ABB & LSQ Risk Comm Workshop May 5, QUT Brisbane

The Deficit Model approach was exposed back in 2003
This paper, amongst others, appeared over a decade ago, yet the deficit model approach to communicating science policy persists, largely driven by failures to appreciate the intricacies of public risk perception

Many of the approaches that are currently used to communicate in controversial, high concern or crisis situations are based on public agency models of public relations. These often less than truthful, sender-orientated methods take their core direction from PR strategies developed in the 50s and 60s largely at the behest of ‘Big Tobacco.’ These fail to acknowledge the “risk society” that we now live in, the higher standards of accountability and transparency that must be met and certainly do not recognize the social amplification of risk that is so prevalent today via both traditional and new media. PR tactics often make matters worse by generating outrage and eroding the vital component of all communication in such challenging circumstances, trust.

The apparent disconnect between science-based business and empirically verified communication strategies is perfectly illustrated by the most common mistake of all, the so-called ‘Deficit Model’ approach. In the belief that the public’s attitudes towards technology is due to them being ill-informed, organizations try to fill a ‘knowledge gap’ that will, so the belief goes, bridge the gap towards acceptance. This is a fallacy and has no support in peer-reviewed literature and yet hundreds of millions of dollars are ploughed into ‘atheoretical’ deficit campaigns each year.

The 3rd Party Technique & Authority Figures

The ubiquitous use of 3rd party groups and expert ‘authority’ figures in science & technology advocacy are techniques that are increasingly failing to have the desired effect. Ineffective stakeholder mapping and audience selection, and overly technical, factual communications are also symptoms of communication programs that fail to understand the boarder complexities of audience risk perception and how specific approaches to communication are necessary when risk, uncertainty, complexity, vulnerability and issues of trust are to the fore.

The problems facing innovation-centered life science businesses and organisations in this area are surmountable but the challenges are increasing. It is clear that what worked before the information revolution and for marketing and sales of consumer goods, for example, are of no use when public engagement in complex and often uncertain and controversial science is necessary.

Asia BioBusiness provides its clients science-based solutions to manage risks, reduce concern,  engage with stakeholders, and build trust. We take a unique approach that provides clients with empirically tested ways to communicate risk, influence stakeholders and to guide them towards the best possible decisions for the long-term benefit of our clients.

“This workshop will change the way we communicate about risk.”
Senior Manager in NZ Crown Research Organization Post ABB Risk Comm Workshop for NZBIO, May 2013

May 5 Workshop, QUT, Brisbane

In this 1-day workshop, we will introduce you to the latest approaches to risk communication, decision science under risk situations, theories of cultural cognition, and alternatives to standard PR strategies. We will provide challenging insights into the communication of risks in the field, and enable you with tangible methods to return to your organization and more effectively direct your campaigns and enhance returns on communication investments.

Please download the flyer for this event here…


Life Sciences Queensland Limited

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Thoughts on Food Risk Communication

Communication around issues of food risks has been a major task of food information associations around the world. Strategies borrowed from PR, demographic-based targeting, linear educational models, and use of ‘expert’ authorities and third party techniques are standard approaches to communicating food safety to diverse audiences. This article looks at some of the problems around food risk communication and proposes areas where revisions can help ensure messages have the desired effect.

A number of food information institutions have been formed with the mission of disseminating balanced, science-based educational material to promote “informed debate” and understand the risks around food safety in the same manner as ‘experts.’ Indeed, the use of the expert voice—authority figures presented as credible and trustworthy third parties—has underpinned communication efforts for decades. Such an approach may seem eminently sensible, but the peer-reviewed food risk communication literature has, since 1996, identified a number of issues over the efficacy of such a strategy.

First and perhaps foremost, there is a glaring discrepancy between food safety ‘experts’ and lay publics in their interpretations of the magnitude and probability of food risks. Experts on food hazards—scientists, dietitians, epidemiologists, food producers, authority figures from regulatory of advisory bodies—are widely perceived by those in industry to be ‘right’ and the public’s unease over food risks, epitomized by scandals even dating back to salmonella and BSE, and more recently melamine and botulism, to be excessive, irrational and simply ‘wrong.’  This discrepancy is significant in the strategic approach to food risk communication.

