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

Risk Communication Workshop with NZBIO and CFRCANZ

Fear sells media—countering the climate of fear with risk communication

Society has become extremely risk averse, where fear sells news. The consequence of this is increasing media attention towards perceived risks associated with novel technologies in food, agriculture, health and the environment. Every science-intensive organisation has to manage risk. There is a need to build trust and engage with stakeholders, reduce concern and communicate benefits to end-users, as well as manage the organisation’s reputation in order to bring potentially controversial new products or technologies to market. 

Leadership Strategies towards countering the Climate of Fear

NZBIO has partnered with Asia BioBusiness and CFRCANZ to bring you a specialist 2-day workshop to help your organisation manage and communicate risk. The focus of the workshop is strategic risk management, and the topics covered will include:

  • Controversy management
  • Strategic risk communication
  • Risk communication policy & training

Specialist Workshop Focus

In addition, the specialist advisors from Asia BioBusiness will tailor the event to support attendees across the following areas:

  • Stakeholder mapping
  • Social media advocacy
  • Trust building
  • Public meetings design
  • Activism strategies
  • Media training

Who should attend?

All bioscience-based organisations need to be able to understand, manage and communicate risk. This workshop is for leadership and senior management in bioscience organisations, as well as those team members whose focus is risk management. Examples of organisations with science and technology risk include:

  • Companies reliant on New Zealand’s GBR1 disease-free status
  • Organisations undertaking clinical trials at any phase
  • Companies developing novel human health products/technologies
  • Agricultural biotechnology companies developing novel seeds/traits
  • Research organisations using cutting edge scientific methods (including GM, nantotechnology, stem cells)
  • Natural health companies that leverage New Zealand’s “clean green” brand and could be affected by natural disaster or disease outbreak
  • Government organisations that deal with risk management and/or biosecurity

Benefits of Attending

Specialist risk training for the bioscience sector has never been offered in New Zealand before, so this is a one-off opportunity to attend such a workshop without travelling offshore. In addition to the specialist focus of this 2-day workshop, NZBIO has negotiated that each attending organisation will receive bespoke one-on-one follow up after the event to assist with your unique challenges.

Workshop Format

The workshop will give industry leaders a practical overview of the theory and practice of risk communication. Participants will return to their organisations with strategies and skills to be able to begin a process of implementation. The interactive workshop approach will lay the foundations for direct application of the science in a practical and pragmatic fashion. Through ABB’s KnowledgePl+s mentoring programme, follow up conference calls with participants will build a foundation for development of risk communication programmes and roll out strategies.

Registration Fees

NZBIO is delighted to be able to offer this event in New Zealand for the first time, at a special rate for members:

  • Members $ 1200 + GST
  • Non-members $ 1500 + GST
  • Affiliated Industry Association Members $ 1350 + GST
  • Group rate (Corporate members only) $ 1100pp + GST for 3 or more participants.

Register online here…

Beyond the Deficit Model

Communication professionals working in agricultural biotechnology are faced with a laundry list of problems when communicating with the public. Not least of these problems concern the technical difficulties of explaining what is a complex issue to a public overwhelmed with jargon, multiple messages and a whole host of other pressing issues competing for attention. Compounding matters is the inherent nature of agbiotech, it is a touchy subject. For a range of reasons agBiotech pushes a lot of concern buttons with publics, making the communication challenge even more difficult.

The provision of agbiotech facts has been top of the list for many biotechnology advocates over the last 20 years. Palenchar and Heath (2002) termed this the “atheoretical approach” whereby the problem is defined as public ignorance for which the obvious solution is the provision of information and advice by experts. Industry has lined up credible “experts” in their hundreds, attempted to leverage 3rd parties to act on their behalf. Getting the facts over, defeating the NGO and activist misinformation has been the core goal, “a better informed public will be more inclined to accept biotechnology for what it is.”

There are a number of problems with this approach. If the priority is to develop greater “awareness” of agBiotech, believing that the public will become more accepting of complex issue such as biotechnology once they come to know more about them (Irvin & Wynne, 1996),there are glaring problems. This so called “deficit model” of communication is not supported by communication theory or research, or by the experiences of those who have launched campaigns based on deficit model thinking (Hansen, Holm, Frewer, Robinson & Sandoe, 2003)!

