all receive information differently and we hear the information from our own perspectives.

So that means we superimpose our values on the message that is being sent. If we, as DHS, are hoping to help move the needle towards reducing risk, we can’t do it alone. We need our partners to understand the risk and why implementing the measure we’re asking them to do is important to them. It’s the old adage of everyone listens to their favorite radio station, W-I-I-F-M or What’s in it for me?

So how do we send a message that is consistent in its delivery and relates to how someone else might hear it? While there is no one or simple way to implement risk communication, you can consider the following aspects as you develop a script to convey your message as well as influence the way in which your message is heard.

  • Do you have a credible basis for your position?
  • Is there a regulation, statute or department policy that is driving your action?
  • Have you identified the best way to communicate this message to your audience?
  • Can you acknowledge and/or empathize that your customer might have a different point of view that has not yet been addressed?
  • Can you compare this risk to other risks that they might know so that they can better comprehend the risk and the need to respond appropriately?

Incident-driven vs. Routine Communications

How risk communications are conducted can differ based on the relevance of time pressure, the purpose of the message, and the entity responsible for communicating the information.

Many types of risk communications are routine and involve little time pressure. Typically, routine risk communications are intended to inform and empower decision-making among partners, stakeholders, and the public and/or to influence risk perceptions with information based on fact rather than fear. Incident or emergency communications, however, take place under different conditions and impose very different demands on those responsible for getting the message out.

In an emergency, time constraints are a critical consideration and the need to explain and persuade becomes increasingly important as a result of psychological changes in how people take in and act on information and protective guidance.

One of the best ways to ensure effective emergency communications is to begin preparing the audience frequently members of the public to receive the message BEFORE the emergency happens. This can be done by being open to communications, by providing information that is needed before an emergency, and by trying to build a reputation for credibility and competence. Waiting for an emergency to happen before doing these things will only guarantee failure.

Risk Communication and Risk Perception

As mentioned earlier, varying risk perceptions need to be taken into account when communicating. Risk perception influences a person’s attitude towards risk, which then influences that person’s behavior. Erroneous risk perceptions, if discovered in a timely manner through open communications, provide an educational target that can be addressed through subsequent risk communications efforts.

For example, the public might generally perceive a greater danger from shark attacks after a movie like “Jaws” is released. Perceptions that have been influenced by a recent event, or even by scary fiction such as the movie “Jaws,” may be unrealistic and drive counterproductive responses to a misperceived risk resulting in untended and greater negative consequences. An example directly relevant to DHS is that, in the months after the September 11, 2001 attacks, an increase in the number of people choosing not to fly led to substantially more highway deaths.” (Gigerenzer, 2006).

This is very important to keep in mind when considering risk communication; whether it is communication about a risk assessment or communications surrounding an incident or event. You need to account for the various risk perceptions of audiences and draft your communications to address those perceptions.

Risk Communication Considerations

Regardless of whether your audience is internal or external, there are several considerations for risk communication that you should think about while forming risk communication messages.

  • Plan for Communications
  • Build and Maintain Trust
  • Use Language Appropriate to the Audience
  • Be Both Clear and Transparent
  • Respect the Audience’s Concerns
  • Maintain Integrity of Information

Additional information on risk communication can be found in the publication Improving Risk Communication, authored by the National Research Council Committee on Risk Perception and Communication and published in 1989.

Plan for Communications

Communication needs to be part of the risk management process; it should not be an afterthought. The information needs of different audiences will vary depending on circumstances, but risk information needs to be available for all stakeholders throughout the risk management cycle.

It is important that these plans include opportunities for two-way communication

Build and Maintain Trust

Past communication efforts will affect future efforts, especially if they are related to the same situation. How your message is received will depend on how previous messages were given and received.

Maintaining consistency is important but not at the expense of accuracy. If new information is not consistent with what you’ve said in the past, then you need to acknowledge the change or previous mistakes and then explain the situation as it stands.

For example, this would hold true if you are an analyst who is modifying your assessment results based on new data or if you are a public official providing new informsation about an industrial disaster and either the situation has changed or new facts have come into the possession of the authorities.

Use Language Appropriate to the Audience

Consider who your audience is and make sure the language and type of communication is tailored to them. Be aware of those who may speak other languages and make accommodations for individuals with access and functional needs as well.

Make sure that the information is conveyed in a way that leads to your organization’s desired actions and outcomes. Is your audience DHS leadership? Are they state and local partners or the general public? The way you convey the message will vary for each of these audiences.

Be Both Clear and Transparent

Clarity means communicating in a direct, simple and understandable way. Avoiding jargon and discussing the situation without technical or scientific information, unless it is necessary for the audience, are other examples of ways to ensure your communication is clear. Transparency means disclosing assumptions, methodologies, and uncertainties.

Respect the Audience’s Concerns

Acknowledge the audience’s concerns and/or issues and provide them with opportunities for collaboration or providing feedback when possible. It’s important as a risk communicator to answer questions and provide options. If you say you are going to get back to someone, make sure you follow up. And remember that those you are communicating with may have important information that you don’t have, or may have important concerns of which you are unaware.

Maintain Integrity of Information

Acknowledge uncertainty, note limitations of the data, discuss assumptions, and distinguish between results that are and are not supported by analysis.

Risk Management in Real Life

As you can see, communication is an important part of risk management. I know how vital it is for my own job.

Whether it is part of a formal risk management process or just within the routine of normal duties, I understand the need for all parties to be as informed as possible and how that can only happen through active communication.

I hope that some of the things we have talked about today have helped you to better understand risk management. Risk management is obviously an essential part of my job. As a transportation security officer, I’m working to help keep people secure from risks.

Even if you haven’t thought much about risk management in your job, I’m guessing that you can see now that these ideas have valuable application in every workplace.

We also talked about how risk management plays a role in our communities and in our homes. Maybe you’ll start thinking about some of the decisions you make at home and how you go about applying risk management to those.

You might also be a little more aware of actions being taken about particular risks in your community and how you can contribute to those efforts. At the end of the day, we all stand to benefit from effective use of risk management principles in dealing with issues at work and at home.

Lesson Summary

In this lesson you have learned about the significance of effective communication throughout the DHS Risk Management Cycle.

Communication must be a planned part of your overall risk management effort as opposed to an afterthought. Both internal and external communication work to keep risk management moving forward and to ensure that everyone is involved and working toward the same goals. Effective communication has the power to establish a positive and productive environment based on trust, respect, transparency, and integrity.

Course Summary

Risk management is a part of DHS culture and a vital part of our ongoing effort to protect the Nation from a diverse and complex set of threats and hazards. Through this course you learned about the essential role of risk management at home, in the community, and in your workplace. As part of the DHS workforce, it is critical that you understand the fundamentals of risk management and how those might apply to your roles and responsibilities.

While risk management can inform decision making, in the final analysis, it is really what we do to manage risk that matters. The DHS Risk Management Cycle provides a sound approach for applying the principles and concepts of risk management to decision-making and operations. With these tools and knowledge, you stand poised to provide a greater contribution to the risk management efforts at DHS.