Don’t Send Your Messages into a Media Black Hole: Communicating about Risk in the Information Age

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Danger-sign in the water. Image: Matthew/Flickr

Whether a natural hazard turns into a disaster largely depends on the level of human preparedness. The recent, devastating earthquake in Nepal illustrates this point, where a lack of prevention and mitigation measures pre-disaster contributed to high disaster vulnerability, with terrible consequences for the local population. Communicating to the public about the risks of natural hazards represents a major function of disaster preparedness and resilience. Yet, many efforts to step up communication with the public about risks end in a “media black hole” because they are not properly tailored towards their target groups.

In the shadows of the social media hype

In recent years, discussion about risk communication has been preoccupied with the opportunities and challenges presented by new information and communication technologies. The potential future role of social media in disaster risk communication has drawn special attention from scholars and practitioners in the field. While technical enthusiasts believe that Facebook, Twitter, etc., can revolutionize risk and crisis communication, saving thousands of lives, skeptics (for example, many disaster management professionals in Continental Europe) fear that the information revolution may have negative effects on the reliability of risk communication processes. They worry particularly about the spread of rumors and the distribution of misinformation that contradicts the information supplied by authorities (for a detailed discussion of this point see our study on the use of social media in disasters).

In the shadow of this ongoing debate about the pros and cons of the new platforms for risk communication, little attention has been given to the actual content of risk communication and how it can be effectively delivered. Yet, there is an urgent need to discuss how we can manage or even leverage the changes in the communication landscape to boost contemporary communication efforts, without overloading the recipients with too much information, or information that is unusable.

The risk communicator’s toolbox

When communicating with the public about the risks of natural hazards, professional risk communicators have a diverse toolbox of media channels at their disposal. Each of these channels is characterized by strengths and weaknesses that should be considered when designing a risk communication strategy:

  • Risk texts: Text-based communication (e.g. in reports, factsheets, check lists, etc.) is the conventional form of risk communication in bureaucratic institutions and academia. Text-based risk communication is popular because it can be produced and disseminated quickly at relatively low cost. Although texts are principally useful for communicating across society, the information is static and may not be understandable or meaningful (i.e., it cannot be appropriately interpreted) for different audiences. This is especially problematic when risk communication text is adapted from lengthy institutional or academic reports that are often heavily laden with technical jargon. A recent OECD survey demonstrated that a large proportion of people in many countries are challenged by the language, jargon, or technical depth of information contained in complicated prose texts.
  • Risk numbers: As risk assessments are mostly based on statistics that compare the probabilities and potential damage of different hazard types, quantitative measures play a central role in contemporary disaster risk management processes. However, directly using these statistics in risk communication processes is problematic because  low numeracy often prevents the public from interpreting numerical risk data without help. However, risk numbers can be very useful for information brokers, including media outlets like the Guardian and civil society groups like the Open Data Foundation or the Sunlight Foundation. These institutions have devoted themselves to the analysis of statistical data and may serve as important multipliers of risk information.
  • Risk maps: As we have shown in an earlier blog post, risk maps are powerful tools that can help the public to visualize quantitative risk data. A recent trend towards using risk maps has been encouraged by the spread of geo-referenced information systems on one hand, and the democratization of mapping platforms through so-called volunteered geographical information (VGI) systems. Risk maps can be used to relate abstract concepts (like vulnerability and risk) to real places where people and their assets are situated. For this reason the public often considers risk maps to be more useful than numeric representations of risk. However, maps can easily become confusing if too much data is presented in graphics that are unclear. In this respect, creating and using maps to visualize and communicate risks requires a certain level of cartographic knowledge.
  • Risk images: Photographs and videos offer a risk communication channel that can be both compelling and, at times, playful. A variety of channels are available in this context, ranging from TV-series to computer games and photographs. However, the production costs for this type of risk communication can be comparatively high. Developing bespoke interactive or playful platforms to communicate risks is especially resource and time-intensive. Nonetheless, these channels appear attractive as Michael Dahlstrom and Dietram Scheufeles’ study on environmental risks has shown. Communicating such risks through film influences how viewers think and understand the messages. In these cases, the use of shocking or fear-inducing visual elements can be effective, especially if presented with a sense of humor that allows the audience to process risk messages in a playful way. A great example of this is the risk awareness campaign by the Melbourne Metro which became an instant hit on social media.
  • Risk meetings: Finally, the importance of face-to-face dialogue in risk communication should not be underestimated. Dialogue in the form of workshops or stakeholder engagement, classes or training seminars, focus groups and town hall briefings, or door-to-door interaction with individuals in a community are all useful active communication practices. While dialogue can be an excellent way to build relationships within and, at times, between target groups, they are also time-consuming, require significant financial investment, and are restricted in the number of people that can be reached. Nevertheless, dialogue offers a platform where risk messages from other communication channels can be magnified or further disseminated.