It has been inferred by food safety strategists that the root cause of the discrepancy was public ignorance. Publics arrive at their ill-informed assessments because they lack the expert’s knowledge and understanding of the issues. The aim of many informational campaigns is therefore to develop ways of encouraging publics to accept the ‘correct’ view of experts. It must be stressed that these efforts are endemic in many areas of the industry. However, this ‘knowledge deficit’ or ‘deficit model’ approach has no empirical support in communication or risk literature, yet continues to inform much of the work of scientific risk assessors, government policy makers and food producers.

What the deficit model fails to leave room to explore is the fact that experts tend to regard technical, factual and quantitative methods of risk measurement as the primary basis for risk assessment, control, and communication. Publics look beyond the technical data to include social, ethical, moral and economic issues as part of their assessment of food risks. If food safety campaigns do not take account of these worldviews, beliefs and interests, they will fail.

Failure to account for so-called ‘psychological or qualitative risk factors’ is the default position of many organizations. By and large their efforts fail to resonate with or engage consumers, leaving them with a distinct feeling of lack of empathy and alignment of interests, leading to perceptions of mistrust. Through various surveys, trust in experts, large business, and critically in regulators and other trust safeguards is on the decline. Deficit model approaches, typified by the linear delivery of advice and recommendations from scientific experts and ‘science-based’ associations, must be put aside in favour of more benevolent, insightful approaches that recognise a higher level of risk debate.

New strategies must demonstrate greater understanding of consumer perceptions around food risks and consumers’ inherent propensities to trust and tolerate risk. This involves attention to issues around declining trust in science and science-based information, as well as common (but mistaken) values assumptions of the deficit model e.g. that the optimization of food production through technological means is agreed to by all consumers. Greater understanding of consumer risk perceptions will in turn precipitate a review the way experts are used, academic authorities for example, by food information associations. As Milgram demonstrated in the 60s via his ‘electrifying’ experiments <>, the power of the authority voice is simply staggering, but its use in risk scenarios must be judicious and not widen the very risk perception ‘gap’ that it is intended to narrow.

Further progress in anticipating consumer risk perceptions about food can be gained by reappraising targeting of consumers for food safety information. Various partnerships between public and private sectors and third party bodies continue to sink millions of dollars into communication programmes that target stakeholders by demographic criteria.

In the social media era, where citizen journalists and publics at large are creating large amounts of (often conflicting) information, targeting has become all the more important. For information on food risks, being able to tailor messaging by risk subcultures is becoming essential. Accounting for the risk responses of individualist and collectivist cultural groups can mean the difference between agreement and polarization around food risks. For risk averse egalitarians, provision of food risk information by industry groups adopting say an archetypal pro-business, less regulation message, can produce an opposite effect, greater concern about risks and what is more, motivation to take action to communicate (like, tweet, post) their opinion elsewhere.

This ‘cultural cognition’ approach to food risk communications raises serious questions over the manner of use of authority figures or third parties in delivery of messages and channels of communication to these cultural risk groups. Authorities that fail to reinforce the values and beliefs in line with the cultural risk group will simply reinforce the current viewpoint. Channels of communication that do not facilitate engagement or at least responsiveness may lead to the entire message only reinforcing what is currently known.

Over the last two decades we have seen food risk information campaigns spending over $20 million that target ‘gatekeeper’ audiences through print and broadcast media that completely failed to understand how critical predispositions around risk and trust are. These campaigns threatened target cultural values, hardening their stance and making them far more likely to support alternative arguments, which we now encounter though new and social media every day. Food safety communicators should consider presenting information in forms that are agreeable to culturally diverse groups. They should also utilize media to structure debate so that it avoids cultural polarization.

The nuances of food safety communication are critical. Certain core approaches that are the norm today require modification or need to be dispensed with. Those associations and councils that are defined by an educational approach to food safety must think about repositioning in light of the advances in understanding about food risk perception.

Account must also be made of lower levels of trust in business and industry associations, particularly due to imbalances of power (which increase vulnerability), lack of empathy, and perceived lack of alignment of interests. Trustworthiness thorough demonstrable actions is essential in the structure and management of trust. Without trust communication of food risks is futile. As with risk in the 80s, the academic understanding of organizational trust is now increasing and highlights the need to review conventional PR approaches, such as the 3rd party technique.

