“Anybody who’s trying to bring some information to a decision is probably on some level communicating about risk, because the decision’s going to get made and there are going to be tradeoffs. Helping the person making the decision or the group making the decision understand those tradeoffs, to me, is part of risk communication.” – Sarah Sunu
As science communicators, our work often involves helping people make informed decisions about their health, safety, or environment. While risk is an inherent part of our work (and our lives), effective risk communication can be challenging. To connect with people in a meaningful way, we need to understand and balance the various factors that affect how they perceive and respond to risk, including their lived experience, values, and the range of other risks they face in their daily lives.
In this video, Meg Nakahara and Sarah Sunu talk about some of the challenges and misconceptions about risk communication (it isn’t just for disasters!), the difference between risk analysis and risk perception, and why it is so important for science communicators to be able to speak about risks in ways that are effective, actionable, and compassionate.
If you’re interested in building your risk communication skills, join Meg and Sarah for a workshop on risk communication on March 16!
Full Transcript [edited slightly for clarity]
Meg: Do you need to communicate risk? If your work helps people make decisions about their health, safety, and environment, then yes, you do. Hi, I’m Meg Nakahara.
Sarah: And I’m Sarah Sunu.
Meg: We are both science communication trainers at COMPASS, a nonprofit that champions, connects, and supports diverse science leaders to improve the well-being of people and nature. Today, we’re taking a look at risk communication: What is it? Why is it important for communicators to understand the science of risk? And how do we make sure we talk about risk in a way that’s compassionate and meaningful to our audience?
Sarah, why don’t I kick off by just talking about what is risk communication. I think it’s probably not something that a lot of us have really thought about. At COMPASS, we thought a lot about it and we really like a specific definition from the literature. I’ll read it. It’s a bit wonky, but then I’ll break it down. “Risk communication is communication intended to supply audience members with the information they need to make informed independent judgments about risks to health, safety, and the environment.” That’s from Morgan, Fischoff, Bostrom, and Atman’s Risk Communication: A Mental Models Approach. What I like about it is that it starts by talking about providing information which I think is what a lot of us envision communication to be, and it certainly is, but I really appreciate the second part that talks about how our audience takes that information and then makes independent judgments. They make their own choices about how they are going to live with and respond to this risk.
Sarah: You know, Meg, it’s good to hear you share that definition again because when we first started talking about risk communication, one of the things that I needed some persuasion on was just how…everywhere it is. I was kind of like, “I don’t know, risk communication seems kind of niche.” And you were like, “Well, but actually…” I have to admit that now that I’ve spent more time with it, I see everything as risk communication. Maybe I’ve gone really far on the other side, but it really is all around us. I think anytime we’re communicating information that we want to be part of decision-making we are actually talking about risk to some degree. Some of the risks are bigger than others, but we’re always weighing these tradeoffs. It took me a while to get there, but now I’m on board.
Meg: I love that! Yeah, you know, we talk so much about science communication. That is the bread and butter of what we do at COMPASS – and that’s great! We will keep doing that because we think it’s so important. But I think that with risk communication and science communication, the Venn diagram has so much overlap especially when we think about our mission as an organization to help people and nature thrive together. A lot of that is about confronting the risks that we’re facing from climate change and biodiversity loss and from other sources. If we cannot speak about risk and we can’t speak about risk in ways that help our audience make decisions, then are we not kind of passing the buck on a lot of these issues?
Sarah: Yeah, absolutely. I think that feeds into a common misconception that risk is something huge and disastrous happening. But again, it’s everywhere. It’s every day. There are little risks and big risks. We’re always navigating those. It’s not just hurricanes or earthquakes. It’s whether I drive my car today. There’s a risk in that too. Understanding that is really helpful for people as they’re trying to make decisions about their lives.
