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2020 has presented us with global challenges and has created a need to discuss risk in ways that feels more urgent than we are used to. Fortunately, the need to communicate risk is not new, and many of us have been considering this challenge for a number of years. Understanding how to communicate risk in a way that is heard, understood, and acted upon is essential for everyone, regardless of job position or role in the community.

The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, which Canada is a signatory to, states that addressing disaster risk is more cost-effective than reliance on post-disaster response and recovery and is at least partially dependent upon a risk-informed public. While a risk informed public is important, this is more complex than simply distributing information. Unless carefully crafted, risk communication can be confusing, conflicting, disregarded, or politicized. This is a challenge facing many communicators today as we address complex and dynamic risks associated with the pandemic and other impactful hazards.

One strategy is to intentionally include listening and validation into the first phase of any risk communication effort. People often need to be heard before they can listen. If your audience has frustrations, unmet needs, conflicting priorities, or distrust they will have a reduced ability to listen to the risk communication message. This demonstrates the value in an engagement process that enables two-way communication, not just broadcasting. This also requires listening to the public with an open mind, understanding that while their concerns or priorities may not seem reasonable from your perspective, they are very real concerns to the community or individual you are interacting with.

Fundamentally for risk communication to be understood it must be specific, relevant to the individual or community/organization, and described using concrete terms and plain language. Unless we can distil our understanding of risk into concrete examples of how hazards may impact individuals and communities in a very tangible way, it is challenging for people to prioritize risk reduction efforts when faced with so many other competing issues. Use simple language, avoid jargon, and tie the risk to specific impacts on lives and communities/organizations.

When discussing risk reduction, develop instructions that are specific, impactful, attainable, and brief. In order to realize effective risk communication, people must not only understand the risk, but they must understand what they can do about it. No one wants to be fearful and if reasonable actions are not included within the risk communication, people are inclined to simply ignore the message because it feels like it is too much to manage. Therefore, communication isn’t effective when we take a complex set of risk factors and tell people how to address all the factors. It is why simple messages like, “Wash your hands before you eat,” or “Change the batteries in your smoke alarm,” are effective. They aren’t the only things a person can do to mitigate the risk, but the messages are simple, direct, and provide a measurable reduction in risk of things like disease spread or death in a house fire.

The shared challenge of risk reduction requires a public who understands the risk they face and how it can be effectively mitigated. By using simple strategies, it is possible to develop risk communication that is heard, understood, and acted upon.