Incorporation of these strategic food risk communication imperatives into association processes will go a long way to informing public decision-making in a way that is both congruent with key values and beliefs and convergent with views of experts, governments, regulators and producers.

95% Rule Part 2: Stakeholder Prediction

95% rule part 2Last week we introduced an important rule of risk communication. The 95% rule informs risk managers that in any risk discourse, only 5% of the perceptions and concerns about risks relate to the technical facts about the risk, i.e. hazards. These measurable hazards (usually calculated in terms of probability x magnitude) are what risk analysts and assessors focus on. They are, without question, important and various techniques exist to communicate these facts to the public. However, the view of most publics is that these technical facts about a particular risk pale in significance compared to concerns such as fairness, trust, control, benefits, effects on future generations, potential for catastrophe and naturalness amongst many others. These “risk factors” or “outrage factors” are the predominant drivers of concerns, perceptions and ultimately whether a risk is acceptable (or not).

This week we introduce part 2 of the 95% rule.

Again as with the first rule, this one is quite simple, but often ignored or not prioritized by organizations until a crisis takes hold.

The 95% Rule states that 95% of situations, scenarios and questions that can lead to or arise as a result of a crisis, can be predicted in advance.

Stakeholder Prediction (APP)

This is the cornerstone rule of stakeholder prediction and preparation for situations that, if left unchecked, could result in crisis. The rule underpins an important risk communication strategy, known as APP:

  • A = Anticipate
  • P = Prepare
  • P = Practice

The APP strategy is critical to pre-crisis risk communication efforts. Skilled risk communicators can anticipate most of the issues, operational factors, and other sources of controversy and crisis that may affect an organization. A pragmatic approach to APP necessitates that of the 95% of pre-crisis factors identified, preparations to mitigate controversy and crisis must be prioritized with past experience helping to identify which sources or seeds of crisis are most likely to occur at a specific time. Preparations can be made, monitoring systems deployed and responses and contingency actions developed and practiced. Spokespeople can be identified and trained, partnerships proposed with stakeholders and campaigns  to increase dialogue and seek convergence around risk issues initiated. This long-term interactive approach to risk mitigation is the heart and soul of risk communication. If done successfully, many risks will not manifest themselves to a point where a crisis is declared. Those that do result in crisis can be controlled, and through APP recovery will be quicker, less damaging both financially and to the long-term reputation and trustworthiness of the organization. In reality an effective, well-rehearsed and tested APP Strategy, bearing the 95% rule in mind, is one route towards organizational resilience. Such resilience is a significant competitive advantage, and one that is hard for competitors to emulate.

Risk Communication and The 95% Rule

95ruleOver the last 15 years we have seen defining studies published examining the social and psychological influences on risk communication, as well as highly relevant studies on social trust, the social amplification of risk framework, and the influence of risk on mass media. With such a burgeoning and dynamic research community exploring such a diverse range of topics it is easy for risk communication theories and practitioner approaches to become somewhat fragmented.

Whilst all these aspects of risk communication hold great interest for those familiar to the field, our challenge is to bring clarity and consistency to the theory and methods for those on the front lines in strategic communication and related fields, including non-communication professionals

The 95% Rule

One of the first principles we work with is “95% Rule” which was first developed in the early 1990s by Dr Vincent Covello, and it holds true today:

Research indicates that facts about risk appear to play little or no role in determining public perceptions and concerns about risks.

In fact this research suggests that facts actually only contribute about 5% towards influencing how risk is perceived by audiences. The 95% in any risk dialogue concerns the social, moral, ethical and personal aspects of risk.

This rule eludes many risk managers, communicators and technology advocates. Its implications are far-reaching, and whilst on the surface it appears quite straightforward, the rule requires some explanation.

The technical facts about risk, which we refer to as the hazard—and can be measured in terms of probability and magnitude — are important factors in any risk discussion. They do however, only contribute about 5% to a dialogue on risk in terms of weight of influence of audiences’ risk perceptions and concerns.

Let’s be clear, risk managers must get this 5%, the technical facts right. They must present them to audiences clearly and concisely, and must acknowledge uncertainties and unknowns in a plausible, concrete and trustworthy fashion. There are important techniques to achieve this. These include appropriate use of risk statistics, risk comparisons and use of narratives and visuals. Technical facts must be presented acknowledging values, beliefs and cultural factors relevant to the audience.

