Risk Communication—Case Studies

Devastation in l’Aquila, Italy

Ahead of the ABB and CFRCANZ Risk Communication Workshop with NZBIO in New Zealand at the Viaduct Events Centre in Auckland on 12–13 December, Dr Andrew Roberts selects some risk communication case studies (including a great one from New Zealand) , both successful and spectacular failures, and analyses where things went right and where things went (horribly) wrong. Today, the first in the series looking at key factors influencing good and bad risk communication.


THE CASE STUDY approach to knowledge transfer and strategy development in risk communication is a valid one. Past incidents show how prescriptive solutions and strategies gel or disintegrate in the heat of intense pressure that risk and crisis situations bring. Successful treatment of high stress, concern or crisis situations has never been more difficult. Organizations are faced with ever shorter times to react; to public, media and regulatory pressures. Social and new media has created opportunities to reach stakeholders quickly but also emerging threats of short feedback loops, viral opposition and spread of false information and rumors. There is therefore a great need to anticipate issues, prepare for them and practice for crisis and controversy ahead of time yet remain agile in the heat of battle.

Sounds like a straightforward strategic plan, but it is amazing how many high risk, controversial or catastrophe prone organizations do little or no actionable preparation before a critical incident takes hold. The Fukushima plant incident is a good example, a nuclear power plant with its crisis plan scrawled on a piece of laminated A4 paper. The BP Gulf of Mexico spill was a reputational disaster because leadership was ill-prepared or unwilling to be open and accessible with the world media or show any semblance of empathy with its stakeholders. The dreadful 2009 earthquake in l’Aquila, Italy not only cost over 300 lives, but also led to the criminal prosecution of scientists who pretty much failed to communicate the real nature of risk and uncertainty to the public.

Being unprepared appears to be the norm, both in terms of actions to take and things to say, both to manage reputations and prevent further losses. We see many organizations prefer to ‘hope for the best’ but certainly not invest in preparing for the worst. It is not just the lack of will, it is also the lack of capacity to take on what is a difficult task.

In our risk communication work we help clients understand how to prepare for the particular issues that face them, how to deal with situations of real and perceived risks, uncertainty and vulnerability. This preparation takes discipline and commitment, it is no good trying to prepare for every single possible eventuality. Being able to identify and prioritize the pressing issues is key, organizations of any size will be hard pressed to properly prepare for everything. This process involves a great deal of introspection, at the same time it requires organizations to think carefully about the needs, perceptions, and likely reactions of their key stakeholders. This is also one area which has proven very difficult for companies to master, accounting for the differernces between themselves (the experts in their field) and the ‘lay’ public.

The early days of risk communication in genetically modified food for example were far from ideal. Public reactions to the linear, one-way efforts to make public more knowledgeable, and therefore apparently more accepting of the risks posed, continues to plague the industry. As we have noted in another opinion piece, filling the knowledge gap does little to allay public concerns about technologies. In addition, a rigid focus on risk assessment, as in reference to measurable hazards (such as threats to human health) constitutes addressing only one small part of the overall problem. This is the cental theme of risk perception theories, how publics process risk information quite differently to experts, and the source of considerable consternation on both sides.

Some triumphs of good risk communication during contoversy and crisis shows these two attributes (strategic preparation, understanding of public reaction to risk) very well. One classic example is the reaction to the September 11 by Mayor Guiliani and his team. What is less well known is the preparation that preceded the excellent handling of the crisis. Guiliani put in place a system of preparation and practice for just such an eventuality after the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. He was relentless in his pursuit of preparation and practice for all forms of terrorist, natural disaster, disease outbreak or just about any risk that could befall the city. His team, advised by Center for Risk Communication founder Dr Vincent Covello, prepared message maps to talk on the potential situation and issues that may arise. Mayor Giuliani put all of his training, understanding the human response to crisis to good work, and showed how to incorporate many of the best practices of risk communication into a crisis situation.

Part 2—Case Study in New Zealand.

Interested in the event, download the flyer