Risk Communication & Biosecurity Strategy

In May 2012, Asia Biobusiness presented the following article at the Plant Biosecurity CRC Science Exchange 2012 meeting in Perth, Australia.

COMMUNICATION OF BIOSECURITY RISK involves engaging a wide range of stakeholders with divergent levels of knowledge, risk perceptions, attitudes, attention spans and critically, dispositions to trust. Such variables create challenges for communicators looking to build awareness, promote risk managing behaviors, engage publics, build authenticity and organizational trust and most importantly, communicate in a timely and meaningful way during adverse events, such as biosecurity emergencies.

These challenges are further complicated by the apparent fact that many persons engaged in biosecurity preparedness, emergency management and strategy development in the field view communication strategies, particularly in biosecurity risk management, as secondary to the primary aspects of the “problem.” Cursory inspection of pre-border, border and post-border biosecurity strategies in New Zealand’s Biosecurity Strategy development process (Hall, 2005) shows public education and public attitudes and perceptions of biosecurity risks as the only communication related aspects of the strategy overall (with communication being mentioned just 3 times in the 2010 final strategy document).

A search for peer reviewed literature via the PubMed, PsycINFO and the Web of Science online databases on “risk communication AND biosecurity risk management” shows five papers, only two of which are relevant to plant biosecurity.

RISK COMMUNICATION—An essential component of Biosecurity strategy

Naturally, those who run crisis, emergency, and disaster communication training; public information officers and journalists accord greater importance to communication as part of an overall biosecurity risk management strategy. Their belief that communication disciplines should occupy a more significant part of national biosecurity risk strategies is well founded.

The science of risk communication and research projects therein are thriving, giving increased attention to the social contexts that surround and encroach on public responses to risk information. Several defining studies examining the social and psychological influences on risk communication have emerged (McComas, 2006). Of most interest to biosecurity risk are the effects of positive feelings or bonds in the perceptions of risk (affect “heuristic” and “risk-as-feelings hypothesis), the mediating role of social trust on risk perception and the interplay of affect, social (organizational trust) trust via shared values narratives, and visuals. All of these merit further study as part of biosecurity risk management strategies.

Risk Communication provides a science-based set of methodologies that can be tailored to all eventualities of the risk to hazard ratio in biosecurity communications. Furthermore, risk communication is increasingly being deployed as an important tool in emergency notifications, particularly via social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook.

Many practitioners have focussed on building knowledge in biosecurity and other “risk” issues by adopting a “deficit” approach. Deficit or “knowledge gap” communications involve linear transmissions of knowledge from subject matter experts through journalists and other (trust) intermediaries to lay publics, including politicians. These efforts have proven to be difficult to produce desired levels of awareness or interest, let alone any true meaning or resonance with individuals.

The deficit approach has provided the central “theoretic” basis for advocacy and engagement efforts in this and most other “risk” relevant fields (such as GM crops) for the last decade. It has however failed to engage the vast majority of ambivalent stakeholders or produce desired outcomes via personally relevant messages. Public engagement efforts in particular have been compromised by a deficit model approach as often lamented by engagement advocates and communication professionals.

A more consultative or dialogue-centered approach to biosecurity risk communication strategies was shown to be have promise when applied to landholders (Gilmour et al, 2010). This valuable study also pinpointed the fundamental challenges specific to the biosecurity risk management space. A lack of familiarity with (only 16% of respondents were familiar with the term ‘biosecurity’) and understanding of the definition of biosecurity was evident amongst the landholders, who are critically, the on-ground managers of the risk.

For such stakeholders, gaps in knowledge are critical, since knowledge and awareness inform behavior and yet, once again, filling this knowledge gap may not yield the desired results. Without benefits, such stewards of risk may chose to take a cost saving pathway rather than manage risk.

The Gilmour study also pointed to a critical requirement of risk communication, trust. Agencies with the highest interest in biosecurity outcomes (in Australia) did not enjoy high levels of trust. Without trust, efforts to inform effective biosecurity risk management practices (for those that manage the risk in the field for example) will be extremely difficult. The 2012 Edelman Trust Barometer (http://trust.edelman.com/trust-download/global-results/ accessed: May 21, 2012) shows trust in Australia’s government at 53%. Trust in government agencies, such as the Rural Lands Protection Board (RLPB), may be less at state levels due to infrequent interaction or perceived lack of competence to influence biosecurity risks. Such findings have particular impact on precautionary advocacy efforts, getting risk managers to “do the right thing” rather than take the opportunistic (time or cost saving) route is difficult at best. Without trust in responsible agencies, evidence from other risk areas suggests that influence and behavioral change will nigh on impossible.