Despite the challenges in the effective communication of facts pertaining to risk, the technical data about risk is not what will shape public perceptions and judgments about the risk. Contrary to how most risk managers consider this type of information, as our rule implies it actually represents about 5% of the risk communication process. This is particularly the case for those controversial risks where technical data is ‘soft’ and far from conclusive (or wrapped up in considerable expert disagreement).

The implications of the 95% rule are profound, and yet, the rule remains a risk communication practitioner ‘secret’ that has not permeated the thinking or delivery of many science and technology developers or risk managers.

Chasing the 5%—Example

A recent example to illustrate this point: we were observers of discussions to appraise communication strategies surrounding a controversial technology. Deeply entrenched positions on both sides of the debate have interfered with progress for many years. A diverse group of organizational representatives came together, all passionate about repositioning the technology and changing the way they communicated to their audiences. Despite a great deal of discussion, including some passionate calls for radically different approaches, two conclusions were ultimately reached:

  • We must more to make the public understand about the technology and product safety;
  • We must respond to our opponents claims more vociferously and go on the offensive to expose their true motivations.

Unfortunately, these ‘initiatives’ will do little to reposition thought processes or considerations about a highly controversial technology. Thinking of the 95% rule would have been our first suggestion to refocus this discussion. The efforts to build understanding, or reiterate technical aspects of risk, often in our experience via complicated data dumps, will add nothing to the debate and probably only further underline differences in values and deficits in empathy that plague efforts to bring about a convergence of risk positions. Such disconnects are common and point to deep misunderstandings as to how risk information is gathered, processed and considered by publics.

TBFC—A good part of the 95%

The 95% rule demands we look far beyond the technical safety of the product. As a starting point we would advocate exploration of the four primary risk factors that make up a fair proportion of the outstanding 95% of the risk dialogue:

  • Trust: are those imposing the risk trustworthy? Do they have a track record demonstrating ability, benevolence, and integrity? What are their motives and intent, are they aligned with those bearing the risks?
  • Benefits: Are the benefits of the technology accruing to those that are taking the risks? Are benefits personally relevant to those being exposed to the risk?
  • Fairness: Are those imposing risk reaping all the benefits? Are those exposed to the risks engaged in dialogues and is their feedback appreciated.
  • Control: Do those being exposed have a choice to avoid the risk, or is exposure involuntary?

As we have discussed elsewhere, the TBFC concept is critical in risk discussions, and the questions posed to risk managers in addressing TBFC issues are varied and generally very challenging.  Most risk management processes underestimate the importance of these risk factors or never address them at all. This threatens the entire efficacy of the risk management framework and leads to public suspicion and lack of trust.

TBFC issues usually go far beyond communication alone—actions in terms of processes, policies, strategies and structures need to be addressed. Societal demands on the nature of modern risk discourse dictate that significant resources be allocated to meet the key challenges of the 95% rule.

Market and regulatory acceptance of ‘risky’ technologies will not happen if this rule is not given the attention it demands.

Decide Announce & Defend (DAD)

In our transparent Risk Society, the Decide, Announce, & Defend (DAD) approach to risk management and policy development is failing. Risk decisions should be infused into a long-term, interactive risk communication process that begins right at the beginning of decision/policy-making and continues as part of any organic process, embracing feedback and modifying decisions and communication strategies accordingly.

The DAD approach to risk management goes something like this. Product, service development and/or policy decisions are arrived at, and the technical risks (costs) and benefits are weighed up. Decisions to proceed with a product, service or policy are made in isolation from stakeholder opinions and are communicated. These (final) decisions are then defended, oftentimes using whatever means available.

The DAD default position. Risk decisions are made upon technical or simple cost:benefit calculations

This is the default approach in most organizations that face risk or controversy and forms part of a risk management strategy that has served industry and government well for decades. Signs are, however, that this needs to change. We live in a society preoccupied with risk, which Professor Ulrich Beck coined a Risk Society, where debate on information about the risks we face in everyday life has never been more vigorous. DAD does not work well in open, transparent environments and similarly its disregard of risk perception factors and failure to embrace audience engagement (their feedback on risks in particular) are all contributing towards problems with public acceptance for developers and policymakers that still rely on its methods. Most importantly, the DAD tactics used to defend just about anything have been turned around and used against organizations to great effect. DAD has come to bite back.