Ultimately, the suitability of each risk communication channel will depend on the nature of the information receivers: What are their information consumption patterns? Do they prefer or understand one technique better than others? How do they interpret the message being disseminated and is their interpretation the same as the one intended? Successful risk communication therefore requires tailored strategies that take into account the needs of the particular target groups.

Reaching the target group

The development of a tailored strategy for risk communication should involve a broad array of actors including experts on the risk issue at hand, communication professionals and stakeholders, specifically including representatives of the target group. Essentially, the strategy development process consists of four main steps:

  1. Define aim: This step should preface any strategic communication process, even though it may sound trivial (“of course the aim is to inform about risks”). However, as Baruch Fischhoff laid out twenty years ago, the objectives of risk communication can vary widely: raising public awareness for a new type of risk or changing behavior; safeguarding support for governmental risk management policies; including the public in collective risk-decision making processes; supporting individual self-efficacy; enabling resilience-building in social groups; and/or fostering general trust in risk management organizations.
  2. Identify target group: Only rarely are all members of society equally exposed to risks (which would justify a non-specific communication approach). Creating a tailored risk communication approach means mapping out the target audience: What are the demographic and social vulnerabilities that need to be considered? How does age, gender, nationality and language, etc., impact the strategy? Of course, important subpopulations that are often vulnerable to a range of risks include the elderly, persons with disabilities, minors and immigrants.
  3. Craft the risk message: In order to ensure effectiveness, risk messages should be truthful, frank, and, if possible, authentic or unique. Furthermore, the risk message should not overwhelm the audience with technical language or patronize the public with extensively filtered or condensed information. On the contrary, authorities should aim to support citizens’ personal disaster risk decision-making by providing understandable, comprehensive and actionable risk information.
  4. Choose channel: At this final stage, the challenge is to find a media channel (or multiple channels) that are frequently used, trusted by the target audience and fit the risk message. Moreover, the channel should enable a constant flow of feedback from the target groups to the communicator. Feedback is essential to understand the needs of the audience and adapt the communication strategy whenever necessary.

Importantly, the development of a strategy must not hinder dynamic communication approaches. Particularly in the age of social media, the speed of risk communication is increasing, often requiring a high level of flexibility and responsiveness. For example, it might be useful to change the channel of communication as new risk information becomes available. As shown, using the ‘right’ media for target groups is a complex process that should not be reduced to the question of how much social media has changed disaster risk management.

This article is based on the study “Using (the right) media to reach the audience: Best practices of media use in public risk communication“, by Florian Roth, Jennifer Giroux & Michel Herzog

Florian Roth is a Senior Researcher with the Risk and Resilience Team at the Center for Security Studies (CSS). His research interests centre on risk and crisis communication in different domains, including disaster management and international security governance. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Konstanz.

Michel Herzog is a Researcher in the field of critical infrastructure protection, cyber-security and crisis management in the Risk and Resilience Team at the Center for Security Studies (CSS). He studied political science and public law at the University of Zurich, where he received his Master’s degree.

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