POST - Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology

Communicating Risk

Published Monday, November 13, 2017

People's responses to risk are shaped by the way that such risks are communicated. Communicating risks effectively can defuse concerns, mitigate disaster situations and build trust with public institutions and organisations. This POSTnote defines the often misunderstood concepts of risk, uncertainty and hazard and describes the key stakeholders communicating it. It examines the factors that shape how people perceive and respond to such risks and summarises evidence on effective risk communication strategies.

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Risk communication includes issues as diverse as consumer advice on savings to informing patients about the benefits and harms of screening.

Summary of Key Points

  • People often perceive risks differently to the actual risk that a behaviour, or hazard, entails. Poor risk communication can lead to confusion, distrust and potentially fatal outcomes.
  • Government and the media provide people with key sources of information about risk. Social media is being used increasingly to communicate information about risk.
  • People’s perception of risk is shaped by many factors. These include the language used to communicate the risk and whether statistics are used, individual attributes such as gender, the type of risk such as familiar or unfamiliar risks, and the context within which the risk occurs, such as crisis situations.
  • Challenging aspects of communicating risk include clarifying how risks are measured and explaining any uncertainties involved.
  • Risk communication can be improved through careful use of statistics and numbers, being open in the information provided to the public, tailoring information to specific audiences, communicating across different mediums such as TV and radio, and using visualisations.

Acknowledgements

POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and are externally peer reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including:

  • Dr Teresa Ashe, Open University*
  • Ms Natalie Brown*
  • Civil Contingencies Secretariat
  • Professor David Demerritt, Kings College
  • Professor Mandeep Dhami, University of Middlesex
  • Department of Health
  • Dr Michael Evangeli, Royal Holloway*
  • Environment Agency*
  • Food Standards Agency*
  • Dr Alexandra Freeman, Dr Cameron Brick and Professor David Spiegelhalter, Winton Centre for Risk and Communication, University of Cambridge*
  • Dr Hazel Gibson and Professor Iain Stewart, University of Plymouth*
  • Professor Deborah Glik, UCLA
  • Government Office for Science*
  • Government Statistical Service*
  • Health and Safety Executive
  • Professor Mils Hils, University of Northampton*
  • Professor Roger Kasperson, Clarke University
  • Professor Dawn Langdon, Royal Holloway*
  • Professor Hugh Pennington, Aberdeen University*
  • Professor Nick Pidgeon, Cardiff University
  • Public Health England*
  • Dr Paul Reilly, university of Sheffield*
  • Mr Tom Sheldon, Science Media Centre*
  • Dr Jennifer Storey, Royal Holloway*
  • HM Treasury*
  • Professor Cherry Tweed, Radioactive Waste Management Ltd*
  • Dr Christian Wagner, University of Nottingham
  • Mr Bob Ward, London School of Economics and Political Science
  • Dr Anthony Wilson, The Pirbright Institute*

*Denotes people who acted as external reviewers of the briefing.

POSTnotes POST-PN-0564

Authors: Nicholas Wood; Caroline Kenny

Topics: Health education and preventive medicine, Medical ethics, Research and innovation, Statistics policy

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The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology produces independent, balanced and accessible briefings on public policy issues related to science and technology.