PR Fights Regulation

The very idea that any risk decision can de defended, whilst sounding far-fetched, has strong empirical and practical foundations. Look back at tobacco, asbestos, and aniline dyes amongst many examples. In the face of the most compelling evidence that these substances were not only harmful, but deadly, PR and product defence campaigns were able to delay and downgrade regulations in the face of overwhelming evidence. These campaigns led to the deaths of thousands of people following decades of regulatory inaction and failure.

The DAD tactics employed haven’t changed a great deal from the days of ‘big tobacco.’ Form ‘independent’ 3rd party groups to distance developers from the issue, ghost write for friendly scientists and ‘ambassadors’ and publish in pliable, low-impact journals, lobby amenable politicians, re-analyse raw data to get the interpretation that suits. Seize upon any uncertainties, and deny all risks. This is the “defend at all costs” part of the DAD approach.

So whilst the darker side of DAD has served industries for decades, in today’s society underpinned by transparency, accountability and to some degree trust, these methods are well known and hence vulnerable. The very same tactics are being used by consumer groups, NGOs, and activists to create doubt and uncertainty. Products far less hazardous than tobacco, asbestos and aniline dyes are getting the reverse of DAD, small hazards are being amplified through traditional and social media (known as the social amplification of risk) and by “anti-ambassador” third-parties.

DAD is probably more effective at creating outrage than it is at defending hazardous products or ill thought out policies.

This is the critical point about DAD. Such strategies were designed to play down the measureable hazards of dangerous products, to diminish the technical aspect of risk in order to push back on regulation. Big tobacco strategies were developed at a time where information was limited, highly outraged and motivated opponents were not in a position to act. The information revolution, right to know and freedom of information legislation have undermined these strategies.

In addition as we have reported elsewhere, modern risk management requires consideration of a far wider range of risk factors; the personal, social, economic, moral, ethical and political elements that shape public risk perceptions. DAD proponents look past these factors because regulations only pertain to ‘objective’ measurable aspects of risk. However, the risk game is a far bigger playing field than technical hazards alone. Whilst product defence may work to this day using spin, half-truths and deceit, the public are not just interested in technical risk—evidence points to far greater interest in psychological aspects of risk and issues like fairness and inequity of benefits. These concerns are critical in the realms of public acceptance and political will, which are increasingly shaping regulatory stances.

The increased burden of defence makes the decide and announce parts of DAD critical. Decisions need to take into account that technical risks are less likely to be defendable, whatever the controls or benefits.  The public is more risk averse than ever, novel technologies will need to provide them with a personal, relevant benefit in order to be accepted.

Novel applications of biotechnology and nanotechnology are struggling for public acceptance because of the DAD philosophy. Denial of all risks and uncertainties even concerning technical hazards is a completely untenable position in today’s risk society. A typical response has been to try to laud the benefits of these technologies in an attempt to move towards public risk acceptance. A very simplistic view is that if the benefits outweigh the risks then the public will accept the product or policy. As a result benefit communications are overused, often ending up sounding less than plausible, frequently irrelevant to consumers and in the sobering light of the low trust society in which we live, sound like one of the worst PR strategies of all, propaganda. As far as risks beyond hazard, the outrage factors so well reported by scholars such as Vincent Covello and Peter Sandman, little has been done to address genuine concerns over trust, fairness and control. As the key risk factors that amplify risk in the public’s minds, failures here mirror on-going regulatory politicization and delays to market for developers.

Developers and policy-makers should look past technical risk and accept that stakeholders can also use the uncertainty, doubt, and third party advocacy tactics that were previously so effective in product/policy defence. This is the rather unfortunate DAD legacy.

RIsk communication needs to be considered when decisions are being made, not used as a tool to try and defend, what is often, risk decisions made with self interest in mind. Slide ABB/CFRCANZ.

It is better that announcements of products and policy initiatives be based around dialogue, engaging stakeholders on the multiple factors of risk at an early stage. Adopting genuinely empathetic engagement phases prior to decision-making could save millions in failed product launches and controversies around policy U-turns and through the Internet has never been so easy to achieve. Such benevolent strategies could go some way to addressing pressing issues of distrust in companies and governments across the world. Without trust, effective communication of risk is almost impossible, and given the current trust outlook, much work needs to be done over a sustained period of time,.

