The swine flu outbreak is an opportunity to discuss basic principles of risk communication. Risk communication includes encouraging people to take preventive measures in the face of risk (anything from evacuating before a flood to taking daily vitamins) and helping people cope with risks, such as terrorism. Below are guidelines for risk communication.
1. Think through your word choice. Does the situation warrant the label of “pandemic,” or would “outbreak” be appropriate? You don’t want to scare people unnecessarily or have the opposite problem of leaving people unprepared.
2. Look for aspects of the risk to highlight, depending on whether you want to heighten or ease the sense of risk.
If you want to increase public concern about global warming, your message strategy would differ from what you would do if you were developing message points about the swine flu outbreak. Based on Peter Sandman’s research, people feel more comfortable with risks that have the following features:
- People choose their chances of exposure to the risk (e.g., whether to travel to Mexico).
- The risk is naturally created, rather than resulting from human actions.
- The risk is easy to detect, such as an illness that has identifiable symptoms.
- The problem can be eliminated.
3. Acknowledge uncertainty when speculating. For credibility, risk communicators needs to be accurate in their communication, which usually involves using tentative statements. Also, for situations like the swine flu outbreak, Peter Sandman shared the following sound bite with reporters: “Everyone needs to learn how to say, ‘This could be bad, and it’s a good reason to take precautions and prepare’ and ‘This could fizzle out.’ They need to simultaneously say both statements.”
4. Give people something to do to lower their risk. However minimal it might be, give people something to do to reduce their risk (see here and here for examples). When the Washington, D.C., snipers were in my area in 2002, I followed police recommendations featured in The Washington Post to walk briskly in a zig zag pattern. Even though I felt silly walking zig zag, I felt like I had some measure of control in reducing my risk. Also note that people tend to feel more comfortable with risk when they choose to expose themselves to it. Even providing the threat level for air travel gives people some amount of choice in deciding whether the risk is worth the trip. For more information about the importance of this guideline, see Kim Witte’s extended parallel process model.
5. Give frequent updates and repeat core messages through various forms of media. An example of this is CDC’s Twitter account (hat tip to the In Case of Emergency blog). Here is a quote from a communication expert I interviewed for my dissertation: “Nowadays, you have to over-communicate… The information doesn’t filter. We have nine or 10 ways of communicating.”
6. Consider cultural barriers. At the University of Oregon Conference on HIV/AIDS in Africa, Pauline Peters, a lecturer at Harvard University, discussed cultural considerations for HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns in Malawi. Simply telling people to wear condoms to protect themselves would not work well in this environment. Many people there viewed condoms as poisonous and associated condoms with illicit sex. A best practice in developing messages is to partner with representatives of the community to determine message design and delivery.
Interested in teaching a risk communication class?
Feel free to use my course schedule for graduate students as a resource, which includes a list of journal articles and other resources. We are reading two books for the class, which I strongly recommend:
- “Effective Risk Communication: A Message-Centered Approach,” by Timothy L. Sellnow, Robert R. Ulmer, Matthew W. Seeger, and Robert S. Little
- “Trust Us, We’re Experts! How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles With Your Future,” by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber.
I reviewed many risk communication books before selecting these two, and I also paid attention to book cost when making these selections. These books as a combination work well; their different approaches can result in rich class discussion.
I received an insightful comment from Peter Sandman to the PR Profs copy of this blog post. If the swine flu becomes a pandemic, the discussion points here will be important: http://www.psandman.com/ (see the top story).