Meg: What was really interesting to me when I dove into the literature is that when we think about risk communication, talking about hazard – when it’s going to snow a lot in your community, what are you going to do about it? How are you going to prepare? – that’s almost easier or the easiest kind of risk communication. There’s the most research about it. We know the most. There are the most bounds around what we know works. What’s really challenging – and I know this is what so many of us work on – are these long-term, slow impact issues. Climate change is a great example. You might think about sea-level rise – that is absolutely a risk for so many people in this country and across the world. And we’re thinking about it, but it’s so much easier to put it off. If you think about the next five, ten, twenty, fifty years versus snowfall this weekend, it’s a lot easier to encourage people to take action and have that, you know, emergency feeling behind it than do things for these longer issues. A lot of people need to put food on the table or they need to take care of their families or there are other things that they’re dealing with. Our lives are full of risk! Almost anything out there could harm us and we have to manage that, so these big, long-term issues are just especially hard. That’s something we really try to work with folks on. How do you take these really particularly difficult, sticky challenges and help connect them to your audience and help your audience make some choices about them?
Sarah: Yeah, to make it sound a little more academic, it’s risk prioritization; We’re all dealing with all kinds of things all the time. How do you help people see the risk you want to speak to as something to prioritize when they are trying to figure out how to spend their time and energy? I’d love to touch on something that I learned about when I was talking about risk with you, around risk assessment and risk perception and how those come into play when we think about risk. I did not understand that there was a distinction there, prior to the work that we did together. I think it’s really changed how I look at risk and how I talk about it. I’d love to hear you say some things on it, though, because you spent more time with it than me.
Meg: I spent a lot of time wrestling with it! I actually spend a lot of time in my personal life talking with my significant other about my risk perception versus the risk assessment around things. I mean COVID is so much at the forefront of a lot of our thinking when it comes to this. So maybe as I’m talking, think about COVID as a very real example that we all are wrestling with.
So risk assessments are the kinds of things that you may be familiar with – government organizations put them out. They crunch the numbers. They take the data that they can get their hands on. They come up with probabilities, statistics, percentages, expectations. They use models. These are all things that I think we’re really familiar with especially when it comes to things like weather, that’s an example that you see so much on the television but also, of course, COVID. That is a very kind of logical, very meticulous exercise – putting together a risk assessment that can give us these numbers that are as concrete as possible.
But there’s also something called risk perception. That’s how we as human beings take in the information surrounding us, how we pass it through the lens of our personal experiences, our values, what matters to us, and then make really tough decisions. As much as I know many of us like to think that we are driven solely by logic, the answer is that emotion and our perception of things really is the driver behind what we do. I think a lot of people think that’s a bad thing or something we need to overcome, but I disagree completely. I think that our gut instincts play a really important role in helping us survive. They’ve actually served us quite well over the millennia. It’s a matter of understanding. We all do it. I process information this way by combining risk assessment with my perception of the world around me and then I make decisions that are sometimes more driven by emotion, sometimes more driven by logic. But you do that, Sarah! And the audiences we communicate with do that too. And again, there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just having those insights and then being able to speak to both the risk assessment, hard, calculated numbers side of things and also to the emotional, narrative-driven, feeling side of things. That’s going to be where you’re most successful.
Sarah: Yeah, you have to bring those two together in order to have a good conversation about something. I’m trying to think of a good example. I feel like once those two pieces were teased apart for me I could understand my own responses to things so much better. So I have a 3 ½- year-old, as you know Meg, but others may not. His risk analysis is very different from mine! I’m like, “Please don’t jump off that six-foot-tall thing.” And his risk analysis is, “This will be fine!” And he may be right, but I think that distinction between what my perception of the risk is – I am thinking ahead and I have a stronger risk perception or risk concern because I’m thinking, “Oh, but what if you fall and break your arm? We have to go to the ER and all these things.” And he’s just like, “I can do that.” I’ve really noticed the distinction between those two parts and how they play together in my subconscious. When I can pull them apart a little bit, I find – at least I feel – that it makes me a more effective communicator of risk when I’m talking to others. Like here’s the analysis, but my perception is this. And I think that gives me more understanding of why the response is what it is as well.