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.

Biorisk Communication—8th A-PBA Conference April 22, 2013

Biosafety, Biosecurity Conference
Opening Ceremony at the 8th Asia-Pacific Biosafety Association conference in Malaysia

Asia Biobusiness (ABB) ran a pre-conference workshop on “Risk Communication—Effective Communication in High Stress, Biothreat & Bioemergencies” at the 8th A-PBA Biosafety Association  Conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Twenty enthusiastic participants, all new to risk communication, took part in a three-hour interactive session focussing on biorisk communication during outbreaks of emerging infectious diseases, and the use of risk communication in promoting safety, especially in research laboratories.

From the workshop and the conference as a whole, it is clear that a tremendous amount of work is being done in the area of biorisk (encompassing biosafety and biosecurity) in the Asia-Pacific region by a whole range of agencies (from governments to IGOs and NGOs). Strategic frameworks, such as this one by WHO, have been developed to address challenges in biorisk management in laboratories. Resources are being pumped into initiatives via regional and national biosafety associations, alongside knowledge transfer for research personnel on the front line of the fight against disease agents that pose a serious hazards to workers if not properly controlled.

The challenges these workers face are mounting, particularly in the face of emerging biothreats, such as novel flu viruses, and familiar, yet devastating ones, such as tuberculosis (TB). As Dr Paul Huntly from Riskren in Singapore pointed out during his pre-conference workshop on “Working Safely with TB,” the number of samples for testing at resource challenged laboratories (often in rural areas) is exploding, yet effective protocols and controls for managing hazards are simply often not in place. TB labs are being tasked with more hazardous procedures (resistance testing etc) to take the load off from central labs in big cities, all of which are increasing the likelihood of serious consequences, should control measures and procedures prove inadequate.

Risk Communication Imperative

Whilst there are considerable efforts, the lack of attention to the value of effective communication in any of these precautionary initiatives is an immediate concern. There was no plenary session at the conference on communication, and no mention on how to effectively communicate to different audiences about risks, about uncertainties. These two elements of risk communication are important components in advocating long-term preventative behavior. It was a significant omission, one that regrettably mirrors the priorities that biosafety organizations are following at present. Much of the efforts are in developing protocols, SOPs and harmonized standards. Communications take the form of extensive printed manuals that may or may not be read, and certainly may not be understood by all those facing the hazards in laboratories. Such linear missives are general at best, they make no allowances for an individual’s perception of threats, their magnitude or probability, or the perceived effectiveness or cost of precautions being taken at the facility where the individual works. These variables are essential to established models of self protective behaviour.

Systems and procedures are of course necessary, but unless these make a real (behavioral) difference on the ground, efforts go to waste. The weak link here is the lack of attention to how this material is going to be communicated to make meaningful change, to even approach the age-old problem of how to make people act to protect themselves from harm?

Science-based Approaches

This question occupies a central role in health promotion, occupational safety, natural hazard preparedness, and indeed safety in the laboratory. Written manuals oversimplify the process, and even if they are based around accepted models of preventative behaviour (such as Rogers’s Protection Motivation Theory [see also Maddux & Rogers, 1983]), their exhaustive, asynchronous nature pits them against many of the precautionary advocacy delivery theories that risk communicators regularly employ in making messages resonate personally with receivers. The precautionary advocacy effort must be viewed as a dynamic process, and like ‘genuine’ risk communication, embrace dialogue and engagement over a long period of time for actual decision behaviour to adhere to the ideals outlines in SOPs and manuals. Simply churning out laboratory manuals and thinking “job done” is unrealistic and ultimately, irresponsible. As presented at the conference from attitudinal survey work in Pakistan, a shocking percentage of laboratory workers surveyed there had absolutely no idea as to the perceived threats they were facing or how to manage them. To make matters worse laboratories are prone to under-report laboratory acquired infections (LAIs), making evaluation of the state of the problem difficult. Such failures of integrity point to gaps in organizational trustworthiness that add to the challenges for workers in their evaluation of efforts to adopt preventative behavior.

