Businesses and nonprofits manage risk. They also need to communicate about risk. However, risk communication is like going to the dentist. It’s something you know you need to do, but you try to avoid. That’s risky. Effectively communicating about risk can de-escalate risk and build trust.
The current debate about vaccinations is an example of what can happen when risk communication is absent or inadequate. Anti-vaccinators filled the void by raising fears that scientific evidence doesn’t support. Now medical professionals are playing catch-up amid an international outbreak of measles, a disease that was largely arrested after a measles vaccine was licensed for use in 1963.
Communicating about risk applies to a wide swatch of industry sectors such as food service, financial investing, home sales, manufactured products, health care, transportation and telecommunications. Understanding the role and importance of risk communication should play a central role in risk management decision-making. Giving affected parties meaningful, relevant knowledge about risks gives them a chance to protect themselves, which is key to risk reduction.
Risk communication is an important cog in risk management. Accurate, accessible information enables consumers, employees and stakeholders to make informed decisions about the use of products, travel destinations, public health and personal behavior. The absence of risk communication exposes people to risks. The same is true for opaque, misleading, untimely or incomplete risk communication.
When done right, crisis plans identify vulnerabilities and build crisis responses for crisis scenarios. Crisis plans don’t always cover risk communication, especially for ongoing activities that pose risks even without a crisis. This is an unfortunate oversight.
Examples of risk communication include information on labels, warning signs and consumer alerts. Those can be effective, but more can be done. Clear, easy-to-access information on a website, blogs, infographics and informational videos can be very useful in increasing awareness and understanding of risks. Risk communication, as demonstrated by pharmaceutical TV commercials with disclaimers longer than the main ad, can and should extend to marketing. Fear of risk can upset a brand.
There are growing consumer expectations for proactive risk communication, especially in areas such as food preparation, prescription drug side effects and dangerous machinery. One of the best ways to assess this expectation in your audience is to conduct risk perception research. Ask your consumers what they want to know and what worries them. Test your risk communication messages and discover the messengers and channels that work best to convey confidence.
Intelligently discussing risk, including responding to skeptics and critics, can lead to greater brand loyalty. Shying away from talking about risk can raise doubts or undermine trust. Intelligent discussion doesn’t equate to patronizing explanations or a gob of scientific gibberish. Information needs to be actionable and relevant.
Credible third parties are important tools in risk communication. They can lend their expertise to your what should be an ongoing conversation with consumers and stakeholders. Third-party authentication is not the same as a celebrity endorsement. You are getting a seal of approval from someone who knows what they are talking about – and that people look to for reliable advice.
Another improbable ally in risk communication can be trial lawyers – the ones who file million-dollar product liability lawsuits for faulty products. Trial lawyers have deep experience in analyzing risk communication for accuracy, adequacy and accountability. Ask for their recommendations on how to communicate risk effectively. It is smart to pay them up front rather than to wait and read their advice in an expensive court filing.
Risk communication may be one of the most overlooked and undervalued forms of public relations. Today’s complex information environment presents daunting challenges and previously unimagined opportunities for risk communication. Yesterday’s answer may be today’s yawn or blow off. Find out what bothers your audience, then feed that appetite with credible information that results in trust.
Don’t assume trust is a permanent condition. It can vanish in an instant. That means a vigilant approach to assessing risk and its effect on your consumers, employees and stakeholders, so you can maintain a fresh approach to risk communication that answers questions and informs smart behavior.
The risk you talk about is the risk you help avoid.
Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.