A directory of resources inthe field of technical communication.

Risk Communication

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ACT NOW: A Six-Step Crisis Communication Strategy  (link broken)   (PDF)

Because a crisis by nature catches people unprepared, every organization must have a crisis communication strategy firmly in place to guide those involved through the rough, uncharted waters. An effective strategy is a what I call A-C-T N-O-W: (1) Anticipate disaster before a crisis, using risk management techniques. (2) Care about people affected. (3) Tell what you know immediately. (4) Note your next steps. (5) Offer help to reinforcements. (5) Write press kits and other pieces of public information. Since crisis mismanagement can lead to the end of the company, effective preparation for a crisis may well save your company’s life.

Reimold, Cheryl. STC Proceedings (1995). Presentations>Management>Risk Communication>Crisis Communication


Action Research and Wicked Environmental Problems: Exploring Appropriate Roles for Researchers in Professional Communication   (peer-reviewed)   (members only)

The authors report on a 3-year action-research project designed to facilitate public involvement in the planned dredging of a canal and subsequent disposal of the dredged sediments. Their study reveals ways that community members struggle to define the problem and work together as they gather, share, and understand data relevant to that problem. The authors argue that the primary goal of action research related to environmental risk should be to identify and support the strategies used by community members rather than to educate the public. The authors maintain that this approach must be supported by a thorough investigation of basic rhetorical issues (audience, genre, stases, invention), and they illustrate how they used this approach in their study.

Blythe, Stuart, Jeffrey T. Grabill and Kirk Riley. Journal of Business and Technical Communication (2008). Articles>Risk Communication>Community Building>Environmental


And Now, From the Company that Brought You the Seven-Eyed Trout: Risk Communication in Action   (PDF)

Risk communication is usually defined as an interactive process of exchanging information and opinions among individuals, groups, and institutions or agencies concerning a risk or potential risk to human health, safety, or the environment. It draws from established principles of sociology and psychology to communicate with hostile or frightened audiences about sensitive issues. The demonstration illustrates the most important principles of risk communication as they are applied to a fictitious community.

Durbin, Margaret E., Linnea E. Wahl, S.T. Molony, Susan Klein and Carol Wade. STC Proceedings (1993). Articles>Risk Communication


The Art of Risk Communication: Overcoming the Public Fear Surrounding Controversial Projects   (PDF)

Technical writers and editors in the environmental field can make additional contributions to the document production process by becoming familiar with risk communication principles. These principles can help us communicate more effectively with the public about controversial environmental projects, which are ever increasing. Considering the public's power to delay such projects, our ability to diminish public opposition through good risk communication skills is invaluable.

Barr, Christine R. STC Proceedings (1994). Articles>Risk Communication>Environmental>Writing


Avoiding Disasters with Better Communication  (link broken)   (PDF)

Many of the memoranda and letters related to the Chicago flood, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident and the Challenger and Columbia shuttle disasters that warned of impending disasters went unheeded. The reason: the writers failed to properly use various rhetorical features and conventions. They failed to include necessary information, omitted unnecessary detail, placed important information in inappropriate locations, used qualifiers to reduce perceptions of the consequences of actions, and failed to follow organizational conventions related to transmission of information. Their lack of knowledge of rhetorical strategies exacerbated the problems associated with the contexts in which the various documents were written, resulting in misunderstandings.

Boiarsky, Carolyn. STC Proceedings (2004). Articles>Scientific Communication>Risk Communication


The Bhopal Gas Tragedy: An Analysis  (link broken)

Around 1 a.m. on Monday, the 3rd of December, 1984, in a densely populated region in the city of Bhopal, Central India, a poisonous vapor burst from the tall stacks of the Union Carbide pesticide plant. This vapor was a highly toxic cloud of methyl isocyanate. Of the 800,000 people living in Bhopal at the time, 2,000 died immediately, and as many as 300,000 were injured. In addition, about 7,000 animals were injured, of which about one thousand were killed. After the incident, over the next few years, numerous studies were conducted, many theories were explored, and the involved parties accused each other. In this paper, I will try to explore the various causes offered for the tragedy. In the course of my research for this case study, I came across many articles that put blame on various people and groups involved in the tragedy. I found one document particularly interesting from a rhetorical standpoint. This document, titled Union Carbide: Disaster at Bhopal , was authored by the retired Vice President of Health, Safety and Environmental Programs in Union Carbide Corporation. So for this paper, I would also like to rhetorically analyze this document and also, try to explore the various image restoration strategies that Union Carbide Corporation used through the course of the crisis.