Meg: Absolutely! I think you also get at another really important point – that we all perceive risk differently. So there are many factors that play into it, one of which is age. Certainly, a tiny human has not experienced as much of the world. Sarah, I bet you’ve jumped off of a six-foot-tall thing before and realized what a mistake that was. Maybe you’ve even done it more than once. You have learned. That experience informs your future choices, your risk perception around it. He doesn’t have that lens through which to view the world yet. There are plenty of other factors that play into it that also change things. Understanding your values, your life experiences, what’s most important to you – he may be kind of ambivalent about his personal well-being, but you care very deeply about it! – those all impact the choices that we make. Again, something to keep in mind when we communicate.
A personal example for me specifically around COVID with risk assessment and risk perception that I wrestle with is, when will I feel okay flying to see family members? This is something that, of course, you can look at a lot of data. You can understand how filtration works in airports and in airplanes. You can see case rates in different cities. But there is also this deeply emotional aspect to things. There is this experience we’ve all shared for the past few years. There is my personal tolerance for risk, which is different from other people’s – how risky I’m willing to be. There are other factors like vaccination. All of these different things really play into it. Perhaps other people are also wrestling with things like this.
That is an excellent real-life example of this happening and how we all just have to do the best we can with the information that we have,acknowledging that some of us will make certain choices and others will make different choices and none of them are inherently good or bad. They are the choices that we feel are right for us.
Sarah: Yeah, I think that’s a really important point. This comes up in science communication generally as well. Sometimes there’s this idea that if – the deficit model, right? – if only people knew what I know, they would agree with me. They will do the thing that I think we ought to do. And that’s just not the case, right? People have different values and priorities and that’s okay. That’s because we have different situations and contexts. In order to be effective at communication generally and also at risk communication, we need to understand that and speak to that to some degree and acknowledge that – not just assume that we are right and everyone else is wrong. That doesn’t usually get anybody very far.
Meg: You know, Sarah, what you’re really getting at is this idea of compassionate risk communication. In our upcoming workshop, we mention that in the blurb and we’ve had colleagues say, “what do you mean by compassionate communication?” I think it is inherent that we have that understanding and that respect for others. It is really easy to be very judgmental of people who, again, do not hear what we have to say and make the exact decision that we would make. It takes a very wise person, a very understanding person to step back and say, “That’s okay. I don’t know their personal circumstances. I don’t know what they’re going through. They at least have this information and if they won’t take this step, they know this step may be available to them.” They may know these other steps are available to them. They at least are more informed and can make additional decisions down the road as that risk maybe becomes higher or lower, it depends. That’s what we mean when we say we understand and respect decisions and support our audiences either way.
Sarah: I think there’s a challenge in there too, right? With compassionate communication. You don’t want to go too far. There’s a tone to strike because if you go too far in the reassurance you wind up saying things like, “well, it’s safe.” And that actually is a really challenging thing for people because we have different perceptions – it’s a very subjective idea. What is safe? Am I safe now? Walking that line is hard and part of why it requires a lot of thought and a lot of preparation. That’s one of the things we’re going to speak to in this workshop. But yeah, do you want to say anything more about that idea of “safe.” When am I safe, Meg? Am I safe?
Meg: Yeah…I feel like this can make us a little bit paranoid if we think too hard about it. I certainly got paranoid a little while doing this research and thinking really deeply about this. Sitting in my office in my house, am I safe? Um, I don’t know. What does it mean to be safe? You could say that there’s potentially lead paint in my home that I’m being exposed to right now. There is a non-zero but infinitesimally small chance that I will fall through the floor of my house. There are all of these different risks. There’s just always, always risk around us.
We let go of so much of it because it is so infinitesimally small, but to say to someone “you are safe” is something that I think is really challenging and would discourage people because a) what does safe mean? and b) your version of safe is different than their version of safe. What I think works better is to speak to how this choice compares to other choices. Maybe, “what would make you safer? What would make this thing less likely to happen? What would make this impact less likely to be problematic for you in a certain way?” I think that nuance adds such a different approach to risk communication. So yes, “safe” as a word makes me uncomfortable because I feel it leaves so much nuance on the table.
