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Toolkit for Risk Communication

Same situation, two very different outcomes. 

In the following pages, you will find a guide to communicating risks of these types of events. You can go through it on your own or, even better, in a group of others from your organization or community. 


One problem with warning people about something like a large storm surge is that, often, these warnings come in technical bulletins from the national agency. People can ignore these warnings because of a number of reasons:

▪ national weather agencies focus only on technical analysis and not on communication, 

▪ the language is technical and does not provide information in easily understandable ways, 

▪ the technical bulletin looks like something that is not meant for the public, 

▪ local officials are afraid to interpret or add to the message from the national agency for fear of overstepping their bounds, and simply routinely pass it on, 

▪ the communication looks like a routine agency bulletin that is business as usual, 

▪ the public (or local official) does not think that the bulletin addresses their situation directly, 

▪ the bulletin is not well designed (e.g., does not suggest what actions people can take), 

for these and other reasons, people dismiss these bulletins and ignore or forget them.  

▪ the same national and local agencies focus solely on routines (checklists, protocol, rules) that can stifle the free communication of knowledge instead of ensuring it.

There are other reasons that people ignore evacuation advisories and get caught by a flood at home or on the street: 

▪ people think the coming event is just like what they had experienced in the past but, often, extreme events are things the local community has never seen before, 

▪ people naturally associate the home with safety, security, and comfort, even when their home is located in an area of high risk, 

▪ some people are socially or physically isolated (e.g., home-bound elderly) and not well reached by official communication (e.g., evacuation advisories). 

▪ people do not want to leave home because they fear burglary while away, 

▪ people have negative perceptions of the evacuation center and avoid going there. 


One root of the problem is that, in many places, government and society draw rigid boundaries: (i) between government and the public, (ii) between technical and 'lay' communities, and (iii) between one agency and another. The first issue ensures that the public are treated as simply passive recipients of information and are not expected to participate in risk communication. The second emphasizes information that is technical and difficult for others to understand and pass on. The third creates in-fighting between agencies as to who is to engage in communication (when, in truth, all have to be engaged) and a tendency to focus only on formal routines (hence the predominance of checklists, forms, classification schemes, rules) and not on the fostering of the free flow of communication. Though different national and local contexts have different characteristics, we find the above issues to be true in many, if not most, contexts. 

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