Is There a Science to Risk Communication?

When talking with concerned citizens, empathy and listening carry far more weight than facts and figures.

The lead contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan, has brought drinking water safety into headlines across the country. Lead service laterals are a real issue that water utilities have been managing for years. But your customers and the general public haven’t been paying much attention to it until now.

Whether you are a water or wastewater utility, occasions may arise when you must talk to the public about situations involving risk. With a little preparation, communicating properly with concerned people can do much to calm their fears and put the risk in its proper light.

In fact, the process of doing that is called risk communication. More science than art, risk communication does not try to minimize concerns. Its goal is to provide accurate information in a responsive and respectful way in order to create an informed and involved public in which people can make their own sound judgments and choices.

Lead, fluoride, chlorine treatment, pharmaceuticals — the list of “risks” is long. What’s on that list isn’t up to you — it’s all about perceptions held by the public. However, when dealing with any risk topic, the approach is the same: Address people’s perceptions in order to earn trust, build credibility and engage them in discussion and solutions. Here are some basic rules.

Respect your audience. Perception is reality, so accept it. It’s not the public’s fault that they don’t have all the facts.

Address emotions. The rules of communication change when people are concerned. Facts and statistics will not satisfy them. The risks that scare us and those that kill us are often on opposite ends of the spectrum — driving a car versus flying in an airplane. People aren’t looking for facts so much as seeking trust, credibility, compassion, empathy and fairness.

Tell the truth — tell your story. There is a difference between accurate and truthful, at least in the minds of your audience. For instance, the Flint situation may prompt someone to ask if there is lead in your utility’s water. While you may be correct in saying there is no lead in your water, that does not honestly address the real question, which is the risk of lead from service laterals or solder. So answer the real question, then explain what you are doing about it and what people can do to reduce their risk.

Reach out in multiple ways. Websites and social media are good ways to address many of the concerns you can expect to hear from customers and the public. Arm your staff with speaking points so you can answer questions in person and on the phone, and monitor social media so you can quickly respond to questions and concerns.

Keep it simple. Now is not the time to show how smart you are. People want to know that their water is being treated properly and what you are doing to keep them safe. Unless they are interested in the details, they don’t need to hear about zinc orthophosphate, pH, and the chemistry of corrosion control. Avoid jargon and technical language. People also have a hard time listening when they are upset, so use simple language and repeat key messages often.

Provide direct answers. A natural response to being questioned is to become defensive. You might reply to a question by saying, “We treat the water to prevent corrosion from service laterals and regularly test for lead and other substances. Water quality is our primary concern, and we take our responsibility very seriously. Yes, our water is safe.” That isn’t a bad response, but reverse order and notice how much more confident and strong it sounds; “Yes, our water is safe (that’s the answer they wanted to hear). Water quality is our primary concern and we take our responsibility very seriously (a key message). We treat the water to prevent corrosion from service laterals and regularly test the water for lead and other substances.”

Use third-party experts. Back up your statements with information from respected sources such as doctors, scientists and trusted people in your community. That’s one benefit of having a citizen advisory group. You can spend more time explaining the fine points of such issues to them, and they can carry the message to the community.

Meet the needs of the media. The media is a key vehicle for getting your information out. Be open and available, respond quickly, and provide background materials and appropriate graphics and visuals based on the type of media. Do not view reporters as adversaries. They can help you reduce fear, educate the public and tell your story.

What is credibility?

When people are scared, your credibility has little to do with your job, title or degrees. It is an emotional judgment people make based on the feelings they get from the way you treat them and respond to their concerns.

Dr. Vincent Covello, founder and director of the Center for Risk Communication and a leading researcher in the field, has said, “When people are stressed and upset, they want to know that you care before they care what you know.”

During the BP oil spill in 2010, in which 11 people died, the head of the company was seen at a yacht race while his oil well was still spilling millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. He once said how he wanted his life back. You can imagine how people whose lives were forever changed felt about that. Those and other gaffes contributed to his firing.

So, what goes into determining your credibility score? First of all: caring, concern, empathy, compassion and listening. These account for about half of your credibility score. It has much less to do with what you say than with how you say it. An audience will judge you quickly on these attributes.

After that, three sets of attributes carry about equal weight: honesty and openness, dedication and commitment, and competence and expertise.

You need a 100 percent credibility score to pass — there is no such thing as having “some” credibility. And credibility is easy to lose. As an old Japanese proverb says, “The reputation of a thousand years may be determined by the conduct of one hour.”


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