Sarah: Absolutely, but I think we also fall into that trap sometimes because we want to reassure people. It’s a really understandable place to be and navigating that is really important. So yeah, we’ll spend some time on that too.
Meg: Yes, totally we acknowledge this feels like a tightrope sometimes of balancing alarm versus people feeling comfortable and like they don’t need to take action. It’s balancing that along with the respect for their decisions. It’s tricky. We will not lie to you about this. This is why I feel like we see so much risk communication not go well and so little of it go really well. It’s not easy. It’s not inherent. We don’t “just know how to do it”. It takes time and energy and practice to get right.
Part of what we hope to offer in this workshop is a space for you to be able to take that time away so you really can work on it and hone in on how to be an even better risk communicator and then take those skills onward. I always like to say all of these skills are like muscles. We need to build them. We need to work them out. We need to practice with them. Let’s say – we’ll give you the metaphorical weights that you need, so that you can lift them at home or at work, so that you can get better at this and feel more confident that you are doing your job well, to get this risk across to your audience.
Sarah: Absolutely, we’re excited to get to finally talk about this now that you’ve convinced me that it’s everywhere, Meg. I’m like, “we should be talking about this all the time!” So we’re happy to be able to offer it.
Meg: We should! Maybe it would be helpful, Sarah, to talk about the kinds of folks who might benefit from this workshop. I think, hopefully, we have convinced you that risk is all around and that communicating about it is really important. I think a lot of folks are like, “well, I see some clear folks that definitely need to do this. Maybe folks that work at government agencies and specific roles. Maybe folks who work on natural hazards or who work on specific kinds of environmental health.” But I think it’s a lot broader than that. I think it’s embedded in so much of the work that we all do.
Taking a step back, I know one of the core things we believe at COMPASS is that we want people to do something with all of the work that we produce, with the knowledge that we are generating as scientists, researchers, and experts. We want folks to do something with it! We want it to make a change in the world. But a lot of it is around risk and we just don’t realize it.
I think in many ways it is an ethical concern if we know about these risks, we know about these potential things that could happen, and we don’t get them across to people. It is our job. It is incumbent upon us to make sure that people understand what could happen and what their choices might be. In that way, I feel like building your risk communication skills gives you the ability to be able to do that in a way that’s actually going to be meaningful to your audience and hopefully not take all of your time away from the important work that you’re doing.
Sarah: I think it’s for anybody who is trying to bring information to a decision that is being made by someone else, whether that’s an individual, a policymaker, or a community leader. Anybody who’s trying to bring some information to a decision is probably on some level communicating about risk, because the decision’s going to get made and there are going to be tradeoffs. Helping the person making the decision or the group making the decision understand those tradeoffs, to me, is part of risk communication. I think I take a really broad view of who this could be for. If you’re talking to someone who’s making a decision, I think this could be helpful to you.
Meg: Yeah, I think the great thing is that because it builds on the Message Box workshops that we already teach, you will hopefully come in with that knowledge already there. It means that we can dive directly into talking about the science behind risk. We will explore where it intersects with science communication. We really can hit the ground running and engage in a couple of exercises – both some practice and some thought exercises – that will lead you through the process so you’ve actually kind of done risk communication when you leave. You’ve already had that experience. We really encourage folks to come with an idea in mind of something that they need to communicate the risk about. I think that is much more tangible and real and useful for people.
Sarah: Yeah, and the Message Box is actually a core tool for us. Even if you haven’t necessarily done a workshop with us, you can check it out on our website: compasssicom.org. That’s with three S’s in the middle. The workbook walks you through how to do a Message Box and it’s freely available. We also have it in Spanish. It really helps sort through what it is you want to share. But I think one of the things that this risk communication workshop will add to that is how you share it. Going a little deeper into that, particularly for risk.
If you want to join us for more of this conversation about risk, sign up. We’ll be happy to see you. Thanks for listening and we hope you enjoyed this conversation and maybe learned something that can help you in your work. You can find links to the resources and the articles that we mentioned in the description below and if you’re interested in learning more about the science of risk communication and how to apply it to your work check out our risk communication training on March 16th! We hope to see you there!