One should also remember when the UK government in June 2003 sponsored a nationwide series of public discussion fora entitled GM Nation? The official report concluded that, “The more people engaged in GM issues, the harder their attitudes and more intense their concerns” (Dept. of Trade and Industry 2003).

So if building awareness of a complex, controversial issue is counterproductive, what can be done?

Certainly, risk communication has a role to play, but we believe that risk communication in biotechnology has to take an entirely different approach to that commonly advocated and practiced by industry and other actors. If one is not careful, risk communication very quickly becomes run of the mill PR, marketing or even “precautionary advocacy” , raising concern/awareness where there was none before (often what one attempts to do in communication on public health issues) Typically short sound bite type messages are delivered and the focus is on the facts, leverage with the support of credible experts and third parties. Defend the science at all costs, rebut all the activist “misinformation”, dismiss their “myths, lies and fallacies” is the rallying cry!

Risk communication in Agbiotech is being slowly redefined, but modern risk communication solutions in Agbiotech clearly need to be adopted at the beginning, right at the decision-making phase, right when products are being developed. It is no good developing products, going through the regulatory process and then finding out that the product simply cannot be defended. We have heard a number of executives from both plant and animal biotech of companies over the last few months expressing their frustration at how the public just don’t understand . The public does not want to hear that it is a great product. They need more!

Risk communication must also focus on Agbiotech concerns, such as Peter Sandman’s outrage issues/factors, and in order to do so, actions must be taken that go far beyond communications.

We believe that learning lessons from marketplace trust experts can also provide clues to how GM technology can be repositioned in the minds of the consumer. Right now GM’s brand value is hardly something to boast about, and this is not a fair reflection on the usefulness of the technology and the role it should be playing in society today and in the future.

Branding gurus like Scott Bedbury (Nike (Just do it) and Starbucks) prescribe against awareness measures as a measure of brand value. Without personal relevance and true meaning a brand can have all the awareness in the world and still fail. Just look at those companies during the dotcom era that took out expensive ads during the Super Bowl. Those mistakes in strategy provided lessons in building trust that still echo today.

In order for consumers to accept GM foods and Agbiotech in general, they must trust the technology, the providers, and the products. This is the essence of brand development in the marketplace. It is a marketplace full of competitors all of whom are aware of where the GM brand (the perception in the mind of the consumer) currently lies in many countries. And that is hardly of value when one considers the competitive framework where GM is trying to compete. Just why should consumers buy GM, what is its unique selling proposition? Many of the concerns about GM center it being of industrial origin, being unnatural and unethical. Organic agriculture is thriving as the brand antithesis to the unnatural, synthetic and industrial. Just where does that leave GM, with these unwelcome perceptions, in a hyper-competitive marketplace?

Of course, brand development provides important indicators that go way beyond the deficit model of communication, awareness building or benefits centred communications. These indicators centre on trust, and as risk communication theory points out, without trust there is no acceptance of risk. Along with an approach that focuses on reducing concerns (outrage), and providing legitimate relevant and personal benefits to consumers (Frewer, 2011) Agbiotech has a chance of reinventing itself in the minds of publics, though it will not be easy.

Frankenstein Food Fallacy

Guest Opinion Piece

by Colin Jarvis

Frankenfood is not all it is portrayed to be...

When Mary Shelley wrote her book, Frankenstein, in 1818 she could not have imagined that we would still be talking about it today, 200 years later. We all know the story, don’t we? An evil Professor creates a monster called Frankenstein from bits of dead bodies. The monster then rampages around the countryside killing people and generally being obnoxious.

Actually that is not the real story. First of all it was the professor who was called Frankenstein and, admittedly, the monster did bad things but he was severely provoked. More important he did have a gentle side and indeed, on one occasion, saved a small girl from drowning. Many people have the wrong idea about Frankenstein’s creation simply because they have “read the book”.

I think the analogy of Frankenstein with modern, genetically modified, foods is quite a good one. The monster was considered evil because of his behaviour; no one looked at the big picture and considered why he acted this way. It seems to me that this is the same with GM foods. We need to read the book, not base our decisions on incomplete information.

What is the big picture into which GM foods fits. We now live in a world that contains 7 billion of people. About one billion of them do not have enough food to lead a healthy, active life. These figures come from the United Nations so I tend to believe them. What is more, within the lifetime of many people alive today, the world population will increase to 8 billion.