We advocate that a considered risk communication program should become an integral part of biosecurity risk management strategies at federal and state levels. Two paradigms of risk communication (crisis communication and precautionary advocacy) have particular application. These are ideally incorporated as a central part of the overall strategy to inform decisions, rather than adopt risk management strategies that require defending or selling and yet contravene established risk communication procedures, such as policies that compromise fairness, benefits or other psychological risk factors (Slovic, 1987).

Two practical elements to support these paradigms are discussed below specific to biosecurity risk management. The use of social media and networking in dialogue promotion and emergency notifications, and the operationalization of organizational trust principles to build trust in government agencies.

SOCIAL MEDIA—Biosecurity Risk Engagement

Stakeholder engagement efforts are being greatly facilitated by advances in communication technology. Raising awareness, building effectual knowledge and communicating in plain English via synchronous communications channel can be achieved via services like Twitter and Facebook. What sets these tools apart however is the opportunity to engage stakeholders, promote a 2-way communication process and find congruence in a wide range of opinion states. These processes are key to a “message centered” approach to risk communication (Sellnow, 2009), which is effective for dealing with diverse stakeholder groups with variable opinion states and roles in the risk management process.

Not only are tools such as social media useful in precautionary advocacy and management of concerns, they are also becoming increasingly effective for emergency notifications. In the United States, FEMA, CDC emergency, American Red Cross, FDArecalls, and NIH are examples of agencies embracing social media for the full gamut of risk communications scenarios. Whilst the use of these technologies is persuasive, organizations must approach deployment carefully and provide policies to ensure messages are risk communication compliant and that outrage management strategies are used when dealing with replies from divergent sources.

ORGANIZATIONAL TRUST—An elusive long-term asset

Much has been made of the post-2008 era of distrust precipitated in part by the financial crises that bore all the hallmarks of greed, opportunism and an erosion of ethical practices. Survey after survey has pointed towards low levels of trust in business and governments across the globe prompting some organizations to explore interventions on how to strategically build trust with key stakeholders.

The challenges in establishing and sustaining trust are formidable for most organizations. The conceptual basis for organizational trust is highly complex, fragmented and variable in its definition—research indicates variable outcomes across different situations and disciplines. The interplay between risk and trust further complicates matters, indeed risk can be conceptualized as a key situational/contextual antecedent to trust.

Simple trust models at the organizational level may provide insight into how biosecurity agencies may make initial strides towards building organizational trustworthiness.

The ABI model (Ability, Benevolence, Integrity) is based on 3 core idiosyncratic features of trustworthy behavior in stakeholder exchange. Building ABI perceptions is part of a compilation of sources of evidence, assessed directly (through contact) or indirectly (through 3rd parties/intermediaries), towards fostering trustworthy beliefs in stakeholders (trustors). This process can take time—track records and estimates of future behavior play a part in the assessment and then decision to trust. ABI characteristics may be referred at both organizational or interpersonal levels, so-called “boundary spanners” (those organizational representatives having direct external contact with trustors) have a key role in fostering trusting behaviors. Likewise, the media and regulatory bodies serve as trust intermediaries where risk is part of the trust equation. In the biosecurity setting, multiple agencies will be responsible for decisions and policies related to risk management and will all be important in prompting decisions to trust on the part of stakeholders.


We advocate proactive efforts to map stakeholder relationships beyond influence:interest to include a trust variable or quotient, that can be evaluated over time. Bespoke efforts to initiate sustainable trust building efforts for agencies in biosecurity risk management would help significantly in efforts to instill risk management practices on the ground. Without stakeholder trust, these behaviors will ultimately be near impossible to achieve and the risk:benefit evaluation on the part of landowners, farmers and even tourists will naturally come out on the side of personal, rather than collective interest. Trust is an essential strategy in the management of risk and the deployment of a strategic biosecurity risk communication policy.


Gilmour, J., Beilin, R., Sysak, T. (2011) Biosecurity risk and peri-urban landholders—using a stakeholder consultative approach to build a risk communication strategy. Journal of Risk Research, 14(3).

Hall, C., M. (2005). Tourism: rethinking the social science of mobility, Harlow: Prentice-Hall.

McComas, K., A. (2006). Defining Moments in Risk Communication Research: 1996–2005. Journal of Health Communication, 11:75–91.

Sellnow, T., R., Ulmer, R., R., Seeger, M., W., Littlefield, R. S., (Eds). Effective Risk Communication: A Message Centered Approach, Springer: New York.

Slovic, P. (1987). The Perception of Risk. Science, New Series, 236 (4799).