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Toolkit for Risk Communication

There is considerable research behind the design of this tutorial. This information can be found in the downloadable Guidebook (just go back to the previous page). In this tutorial, we merely provide a brief summary of these ideas. 


Imagine you work in a local government office.


A typhoon is forecast to make landfall near your town. The bulletin from the national weather agency also mentions something about a 1.5 meter storm surge. Since it is an official bulletin, and since the agency has the technical expertise in typhoon forecasting, the local government makes sure to send the bulletin to other offices.


But the problem is that it looks and reads like a routine technical report. Some other issues: 

  1. Many residents of the community assume it is another technical bulletin and ignore it. 

  2. No one in your or other agencies is willing to interpret the bulletin and use their own words in telling other offices and residents. 

  3. While there is an evacuation order, many residents stay mainly at home (including home-bound elderly residents) and news does not reach them. 

  4. To compound matters, at a preparatory meeting, a high-ranking government official reads the wrong report and mistakenly tells everyone that the typhoon would make landfall hours after the actual predicted time. Lower-ranking staff notice the mistake but are too hesitant to correct the official. 


Typhoons are common, and most residents assume they will just do whatever they normally do during these events. The storm surge catches everyone by surprise. Many are caught by the rushing waves at home. Though you and your family survive, many of your neighbors do not. Most of their homes were destroyed by the fast moving surge, and they were caught inside these structures.


Later that day, the mayor says, "This is the worst tragedy to have ever struck our community," and requests the national government for disaster relief aid. 

Tropical Storm



Now imagine a different scenario.


You see the storm surge warning from the national weather agency. You make sure you understand what it is saying and, then, proceed to tell the story of what will happen when the typhoon arrives with its storm surge. You tell others and transmit a new message, telling it in your own words to make sure others understand it.


You put your message in a memo that you then distribute to the people in your town. Some people say it is okay, they are used to typhoons, but you tell them this will be different from previous ones, and the storm surge will be unlike anything they have ever experienced.


All the residents get involved in telling the message to others, especially people who stay mainly at home. At the preparatory meeting, staff speak up and correct the government official, saying the typhoon would actually arrive hours earlier. 

The typhoon comes, but most people have left their homes in the high-risk area and stayed either at the evacuation center or with friends farther away from the coast. Though some are injured, there is no loss of life in your community.


A day later, families return to their neighborhoods only to find many of their homes completely destroyed. A friend tells you, "We have lost everything. But, you know, we are all safe, we are very grateful."



Same situation, two very different outcomes. The truth is, the first scenario describes events that actually occurred (and occur on a regular basis). As you will read in this toolkit, the lessons for us are simple and, yet, so challenging to put into practice: 


Lesson 1.   EVERYONE must be involved in RISK COMMUNICATION. This way, messages penetrate the entire community, reaching even residents who are isolated at home or elsewhere. By everyone, we mean officials in every agency but, also, community residents (neighbors, children, teachers). In a word, we must DEMOCRATIZE risk communication.  


Lesson 2.    EVERYTHING has to be UNDERSTANDABLE. Risk information has to be communicated in understandable ways. The boundaries between agencies and between agencies and the public are too rigid. Agencies often communicate in only technical ways and fight over who is to communicate risk information. Members of the public are hesitant to receive and communicate information that they feel is something only for technical for them to manage. Risk communication should be done in EVERYDAY language. 

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