At a time when the population is growing faster and faster we are finding that our agricultural land that is allocated to food is, in fact, dwindling. This is not just because we are using agricultural land for building homes and factories, though that is obviously happening, is also because we are growing products for other uses, such as corn for bio-fuel rather than for feeding animals or humans.

Another way that we are reducing the potential productivity of our valuable agricultural land is the current fad for organically produced products. There is no evidence that organically produced products are healthier or even taste better.

I’m not kidding; blind taste tests have shown that people cannot tell the difference between fruits and vegetables produced by organic or other normal means of production. Scientific analysis shows that there are no nutritional benefits to organic foods compared to conventional produce. All we know about organic foods is that they cost more and need more space to grow. That might be fine for affluent, romantically minded Westerners but organically minded Westerners but organically produced foods will not solve the potential food crisis that we are currently facing,

If we cannot feed enough people today, what are we going to do in a few years time? Genetically modified foods could be part of the solution.

In my lifetime agriculture has become far more productive. This has been due to better strains of seeds, better mechanization and more effective fertilisers and pesticides.

Perhaps the most famous developer of new strains of seed was Norman Borlaug who was credited with saving the lives of one billion people in India due to his development of dwarf wheat. He is often called the father of the green revolution and received the Nobel Prize in 1970 for his efforts.

His techniques of genetic manipulation might be considered old-fashioned today but his plea to use the latest technique to produce higher yielding, higher quality, low input, low environmental impact crops undoubtedly embraced modern genetic modification.

Mechanisation and modern farming technique have developed so that today we even have satellite guided tractors and other machines that now ensure the minimum use of water fertilisers and pesticides.

Pest control has also developed amazingly however, even if a pesticide kills most of the insects it targets, some pests will survive and many of these will have some resistance to the pesticide. These resistant pests now have the opportunity to breed and produce more resistant pests as their competition is far less than it was. After a while the pesticide proves to be totally inadequate and a new pesticide must be developed. If you are as old as I am you will recall the belief that DDT was a wonder pesticide until it was realized that it was harmful to human beings and the pests were becoming immune to it.

Rachel Carson, in her book the Silent Spring, summed up the other problem relating to pesticides and that is that they kill the pests at the bottom of the food chain and the birds and animals further up the chain then die of starvation, providing they are not poisoned first.

Chemical pesticides had been used for many years to protect cotton plants from the cotton boll worm. Unfortunately the worm developed resistance to the chemical pesticide and, in the USA a new pesticide was developed to kill the cotton boll worm. It was very successful and helped farmers increase production dramatically.

Now there is a very significant difference between the new pesticide used in this case and chemical pesticides that were used previously. In this case it was the cotton plant itself that would kill the cotton boll worm. The plant contains genes that produce a naturally occurring pesticide, the BT toxin. Inevitably some cotton boll worms are now becoming resistant to this BT toxin. New cotton plants are being developed which contain several different BT toxins which should greatly reduce the risk of the cotton boll worms developing resistance. Because this pesticide is contained within the plant there is no possibility of over spraying or overuse.

This means that innocent creatures and farm workers will not have  to suffer accidental poisoning and the toxin will die with the plant rather than remain in the soil. This solution should be cheaper and more ecologically sound than the chemical sprays.

The batter to overcome pests, in all forms, is a continual battle and it is never likely to be completely won. The arms race will to continue until the end of time. GM foods are not perfect but they can offer better solutions to the problems we face today.

What I find strange is the fact that many people are happy to accept chemical insecticides but feel that genetically modified plants go against nature. The key word here is “feel”. It is an emotional reaction rather that a logical one. It is the Frankenstein problem once again in that some people are not in possession of the true facts, usually because they have not “read the book”. Why can people be quite relaxed about new chemicals but not about alternative scientific techniques? Perhaps it is because  they have grown up seeing chemicals used but genetic modification is new.

Genetic modification is not new. Human beings have been genetically modifying plants and animals for thousands of years. Darwin proved this point when he discussed the wide range of fancy pigeons that had been developed by people through selective breeding. We only need to look at dogs to see how selective breeding has developed so many different breeds from the original wolf.

Genetic modification is how more productive seeds and animals have been produced throughout history. The cow that provides our milk is very different from the original cow and its milk production is incredible compared to its ancestor. The wheat we plant today is far more productive and easy to harvest than it was even 30 years ago. We have to develop new products all the time if we are to be able to feed our ever increasing population.

