Risk Communication and its sister process, Crisis Communication, are rapidly becoming essential for the toolbox of any EH&S professional. Both allow for the orderly and effective transmission of information during periods of high stress to an organization. This paper will focus on a number of important concepts, including common theoretical foundations and definitions; evaluation of the risk to the organization in a variety of situations; goals for the process; development of a written Risk/Crisis Communication Plan; and common problems and pitfalls.
The term "risk communication" was first thought to be attributed to William Ruckelshaus, the first Administrator of the EPA in 1970, who marshaled the organization through its first years; establishing a role in protecting the environment and assisting other community organizations in their role.1
In order to assure that readers of this paper begin with a common set of definitions, the following definitions are offered as a framework.
Risk is the probability of undesired effects (or health outcomes) arising from exposure to a hazard. Is it often thought of in the equation Risk = Probability x Consequences.3 According to Chet Langan, risk communication is "the art of communicating the potential lethal risks associated with environmental exposures".5The National Academy of Science says:"
Risk Communication is an interactive process of exchange of information and opinion among individuals, groups, and institutions; often involves multiple messages abut the nature of risk or expressing concerns, opinions or reactions to risk messages or to legal and institutional arrangement for risk management."7
And finally, the National Research Council says,"
Risk Communication is a professional discipline whose application requires knowledge, planning, preparation, skills and practice. It is a two-way interactive process that respects different values and treats the public as a full partner."8It is also important in this definition section to clarify the difference between risk communication and crisis communication. The difference is subtle but, according to the Centers for Disease Control, crisis communication;
"…is the attempt by science or public health professionals to provide information that allows an individual, stakeholders, or an entire community to make the best possible decisions during a crisis emergency about their well being."9Based upon the above definitions, the critical difference is the situations in which the various communication forms take place.
(author emphasis). The Center for Risk Communication says that risk communication is a "science-based approach for communicating effectively in high concern situations".6
According to Fred Manuele, it is "The potential for realization of unwanted, negative consequences of an event."4
In the 1980s the Superfund program incorporated the concept in its Public Participation Process, and it also appeared in the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Provisions of Title III of the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986.2 Most of the roots of the theories and process of risk communication come from the environmental arena and working with the public and other stakeholders, but in recent years the concepts have been successfully used to deal with any type of hazardous situation or disaster.