At the same time, efforts must be made to make precautionary efforts more culturally sensitive. As reflected during the ABB workshop, one of the greatest challenges facing risk communication in the region, particularly for outbreak or pandemic communication, is the need to incorporate principles of intercultural communication into communication of risk. This is a new area, more research needs to be done in Asia-Pacific, but given the emerging importance of values in risk communication—the cultural cognition approach—it is clear that culturally centred messages will be far more effective in promoting action where it is needed most, in the rural, resource poor labs of Asia.

One of the greatest challenges facing risk communication in the region, particularly for outbreak or pandemic communication, is the need to incorporate principles of intercultural communication into communication of risk

Addressing Denial in Outbreak Communications

One final area, highlighted during our workshop, where best practices in risk communication can make a huge difference is in outbreak communications, particularly in addressing past failures dating back to SARS and avian influenza. Denial of risk and uncertainty appears to be the de facto position of  governments when faced with risk communication dilemmas. Most of the governments in the region were guilty of denial of outbreaks (sources of disease) during the swine flu outbreak and most were also poor at acknowledging uncertainty and the difficulties in surveillance. Denial turned quickly to over-confidence and over-reassurance, such bravado proved a false dawn in the management of the risks and in meeting the needs of an anxious public. The effects on public trust of these propaganda tactics will be tested during the current H7N9 outbreak, should such spread beyond China’s borders.

6th Asian Food Safety & Nutrition Conference

Note: Asia Biobusiness presented the following abstract at the 6th Asian Food Safety & Nutrition Conference in Singapore, November 26–28, 2012. At the conference leading exponents of Risk Communication, including CSIRO’s David Cox and University of Newcastle’s Lynn Frewer and Mary Brennan presented on food and risk perception to over 300 delegates.

Building Trust in National Food Safety Programs: Strategies towards Effective Food Safety Regulation & Risk Communication

Andrew D. Roberts,* Paul.S. Teng, Andrew. D. Powell.

Asia Biobusiness Pte Ltd, No.3 Science Park Drive, # 02-12/25 Suite 37 The Franklin, Singapore 118223


Trust is an absolute imperative for national food safety and regulatory authorities to effectively regulate food systems and communicate risks to the public. However, in some countries food regulators are facing increased consumer skepticism and distrust as a consequence of various food scandals, a lack of perceived choice and control, and a lack of engagement in food safety decisions, all of which is overlaid with a general lack of trust in government agencies and many of those involved in the food chain.

The general ‘crisis’ of public trust in regulators and food safety authorities threatens entire food safety systems. The role that these bodies play as ‘trust intermediaries’ is essential to the functioning of the food system and its advancement through the introduction of novel agri- and food technologies. Furthermore, efforts to promote healthier consumption, through heath advocacy programs, center both on ‘affective’ and ‘behavioral’ types of trust, both of which are lacking in most countries in Asia-Pacific.

This presentation introduces specific structural, process, personnel, policy and organizational design elements as strategies to build organizational trust. The implications for effective risk communication in approval of novel technologies and promotion of healthy eating are discussed. Case studies from independent food safety authorities will demonstrate essential operational and strategic communication traits essential to building social trust with publics, mediating risk/benefit evaluations, garnering greater consumer acceptance (particularly where knowledge levels are low) and ensuring the integrity of the food system as a whole.

*Corresponding and presenting author.

Operation Waiheke—Case Studies Part 2

Continuing our look at Risk Communication case studies, in the run up to our Risk Communication workshop with NZBIO and CFRCANZ we take a look at an unusual incident in New Zealand in 2005 that threatened an entire industry, yet turned into a triumph of effective (risk) communication by MAF (now MPI).

Hoaxes can cause as much damage as real incidents, evoking considerable alarm and concern, which will need effective management as per a ‘real’ incident. An organization threatened by a hoax or terrorist threat needs to respond as if the threat was real, and mange risk accordingly through its crisis and risk management & communication preparations.

The Incident

In May 2005, New Zealand’s prime minister, Helen Clark, received a letter claiming the deliberate release of foot and mouth disease on Waiheke Island. As an agriculturally based economy, and never having a case of foot and mouth, this was considered a serious threat. MAF mobilized quickly, eventually declaring the threat a hoax and scaling back its response. The organization did however amply demonstrate the understanding of how to manage the risk,uncertainty and anxiety of the situation and how to communicate an appropriate response to its stakeholders.

