Risk Communication

Risk communication is a subset of science communication. The WHO defines risk communication as “the exchange of real-time information, advice and opinions between experts and people facing threats to their health, economic or social well-being. The ultimate purpose of risk communication is to enable people at risk to make informed decisions to protect themselves and their loved ones.”


What is risk?

There are lots of different definitions of risk. We prefer to define it as the probability that an ‘adverse event’ will occur X the magnitude of the harm associated with that event if it does occur. This makes it very clear that there are two ‘axes’ to risk — probability and magnitude. So, a small harm that is very likely to happen could be judged as the same level of risk as a very large harm that is unlikely to happen.

‘Adverse event’ is also a flexible term and can mean everything from lost time to death. It also has a subjective component, as what different people view as ‘adverse’ can be highly variable.

On the surface, the goal of risk communication might seem straight forward: to inform people about their risk and to help them reduce that risk. However, there are actually many different kinds of risk and many different ways that people can respond to them, so the process of efficiently and effectively communicating about risk is actually very complex.

There have been a number of frameworks developed to tackle this complexity and help people to think about risk communication. For example, Lundgren and McMackin (2018) suggest that there are three main ‘types’ of risk communication:

Care communication

Care communication is communication where the risk and the way to manage it are not in question. They have already been well characterized by science and are generally accepted by the public and/or experts. A lot of automotive risk communication fits in this category — we know that we should use car seats for infants, go the speed limit, not drink and drive, not touch our phones, etc. The goal here is usually to make sure everyone is informed and to implement specific risk mitigation policy or programming.

Consensus communication

Consensus communication is needed when the way to prevent or mitigate a risk has yet to be determined or agreed upon. This is basically a consultation process. Much of the communication regarding environmental impact, safety planning, and setting health regulations is in this space. The goal here is implied in the title: to get everyone on the same page with regard to how best to move forward.

Crisis communication

Crisis communication occurs in the face of extreme and sudden danger.


This gives us a good place to start; however, these categories are more descriptive than prescriptive. For this reason, we could look to some other frameworks to flesh out our approach to communication. Below is a tasting menu of communications frameworks:

Communication process approach

Very traditional. Information is generated by a source, which goes through a channel to a receiver. In my personal experience, this is how most science communication is done. Boring!

Extended parallel process model approach

Long name for a fairly simple concept. If people feel they cannot take action to mitigate a risk or feel the action will be useless, then they act to control their own negative feelings about the risk rather than the risk itself. This often emerges as denial or hostility towards the communicator. Hello climate change deniers?

Mental noise approach

The more worried people are about a risk the less they are able to process information about that risk and the more important it is to use tools like simplification, repetition, and supportive visuals. This theory is helpful in crisis communication.

National Research Council approach

“Risk communication is an interactive process used in talking or writing about topics that cause concern about health, safety, security, or the environment.” This approach emphasizes that communication is ‘interactive’, i.e., that there should be a two-way flow of information between the information sources and recipients. The recipient-to-source axis is often ignored, but without it you are just talking, not communicating.

Sandman’s Hazard x Outrage framework

This is one of our favourites and we will discuss it in detail later. The gist is that Sandman puts equal weight on the risk perception of the audience as that of the communicator. It is not enough for a communicator to just listen to stakeholder concerns; we have to actively investigate them, understand them, respect them (or at least take them seriously), and use them to shape our communication plan.

Social amplification of risk

Social interactions have unpredictable impacts on risk perception and how risk communication is received. This theory can be used to understand how rumor and misinformation can be used to fill communication gaps.

Social network contagion approach

People generally adopt the opinions and behaviors of those in their social network when faced with fear and uncertainty. This theory introduces the importance of understanding and messaging to an entire network versus the individual.

Social trust approach

Whether someone will listen to you depends on how much they trust you and your organization, which, in turn, depends on a constellation of factors including past experience, transparency, and perceptions of your (or your organization’s) values, motives, empathy, etc.

As you can see, there is no ‘one framework fits all’ approach to communication, and approaches will vary depending on communicators’ opinions and perspectives.

A new approach: Building your communication toolkit

While the diversity of approaches to risk communication may feel confusing and overwhelming, that’s good! Disorientation is the first step on the path to becoming a better science and risk communicator, a journey that is largely unscientific. Yes, you read that right; all that training that has made you a good scientist in many ways will have promoted traits that hinder good science communication. You are probably used to working in situations where there are ‘right answers’ and ‘best practices’, but that is not the landscape that you are going to be exploring in the next couple of months. Instead, we are going to be entering into the messy, unpredictable, inscrutable world of the human experience. Our ultimate goal is to expose you to the many different tools and techniques that can help you communicate, as well as provide you with a framework to start thinking about communication.

We have built the framework around what we believe are the three fundamental components of science and risk communication: the mission, the message, and the medium. Fundamentally, the mission is the ‘why and how’ of communication, the message is the ‘who and what’, and the medium is the ‘when and where’. Within each section we will present a number of different considerations, theories, and examples for you to consider as you build your communications toolkit.

We like the thoroughly unscientific analogy of painting. Your communications will be your artworks and we are going to start you off with a basic set of paints and give you some ideas for how you can use them to develop a rudimentary composition. Which paints to select, how you combine them, and how you apply them to your canvas are going to vary depending on what you want to paint. Additionally, as you progress in your career and experience you will add new paints to your pallet,‘While a growing body of research lays out guidelines for effective risk communication, the different dynamics among audiences, situations, and purposes makes finding the one ‘right solution’ impossible, even if there is one right solution to find.’ – Lundgrin and McMakin leave others behind, and find more and more creative ways to combine the paints you have. This means that this course has no exams and no answer key. However, you will have to work hard and probably will feel more challenged than many of your previous courses because there is a difference between a Grade 1 crayon drawing and a Renaissance masterpiece, right? It also means that in order to create that masterpiece you will need to get creative, think outside the box, and dare greatly. We look forward to seeing what you create.


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The Mission, the Message, and the Medium Copyright © by Chelsea Himsworth, Kaylee Byers, and Jennifer Gardy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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