The horror that many people feel about genetically modified foods is the same horror that people feel when they read Frankenstein. It is acceptable that a human may encourage two pigeons or dogs to mate and produce a modified offspring but playing around with chromosomes is like playing God. I even found myself cringing when I read that the US government had given their approval for the testing of crops of rice which had been genetically modified with human DNA.

Admittedly, this crop was to be used for pharmaceutical purposes, not food, but it still made me feel a little uneasy. Why did I cringe? It has nothing to do with logic it is quite simply an emotional reaction. Recent research has shown that we share many parts of our DNA with other plants and animals. This does not mean that we are like those other plants and animals just as two buildings, built with the same bricks, can be entirely different. What matters is how they are put together. Taking a brick from one building and cementing it into another does not really change either building but may improve one of them.

One thing that should concern us is that genetically modified crops are very carefully developed so that they do not cause damage to the environment or other problems by cross pollinating with other flora. Over the last 20 years or so, many methods for testing genetically modified products safely have been developed throughout the world. One thing we should remember is that genetically modified foods have to pass through rigorous food and environmental safety assessments. Conventional agricultural products and organically produced food does not have to undergo the same assessments. This is despite the fact that many billions of meals have been served using GM products and there has not been one single case of a health issue.

The Philippine and Thai governments started to legislate for the safe testing of GM foods about 15 years ago. 10 years ago the scientists in the Philippines started to test GM foods and they are now very experienced and have developed a number of very useful products. The Thai government, probably because it has had many other pressing matters over the last 15 years, has yet to pass a single act of legislation that will allow field trials and eventual full-scale production. Thailand is falling behind in the development of genetically modified products and will no doubt suffer in the future when such products become more acceptable.

The argument for greater productivity in agriculture is irrefutable. Genetically modifying crops and animals would seem to offer many benefits. However there are still many emotionally driven people who believe that genetically modified products are the work of the devil. Sometimes they do things in order to protest which could actually bring about their worst fears.

In the Philippines, Greenpeace, an organization to which I used to be a member, has raided a number of GM trial sites and stomped about the field ripping up plants and generally causing havoc and destruction. They then leave the site presumably unaware that they could well be carrying pollen and other microscopic cells that could cross fertilise with the very fauna they are hoping to protect. This sort of behaviour may win them some more members and donations but does nothing to help the arguments on either side.

Another concern that may people, including many of my colleagues in the press, continually trot out is the fact that the use of genetically modified seeds will cost a farmer a great deal more than normal seeds. This may be true but surely the farmers can be left to make their own financial decisions. Whilst the seeds may be more expensive, providing the yield is greater then the cost per tonne of the final product will be less. This should result in more profit for the farmer and a lower price for the consumer.

The argument for or against genetically modified foods will not be won by politicians, scientific sceptics or agricultural scientists. It will eventually be won by the consumer by which I mean both the affluent western supermarket shopper and the underfed citizen of a developing country. History shows us that consumers want more for less and GM products should be able to give them precisely that.

Imagine a world where food tasted better, lasted longer, contained more vitamins and was cheaper than before. That world is the promise of genetically modified products. Certainly new technologies should be carefully monitored, particularly in the development stages, to ensure that there are no hidden dangers but surely this wonderful technology should be allowed to develop in order to help ensure that all 8 million inhabitants of this planet may be properly fed by the middle of this century.

GM foods will undoubtedly have problems, there are risks but they should be manageable. Let’s get on with it, particularly in Thailand “The Kitchen of the World” before the rest of the world passes us by.

Let us look at the facts, let us consider the realities and not let emotion and lack of knowledge lead us down an unsustainable path. Remember that Frankenstein’s monster was really quite nice until he was badly treated by society.

© Colin Jarvis 2012.

Colin is a British journalist living in Chiang Mai, Thailand. This article was orginally published in the Chiang Mai Post vol. 2 No. 29.

Science Exchange 2012, Perth


At the CRC Plant Biosecurity Science Exchange in Perth, May 22–25, AsiaBiobusiness was kindly allowed to present a poster on “Risk Communication & Organizational Trustworthiness Key Parts of Biosecurity Risk Management Strategies.”

