Last week we had a fantastic introduction into this week’s topic from our guest poster Namrata Sengupta. If you missed Risk Communication 101, be sure to check out her post which focuses on why we talk about risk in toxicology, the process of risk assessment, and why we need to have accurate communications when talking about these risks.
It may at first seem that the theme for these last two weeks is only relevant for those doing toxicology research. While it is crucial in our field of research, risk and the importance of clearly communicating risk goes beyond toxicology. From issues in public health such secondhand smoke or issues on a much bigger level like global warming, talking about risk is prevalent in many areas of science. More broadly, risk appears whenever there is uncertainty in a decision that has consequences. For instance, in any research endeavor there is always some uncertainty in our predictions of the truth of the universe (i.e. the p-value). Knowing how to talk about uncertainties, risks, and the consequences of inactivity or a lack of understanding are crucial for any field.
A few weeks ago I attended the “7 Best Practices for Risk Communication” webinar organized by NOAA’s Office of Coastal Management. The webinar was targeted to people who work with natural disasters or landscape restoration. Even though my work doesn’t venture much into the risk communication area, I thought the webinar was a good introduction and was relevant for anyone whose work enters into the territory of ‘risk’ related to human health or the environment. Even if your work or your outreach doesn’t have a focus on behavioral changes, these principles are a great way to help you get started with your own research-oriented communication activities.
Before I go into a quick summary of the 7 best practices, it’s important to realize that the definition of risk communication is slightly different than what we discussed last week. In this webinar, risk communication was defined as “Exchanging thoughts, perceptions, and concerns about hazards to identify and motivate appropriate action” while last week we spoke more generally about “The interaction between environmental risk assessment scientists, managers, policy makers, and public stakeholders.” This first definition is less specific in that it doesn’t mention who is engaging in the communication, and instead defines this activity as a two-way conversation about a topic in which one of the parties is trying to motivate a change in the other.
Webinar take-home message: Behavior change is a slow process.
We won’t go into detail about every single part of the webinar, but for each section we’ll try to focus in on some of the most important points highlighted as the “Webinar take-home messages.”
If your goal is to have someone’s lifestyle or opinion change, be aware that this will take some time. Your audience will come with a diverse set of preparedness or awareness, with some not thinking the issue impacts them at all and others already 99% on board with what you’re saying. Whoever your audience is, it will also be unlikely that their opinion will change after one meeting or one interaction. Another reality is that you might not be able to change their opinions at all, so be ready to deal with pushback from people who just won’t budge at all.
Step 1) Have a plan: Know what you want and how you’ll achieve it.
Webinar take-home message: Think of who else is talking to your audience.
If you’re already an active science communicator then many of the considerations mentioned in this step are considerations you’ll already be aware of. Be sure to have a goal for what you want to say/achieve, know your audience, develop your message, be consistent, etc. In particular, the webinar made the point that we are not the only ones talking to our audience. Think about your own day: there’s long emails, #hashtags, and news that is updated on an hourly and faster basis as new information comes in. These information streams are flooding with opinions from experts, friends, and everyone in between on what’s healthy, what’s hazardous, and what’s should be the concern in your day-to-day life.
Being aware of where else our audience will get information from can help you develop a consistent message in connection with what might be coming from other sources. For example: if your audience likes to hear news directly from friends on Twitter or Facebook, think about what those posts might look like and if you can to adopt a similarly friendly or narrative approach to make that initial connection.
Step 2) Speak to their interests, not yours: Connect with your audience’s values on an emotional level.
Webinar take-home message: Make the story about the audience and listen to them
The presenters talked about a case study on Wetlands protection, where conservationists saw an apparent shift in their outreach efforts when they changed the discussion from “Save our wetlands because they’re nice” to “Save our wetlands so your homes won’t flood.” It might seem unscientific to think about communicating science by playing on the emotions of your audience, but communication without any empathy is always destined to fail. You can develop trust with someone by showing that you’re interested in their problems, not just your own. Another message I like from this step is to be a good listener: you can quickly learn what is important to someone by hearing things from their perspective.
3) Explain the risk (or the research): Help your audience gain an understanding.
Webinar take-home message: Go from the top down
As scientists we thrive on the details of the data before coming to a decision, but as people we thrive by seeing the big picture and how things fit together. When talking about a particular risk or your own research, start off with the impacts and then work your way to the nitty gritty. It can also help you make a connection by talking about science in a way that’s more obvious than error bars and biological replicates: residential flooding, asthma rates, and salmonella infections are all things that people can see and connect to.
4) Offer options (or actions) for reducing risk: Provide some hope instead of just doom and gloom.
Webinar take-home message: Talk about both the small and big picture solutions
If your message involves telling your audience how the world is going to end and there’s nothing they can do about it, you’ll lose them. People can only intake a certain level of feeling helpless and fearful about a situation and at some point will just stop caring about a situation entirely. Some topics are difficult to talk about in a positive light (“There’s ONLY a 20% chance you’ll get cancer!”) but giving a suggestion for how people can help mitigate some aspect of risks provides a positive spin to the situation, as much as it’s possible. A few examples include encouraging volunteer activities such as planting trees or providing better ways for people to properly disposing of unused prescription drugs. Having an empowerment to-do list will also help others feel more involved with the problem and that they can actually work towards a solution on their own.
5) Work with trusted sources: Teamwork to achieve a common goal.
Webinar take-home message: Working with partners can broaden the audience for both of you.
The workshop instructors presented a case study of a collaborative project between the NAACP, the Sierra Club, and a local bike shop who all worked together to put on a local bike tour. The event introduced community members to groups they didn’t yet interact with through an activity organized by groups they already had established trust with.
Doing these types of cross-sector collaborations broadens your perspectives by allowing you to hear about other groups and how they communicate with their audience—perspectives you can use on how you communicate with your target group. This type of work can also lead to some new conversations among people you never thought you’d interact with—think of inviting a pensioners-only book club to your lab to talk about your research. You can then see the differences between their questions from questions coming from a group of primary school students or from your peers.
6) Test your message: Tell your story to someone who’s not in your research group.
Webinar take-home message: ….and be ready to make changes when you tell it to someone else the first time.
Nothing is perfect in a first draft, so if you’re preparing new material then allow for some additional time to react appropriately when you get feedback. It’s hard when you put so much energy into explaining something or making figures and designing graphics, but if it’s not working on a subset of your audience, it won’t work with the majority of them. Remember that your goal is to have a message click, not just to get it done the first time and move on with your life—so be ready to invest the time and energy to make it matter.
7) Use multiple communication venues: Understand where your audience is listening.
Webinar take-home message: Meet your audience where they are
Twitter and Facebook are great ways to connect—if your audience is on the website regularly and follows your posts. If you’re looking to reach an older or less tech-savvy target group (which is not necessarily the same in this day and age!), they might not find your message using a hashtag. Conversely, if your target group has a monthly meeting on Wednesday at 8pm at a local bar, show up and have a pint. Having a great message doesn’t do you any good if the message only gets to your social network. Know where your target audience is and where they go looking for information, and be there waiting for them.
And with that two-week crash course, you are now ready for Risk Communication 301: Applied Risk Communication tactics. Get out into the world, craft your message, and get it to your audience in the place they’re looking for information. And if you’re wondering what the risks are in sharing your research with a new audience, you’ll be happy to know that engaging in risk communication has no potential hazards associated with its use or implementation. But it might be a good idea to bring your flood pants, just in case.