A new report offers an insight into the world of risk communications, part of the broader umbrella of public relations, and calls for legislation to ensure bodies prepare adequate risk communication plans. Risk communications are used in a crisis, an emergency or simply in enterprises that involve risk. The last category is very broad, taking in anything up to and including government policy or even any organisation that could encroach on a person negatively in some way, including heath, finance, food and other areas. There is currently no policy at either Member State or EU-level that obliges organisations to carry risk communications packages. The STARC project, funded under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), joins institutions from France (Electricité de France and INERIS), Switzerland (Institute for the Protection and Security of the Citizen (IPSC) and the International Risk Governance Council), the UK (Trilateral Research & Consulting) and Germany (South German Institute for Empirical Social Research) to examine how risk communications policy and is managed in the EU and recommends that policy is needed - at least in some areas. The reasons for this are as follows: - Hazards and risks are always increasing, due primarily to climate change and instability. - The few existing policies are neither coherent nor consistent. Stakeholders are not brought into the equation. - People managing risk need policy guidance. - The EU's Impact Assessment policy is insufficient. David Wright from Trilateral Research and Consulting authored the report. He was quick to point out that risk communications is a multi-discipline issue, and is therefore complex and involves a number of stakeholders from the public, media organisations and relevant organisations. 'For me it was very interesting that there were no policies or guidelines on risk communications, despite the complexity of issues and of risks. There are two pieces of legislation, the Seveso II directive and the Aarhus Convention which come close, and they are both useful, but they are both limited: the Seveso II directive deals only with industrial risk and the Aarhus Convention deals with environmental impact, but there is nothing looking at a full range of risks, from man-made disasters to natural disasters to terrorism. 'From a professional point of view, the focus tends to be on risk communications, not distinguishing between emergency and crisis communications. This is significant when in making operational decisions, and building the physical channels,' he said. There is a standard definition of risk communications by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO), which emphasises the exchange of information, rather than simply disseminating propaganda. During the report's preparation, two incidents occurred which provided case studies in the workings of communication - the 7 July bomb attacks in London and the effects of hurricane Katrina in Louisiana. 'Hurricane Katrina knocked out all forms of communication. The newspapers could not publish. People had no access to information,' he said. The effects of this were generally negative. Conversely, media involvement and information exchange in the UK during the 7 July attacks was very high, enabling people to make informed decisions and react accordingly, also enabling information to rise from ground-level to the relevant agencies. The major issue, however, relates to public confidence in communications. Those with long memories will recall how cynical UK press officers declared 11 September 2001 'a good day to bury bad news'. However, the fact that the press officer involved was sacked and publicly vilified does give the system some credibility. High-profile gaffes such as this remind those working in risk communications to, 'recognise the process and seek to minimise the conflict further down the line', according to Mr Wright. The stakeholder culture is strong in Europe, and communications need to involve all relevant parties. 'For example, NGOs [non-governmental organisations] and the civil society may have a different point of view when looking at risk. Their values need to be brought to the table. These groups also bring ideas that must be taken into account,' said Mr Wright. The involvement of media is of crucial importance, as it is more than a conduit for information. It is also a gateway, mediating information, setting the public agenda. The report places the role for risk communications at the heart of wider risk governance, moving from 'the pre-assessment phase, risk assessment, risk evaluation and risk management. Risk communication should provide the necessary feedbacks between those phases in order to enhance overall effectiveness and robustness of risk governance,' reads the report. When making risky decisions, it is always advisable to read the small print, and the authors make a similar disclaimer in their piece. 'While most practitioners may regard 'risk' as a negative, risk has a positive aspect as well, as the flip side of risk is chance. If it were not for risks, there would be no societal change or cultural movement or any technological innovation nor would the economy evolve. Citizens, whatever their societal role, individually and collectively, take risks when they invest in the expectation that their risk-taking will be rewarded, either financially or in terms of experience or other developments,' reads the report. This report is the result of the STARC's first work package. Subsequent packages will firstly examine national approaches to risk communications, and then propose methods of best practice before making a final report. The report comparing national approaches to risk communications is expected in July 2006.
Switzerland, Germany, France, Italy, United Kingdom