We would like to that all at CRCPB (visit their website), especially Chairman Professor John Lovett who extended a kind invitation to attend the conference and to all CRC staff for their hard work in putting on another great event.

Below is the text version of our poster.

Follow the hashtag #2012SX on Twitter for more on the Science Exchange

Risk Communication & Organizational Trustworthiness Key Parts of Biosecurity Risk Management Strategies

Public Engagement, Social Media, Trust in Government Agencies

Paul P. S. Teng 1, Andrew Powell 1, Margarita Escaler 1, Andrew Roberts 1, Carl Ramage 2

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).

Food Security & Risk Communication


The food crises in 2007–2008 exposed the vulnerability and fragility of the current global food system and highlighted the increasing problem of urban food security and the need to effectively communicate to publics about food security issues. These represent a range of risk scenarios that the three paradigms of risk communication are well suited to deal with.

National governments and policy makers can apply three paradigms of risk communication in food security communications:

  • Application during food crises;
  • Application in public outreach via precautionary advocacy.
  • Application to promote R & D, including biotechnology in food staples;
WEF 2012 Societal Risks
Societal Risk Factors from World Economic Forum Risks Report 2012

The ultimate purpose of risk communication is to avoid crises. By recognizing the uncertainty of risk situations, we are better able to determine the wisest and safest course of action. The ultimate result of our inability or failure to recognize and act upon risk is crisis. The food crises across the Middle East resulted in falls of government. Effective risk communication, as an on-going, interactive process of dialogue with publics can prevent such catastrophic outcomes. The public should be Involved in decision-making on food security issues, so that consensus building and relationship development prevent uncertainty on these issues, stemming from a lack of credible information.

Risk communication is an interactive process of exchange of information and opinion among individuals, groups, and institutions. It involves multiple messages about the nature of risk and other messages, not strictly about risk, that express concerns, opinions, or reaction to risk messages or to legal or institutional arrangements for risk management.


Paradigm 1. Manage Crisis

Food Crisis—High Hazard High Outrage

During a food (shortage) crisis the public are both greatly stressed and concerned about the situation they are facing, one where the actual hazard (probability of loss—in this case of a supply of food) is correspondingly high. In many cases, food crises arise because government officials fail to embrace and enact best practices in risk communication. If food security communication plans—to anticipate, prepare and practice for all eventualities—had been in place the intensity of food crises could have been abated, and risk communication systems would have enabled leaders to accurately prepare for, manage, and mitigate the effects of food crisis. Once a food crisis has taken hold, governments must communicate quickly via multiple channels, whilst taking action steps to coordinate resources and facilitate collaboration. Officials need to provide honest, candid, open and accountable communication during the crisis, showing leadership with benevolent concern, empathy in the spirit of, “We’re in this together.”

Paradigm 2: Manage Advocacy

Food Security is High Hazard low Outrage

Most consumers in developed countries are geographically and conceptually removed from the food system and given this displacement, apathy towards issues outside of food safety and nutrition are common. Within the four dimensions of food security—availability, physical access, economic access and utilization—the price of food (economic access) is one area of major concern for consumers, with food prices at record levels. Public interest in food prices may provide an opportunity to firstly generate awareness, and then ‘resonance’ in other dimensions of food security. With the inherent apathy, risk communication provides a set of strategies and fundamental delivery techniques that are tailored towards overcoming audience apathy, and making the broader issues of food security, particularly food wastage, meaningful to otherwise disinterested audiences. Risk communication precautionary advocacy techniques urge action now, to prevent uncertainty and potential disaster later.

Paradigm 3: Manage Concerns

Increasing Productivity to meet food demands in the long term necessitates crop improvements via biotechnology.

In the medium to long term, public investments in infrastructure and agricultural research may help address many food security issues. However, how can agricultural output be raised given limited land and water, and anxieties over conservation and pollution? Uncertainty and controversy surround technical agricultural advances and little private sector attention has been paid to food grains. Biotechnology has yet to be exploited significantly for staple food production, but the promise of rising grain yields and higher prices may see countries embrace ‘GMOs.’ Whatever the promise, governments will need to carefully communicate to publics, and deal with the inherent outrage that accompany GMO debates. Will the benefits to society of biotech crops in the context of food security address issues of benefits, trust and fairness that have plagued commercialisation in many territories to date. Risk Communication outrage management addresses concerns so risks can be considered rationally.