Determination of the actual scale of the threat, whether the letter was a hoax, was an immediate priority. Effective alliance building prior to the crisis incident enabled MAP to quickly share the dilemma with partners such as the police and Federated Farmers. The police worked quickly with other agencies to determine the likelihood of the letter being a hoax. This was important in addressing the uncertainty of the situation. MAF quickly mounted Operation Waiheke, and established communication channels to the media and other stakeholders. Its open and honest communication, being particularly accessible to the media and their demands, was one sign of an effective response plan. Though MAF had never planned for a terrorist hoax, they were able to test the effectiveness of their preparations as if a real threat was present. Whilst being open and honest seems rather straightforward, it is not the norm for government agencies faced with high risk, high stakes situations. We have many examples of similar organizations effectively retreating into ‘crisis committee’ mode and taking so much time to respond on any matter as to effectively render their reposes void. Their untimely responses fell outside of the time constraints of the media and instead others were offered the chance to speculate in place of ‘official’ solid facts.

The speed of the MAF response was impressive, receiving the letter on May 10 they contacted 18 or 39 farmers on that day in addition to making a press release. On the next day a media conference was held, a further 12 farmers were contacted and a hotline for the remaining 9 was established. Daily briefings followed and a website was set up to give full results of disease testing. On May 16, when a local newspaper received a second letter, MAF officially declared the situation a hoax. By May 25, Operation Waiheke was stood down.

Keeping everyone up to date on the disease outbreak in real-time was a significant step towards managing uncertainty, and through its transparency, MAF was able to build perceptions of fairness (procedural justice through provision of information) and trust (openness and honesty). All too many organizations choose to withhold information during this phase of inherent uncertainty in the hope of managing risk. Over-reassurance is also a common theme, authorities commonly believing that citizens are not resilient enough to deal with the threat.

It was not accident that MAF was able to respond to the hoax in a credible fashion. MAF did not draw up their response plans on the fly in the heat of the incident, they had developed crisis responses well in advance. Along with other agencies, MAF took part in a crisis simulation exercise, Exercise Taurus, just one month prior to the hoax. As noted in the first part of this series, most organizations do not invest any time in building resilience plans in advance of a crisis or controversy. We believe this policy is not tenable in today’s e-social society where information is shared instantly and news cycles are measured in hours, not days.

Alliance building with credible partners is another step towards a risk management strategy to anticipate, prepare and practice for controversy and crisis. In the MAF case, working partnerships with the police, other government agencies and the media helped disseminate messages consistently and quickly. Reliability and consistency and essentials during risk situations, no one wants to play ‘chinese whispers’ when the economic stakes of a region are on the line.

Through these partnerships MAF was able to share the dilemmas facing them with credible intermediaries. These intermediaries functioned as message conduits with various audiences, ensuring the ‘viral’ spread of trustworthy information. The partnerships with the local community were perhaps the most important to support the on the ground response. The media cooperated with the government not to publish certain details of the hoax letter for fear of compromising the investigations (yet were shown the entire letter in briefings). This kind of governement–press relationship is unusual, but speaks of the excellent rapport between representatives.

Stakeholder consultation and effective 2-way dialogue are hallmarks of good risk management. Through local partnerships on the island, MAF were able to conduct public meetings to listen to local concerns. Through this process MAF was able to fine tune its response, and show a good deal of empathy. Benevolent action, the perception of acting in the interests of those affected, is vital during high stress incidents to build trust as a credible messenger.

All in all, MAF was able to deal with the hoax successfully by implementing many best practices in risk and crisis management and communication. They had prepared in advance, tested preparedness through a multi-stakeholder exercise, forged useful alliances and communicated as part of a on-going risk dialogue. The communication process allowed feedback and revision of the risk management plan. We think that the publishing of full disease testing results on a public website was a significant step towards managing risk and uncertainty, whilst building perceptions of trust. Rather than trying to over-reassure and play down the threat for fear of reputation collateral damage, MAF chose to take the open, accessible and honest route. Long term this was the best way of quickly dealing with the situation. Within 14 days the operation was stood down, and further lessons were assimilated into future risk and crisis plans.

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 ( 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).