How to Communicate the Risks of Viruses and PFAS

Talking to customers about risky topics is challenging. Effectiveness starts with establishing trust and showing the other person genuine compassion.

How to Communicate the Risks of Viruses and PFAS

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I had waited months for a March trip to Florida to meet my brother for some fishing on the Gulf of Mexico. I had my plane ticket. My brother had booked a couple of charter outings. Winter was dragging on. I could hardly wait to head south.

Then, a few weeks before the day of departure, the coronavirus was detected in the United States. Various countries imposed travel restrictions. People were being quarantined, large gatherings cancelled, schools shut down. But none of this happened near where I live, in northern Wisconsin, and none where I was going. I thought I was in the clear.

Then the news reported two cases of the virus on Florida’s east coast. And my wife asked: Should you really be traveling now? Sitting confined in airplanes – four of them for the round trip – with strangers from who knows where? Walking through two airports on both outbound and homebound trips? Risking serious illness just to go fishing?

When I was younger and felt bulletproof, I would have shrugged her off: Ridiculous. What are the odds? Nothing will happen to me. As it was, I decided to stay home. Being mostly healthy, I guessed that if I got the disease I’d end up fine. I was more worried about contracting the virus, coming home symptom-free, and passing it to my wife, our kids and our grandsons. And in the bargain, potentially aiding the societal spread of the disease.

So I “ate” a $560 nonrefundable plane ticket. My brother was disappointed but not greatly inconvenienced, since he was going to Florida with his wife regardless. I was just going to bunk with them for a few days. Did I make the right decision? Should I have put my wife’s concerns aside? Did I (and she) overreact? I don’t know.

And that’s the trouble with assessing risk, whether from coronavirus or from PFAS in groundwater, drinking water, wastewater and biosolids. There’s a lot we don’t know about the risks. Are state and federal regulators going too far with PFAS limits? Are utility customers needlessly concerned?

Some evidence suggests that in both cases the answer is yes, but many times evidence has little to do with how we humans respond to risk – with how, for example, a drinking water customer  responds on finding out that PFAS has been detected in the community water supply.

Talking to people about topics that involve risk is tricky. Handling it the wrong way can cause a backlash of outrage. It’s natural to want to tell someone concerned about PFAS not to worry. It’s also pretty much futile. Most times, with someone deeply concerned, a stark statement like that won’t make the worry go away.

One of the worst mistakes in risk communication is to tell people to relax because, for our own selfish reasons, that’s what we want them to do. If they relax, our life will be easier. If they quit worrying, our utility won’t have to spend a lot of money on a new treatment process.

Imagine the reaction, when my wife voiced concern about my trip, if I had simply said “don’t worry, case closed,” because all I cared about was going fishing. That approach would be equally unproductive for a utility team member trying to reassure someone about PFAS.

A leading practitioner of risk communication is Dr. Peter Sandman, a consultant who has been active in the field since the mid-1980s, and who I once heard speak at a seminar. His website is a must-visit if you’re faced with talking to people in your community about an issue involving risk to public health, the environment, or both. 

One of his basic ideas is that communicating about risk effectively depends on trust and credibility, both of which have to be earned. Some of his advice seems merely intuitive, but it’s still easy to forget in emotionally charged situations. Among his recommendations:

·       Be honest, forthright and prompt in providing risk information; don’t try to keep secrets.

·       Don’t simply expect to be trusted. Instead be accountable. Be ready for people to challenge you and be prepared to prove any claims you make.

·       If you make a mistake, admit it, apologize, promise to do better and keep that promise.

·       Treat adversaries respectfully, even when they don’t return the favor.

·       Listen carefully to people’s concerns. Don’t assume that you know what they are, and don’t assume that they don’t matter. Especially, don’t openly dismiss them.

Above all, try to walk in other people’s shoes. Don’t just rely on facts and data — they won’t have much effect until you demonstrate genuine understanding and compassion for the folks you’re dealing with. The most memorable lesson I’ve learned from Dr. Sandman is: People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. For someone charged with communicating about risk, those are words worth posting on the wall.



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