Risk Comm 101: Perception is Reality, Hazard, Outrage, Etc.

Note: This is the third part in our basic risk communication series adapted from an old (not THAT old) U.S. Coast Guard student handbook on the subject. Don’t think of it as us re-packaging information (how dare you!), but as us bringing out the good china for you when you visit for supper. In our last post we discussed some theoretical models that build the framework for risk communication work – here, we dive a little deeper into theory, and explain how it works for the practitioner. Enjoy!

Perception = Reality

“An accident that takes many lives may produce relatively little social disturbance (beyond that experienced by the victims’ families or friends) if it occurs as part of a familiar and well-understood system (such as a train wreck). However, a small accident in an unfamiliar system (or one perceived as poorly understood), such as a nuclear reactor or a recombinant DNA laboratory, may have immense social consequences if it is perceived as a harbinger of further and possibly catastrophic mishaps.”[i]


— Dr. Paul Slovic in “Perception of Risk”

If you haven’t noticed already, people feel differently concerning different topics, including different risks and hazards. Anecdotally, some people don’t think it’s a big deal if they drive without wearing a seatbelt. They may think that it could be safer to be thrown from the vehicle or that wearing the belt is too cumbersome. However, if you have been in an automobile accident and a seatbelt saved your life, you know firsthand how important it is. Sticking with the automobile safety analogy, you might feel very secure and in control if you are driving a car. But, what happens when you are a passenger in a car? Do you have the same sense of security and control over the vehicle? Maybe not. The perception of being in control is just one of many “risk perception factors.”

In his 1987 article, “Risk Communication: Facing Public Outrage,” Dr. Peter Sandman gives this example: millions of people who choose not to test their homes for radon, which kills more Americans each year than all Superfund sites combined, are deeply worried about toxic wastes. The bottom line? Those risks that are more harmful (and deadly) are not necessarily the same risks that worry you the most.

Research done in the 1960s – that is still valid today – demonstrated that there is a low correlation between the level of physical risk in a situation and the amount of worry that it arouses. More importantly were the presence of what risk communications researchers called “outrage factors.” These factors take on strong moral and emotional overtones and can significantly raise our perceptions of worry and perceived risk.

This leads us to our first – courtesy of Dr. Sandman – of two formulas to remember when communicating risk messages:

Risk = Hazard+Outrage

According to Sandman, “risk” is defined by experts as magnitude multiplied by probability; in other words, how bad something is multiplied by how likely it is to happen, usually expressed as an annual mortality rate. Sandman, however, calls this interpretation “hazard.” “Outrage” is all the things that people are worried about.[ii]

Outrage factors could be any one of a number identified by risk communications researchers. Here are just a few:

  • Voluntariness: did we ask for the risk, or is it being imposed?
  • Controllability: are we in control of the risk?
  • Fairness: does everyone share the risk fairly?
  • Risk-Benefit tradeoff: who gains from the risk and who loses?
  • Effects on children: will my children be affected by the risk?
  • Dread: risks that evoke fear, terror or anxiety or less readily accepted
  • Media attention: what is the mass media reporting about this risk?

The important concept to remember here is that what you perceive about a risk might be very different from what your stakeholder perceives. Therefore, it is up to you to identify what’s upsetting your stakeholders – regardless of what your data tells you – and adjust your messages accordingly.

What we have here is a failure to communicate

If you remember our three goals of risk communication from earlier posts in this series, we said that enhancing your trust and credibility would sometimes be the most important step you take in the risk communications process.

The ability to establish very quickly that you know what you’re talking about and that you have the credentials to back up your statements will go a long way toward earning your stakeholders’ trust in you and your message.

Of course, before you even begin to communicate your organization’s message, you need to do one very critical thing:

Tell your stakeholders you care about them.

In the immortal words of American humorist and entertainer Will Rogers, “When people are upset, they don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”

This is especially true in high concern/low trust situations. People in these situations can tell whether you care about them in about 30 seconds.

Here are some tips on communicating competence:

  1. Stress your credentials up front – this doesn’t mean you hand out copies of your resume. It means you tell people why they should listen to what you have to say. Just remember to keep it brief and not insult anyone’s intelligence by putting yourself up on a pedestal that you don’t deserve.
  2. Establish third-party alliances – a good way to enhance your credibility is by linking yourself or your organization with someone or some organization that’s already trusted, such as well-informed citizens, health and safety professionals, educators, not-for-profit organizations, law-enforcement officials, etc.
  3. Use at least three times more facts or figures – Instead of dumping a bunch of technical statistics and probabilities on your stakeholders, just make sure you have enough information available to answer your stakeholders’ questions. This means anticipating what questions will be asked, based on your previous stakeholder identification process. If you understand your stakeholders, you should also be able to predict some common questions they might ask. Another note about facts and figures: only use them to put risk into perspective, not to persuade people that the risk is smaller than they perceive.
  4. Use technical language and jargon sparingly – it’s a good idea to use technical terms and acronyms only if you are willing to provide definitions for the terms you use. Using scientific terms such as “methylethylbadstuff” demonstrates that you understand your trade; however, this information only puts risk in perspective and does not replace care and empathy. However, using well-defined jargon that stakeholders (especially the media) can understand and repeat to others can pay dividends: people who want or need to “trumpet” you organization’s efforts can build their own credibility by using your jargon, and then defining it. That is can be another form of third-party endorsement.
  5. Limit use of notes – instead of reading a prepared speech verbatim, try using an extemporaneous style by only using your notes as a guidepost when speaking to your stakeholders. You’ll be able to provide more eye contact and other important non-verbal gestures to your stakeholders, which will enhance your credibility.
  6. Show a high level of organization – simple stuff here: just be organized with your presentation, and move from simple to complex information.
  7. Dress appropriately – remember the infamous post-Hurricane Katrina e-mails between former FEMA director Mike Brown and his press secretary about Brown’s attire?: “Please roll up the sleeves of your shirt, all shirts. Even the president rolled his sleeves to just below the elbow. In this [crisis] and on TV you just need to look more hard-working.” How about the image of a politician visiting a factory? If you show up to a town hall meeting or an open house in a blue-collar town wearing a Versace suit, you might just appear to be a talking head and not a concerned advocate of your stakeholders.

That’s it for this installment, sports fans. We’re going to talk some risk communication “dos and don’ts” in the next installment.


[i] Slovic, P. Perception of Risk, Earthscan Publications Ltd, 2000, pg. 228

[ii] Sandman, P. Responding to Community Outrage: Strategies for Effective Risk Communication, American Industrial Hygiene Association, 1993, pg. 6-7

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