Risk Communication & Biobusiness

Challenges facing organizations in Asia-Pacific

Executive summary of presentation given at NZBIO Conference 2013 by Dr Andrew Powell CEO, Asia Biobusiness.

Dr Andrew Powell at NZBIO Conference 2013
Dr Andrew Powell at NZBIO Conference 2013

Over the last 30 years the science of risk communication has been applied as part of efforts to communicate risks to audiences in a more effective manner. Demand for information on risks affecting the public in particular has risen, whilst general risk and uncertainty tolerance has fallen. Science-based methods to effectively and genuinely engage publics on the nature of risks, and how they will affect them, are sought after.

Much of the published research, practitioner history, prescribed methods, and best practices of risk communication originate in the western world.  Communicators in Asia-Pacific have taken some of this body of work, which is diverse, and tried to apply it in biobusinesses in the region. Biobusinesses dealing with product risks and moving towards both regulatory and public acceptance have focused their efforts around managing controversy. This has often taken the form of ‘Outrage Management.’ This is the process of reassuring publics about risks that are according to the ‘expert’ view, measurably small, but have additional risk characteristics, which help magnify risk perceptions in the public view. This is the most important and yet, challenging form of risk communication.

In the Asia-Pacific region, casting a critical eye over the application of risk communication in biobusiness in particular reveals challenges that will need to be addressed in order for risk communication to realize its essential role in the management of risks. Risk communication can help biobusiness leaders face the increasingly prevalent social amplification of risk and public outrage that continues to adversely affect acceptance of novel technologies and increasing costs and time to market for developers.

Challenges to Effective Risk Communication

Challenges/problems facing risk communicators in Asia-Pacific can be broadly summarized as:

  • Belief in the Deficit model
  • Using Decide, Announce & Defend (DAD) approaches
  • Failures in stakeholder prediction—absence of a fundamental risk communication strategy
  • Little or no cultural adaptation of risk communication science
  • Confusion of risk communication and crisis communication methods
  • Fundamental failures to apply risk perception theories or appreciate risk perception factors beyond technical hazards
  • Use of advocacy and PR in place of risk communication
  • Failures to address key risk factors so as to compromise perceptions and reputations of trustworthiness

These problems encompass many of the risk communication failures in biobusiness; often these shortcomings can be attributed to multiple problems occurring at once.

Deficit model approaches follow the simplistic and unsupported belief that publics possessing knowledge, particularly of technical facts about risks will by definition be more likely to accept them. The reverse is often true however, the more ‘facts’ people gather about risks the more outraged they become. Filling a knowledge or information deficit is still widely believed to be a pathway towards acceptance of risks. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Similarly, the decide, announce and defend (DAD) approach works on the principle that the engagement of publics about risk only needs to occur after decisions and announcements are made. This downstream defensive approach to risk management has been employed for decades, and has used some dubious PR tactics along the way. Its days are clearly numbered in a society far more concerned about open and personal evaluation of risks and the fairness of decision making and transparent information provision.

Failures in stakeholder prediction, in practice not having any fundamental anticipation of issues around risks and preparation for foreseeable outcomes, still remains the number one problem for biobusiness in Asia-Pacific (and elsewhere). Being prepared is the simplest of all risk communication strategies and yet few organizations have any systematic process for identifying and preparing for issues around risk. Despite having access to collaboration tools that make enterprise stakeholder prediction a breeze, many of them free of charge, organizations remain unprepared for controversies. At no point in time is such a lack of preparation so harmful, with news cycles and demands of media and other stakeholders so intense, timeframes for effective responses are now measured in hours not days. As the EU horse meat scandal showed, many large firms were ill equipped to deal with controversy of any kind; resulting damage to their reputations will cost millions and may never be recovered.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of all facing biobusinesses is how to take risk perception models and apply them in a message centred risk communication approach in the region. We have seen risk communication practices taken ‘off the shelf’ and applied as is, particularly in areas such as precautionary advocacy during pandemics. Given how culturally sensitive risk communication is, such approaches are bound to fail. Indeed, this is perhaps the biggest challenge overall facing risk communication science in that there is a void in research on how cultural factors, such as Sarbaugh’s factors, affect acceptance of risk messages. Certainly efforts that totally disregard the impact of language, perceived relationship factors, worldview and values will fail. As Dan Kahan’s work on cultural cognition and climate change illustrate, shared values are a key determinant of persuasion around risks.

Amongst the other challenges is once again one so fundamental it really calls into question whether many communicators are using risk communication principles at all. Far too many communication departments and agencies remain fixated on technical (measurable) aspects of risk. The default position seems to be to deny these risks, and any uncertainty in the science used to measure them. Outright denial of risk in this manner is simply not risk communication, rather a one-way ‘inoculation’ strategy that failed agbiotech in its early days and continues to fail developers and policy makers today. Risk communication is about engagement of audiences about risks, how risks are mitigated, and how risks beyond measureable hazards are taken into account. Public perception of risk must account for social, ethical and economic issues all of which will skew risk perception. Risk communication is not a linear, asynchronous communication strategy. It is an on-going process, a campaign of interaction that embraces feedback and recognizes the continually changing nature of risk and outrage.

Trust, Benefits, Fairness and Control (TBFC)

The most important risk factors beyond technical risk/hazard are undoubtedly trust, benefit, fairness and control (TBFC). Whilst these factors are just 4 of the 30 or so risk communication scholars such as Covello, Sandman and Slovic have identified, a determined focus on these areas would greatly improve risk communication efforts, particularly in biotech and nanotech.

We see benefits, risk and control as being a triangle of factors in which perceptions of trust can flourish or perish. As the slide below illustrates, typical strategies to benefits communication, denial of risk and failure to implement public control measures or soft governance of risk lead to the trust ‘Bermuda Triangle.’ Without trust, risk communication efforts will fail.

The Trust Bermuda Triangle—where implausible, impersonal benefits, lack of control and ignorance of risk collide, distrust prevails

An untrusted party will find that imposition of risk on audiences who are not willing to make themselves vulnerable to the actions/intentions of that party will simply not be accepted. They will therefore have to employ tactics around power, coercion and ultimately deception. In the risk democracy that we live today, such tactics are being identified and countered. They are both expensive, time consuming and there is no guarantee that they will work. Regulatory delays, increased costs to market are symptoms of failures to address TBFC. Efforts in these areas naturally go far beyond communication, but at least risk communication efforts must take them into account.