Ungarala, Pratima. Michigan Tech University (1998). Articles>TC>Risk Communication>Crisis Communication


Bird Flu: Communicating the Risk

Most people have already heard a little about bird flu. But people face a host of other problems, and except for public health officials and poultry farmers, few are gearing up for action about H5N1 [the virus that causes the flu]. Yet.

Sandman, Peter M. and Jody Lanard. Communication World Bulletin (2006). Articles>Risk Communication>Biomedical


Calling All Communication Professionals: Test Your Crisis Plan—Now

We are all well aware of the importance of a crisis communication plan. But many of us don't realize the necessity of conducting actual simulations to test and evaluate these plans. Whether you are on the corporate or agency side, there are countless forms of crisis that could interrupt business continuity for you and your client.

Moed, Ed. Communication World Bulletin (2006). Articles>Business Communication>Risk Communication


A Case Study of Health Risk Communication: What the Public Wants and What it Gets   (peer-reviewed)

The task of informing the public about various health risks is fraught with many problems. It is essential to overcome them if risk communication is to be improved. In 1989, the National Research Council (NRC) released a report that is important for many reasons. In particular, it helped establish a conceptual framework for risk communication and identified a research agenda to improve risk communication practices. One area of need identified by the report was better use of case studies to understand, e.g., 'how people react to different types of messages and channels; [and] what their actual concerns, frustrations, and data needs are' with regard to particular health risks.

Trauth, Jeannette M. Franklin Pierce Law Center (1994). Articles>Risk Communication>Biomedical


La Catastrofe del Trasbordador Espacial

El lamentable accidente del trasbordador Columbia ha propiciado la creación de innumerables gráficos para explicar lo que pasó. Revisamos la importancia de la visualización en este accidente y, especialmente, en el del Challenger en 1986.

Dursteler, Juan Carlos. InfoVis (2003). (Spanish) Articles>Risk Communication>Technical Illustration


Catastrophe Discourse in Microbiology, Its Rhetorical Form and Political Function   (peer-reviewed)   (members only)

Discourses evoking an antibiotic apocalypse and a war on superbugs are emerging just at a time when so-called "catastrophe discourses" are undergoing critical and reflexive scrutiny in the context of global warming and climate change. This article combines insights from social science research into climate change discourses with applied metaphor research based on recent advances in cognitive linguistics, especially with relation to "discourse metaphors." It traces the emergence of a new apocalyptic discourse in microbiology and health care, examines its rhetorical and political function and discusses its advantages and disadvantages. It contains a reply by the author of the central discourse metaphor, "the post-antibiotic apocalypse," examined in the article.

Nerlich, Brigitte and Richard James. Public Understanding of Science (2009). Articles>Scientific Communication>Biomedical>Risk Communication


Caution--Warning Ahead!   (members only)

Safety and warning notices form the most important elements of user information wherever safety and [product liability are concerned. A carefully thought out and systematic process is required in developing safety-relevant information, in order to increase the completeness and comprehensibility of product safety. This will also disarm any suspicion of gross negligence in internal documentation in case of missing safety notices and it will ensure traceability.

Schmeling, Roland. tekom (2006). Articles>Documentation>Risk Communication


Collaborative Invention Among Experts in an Interdisciplinary Context: The Creation of Written Discourse for Countermeasures to Biological and Chemical Threats   (PDF)   (peer-reviewed)

Programs in technical and scientific communication educate students from multiple disciplines. As we teach these students from various fields, we often assume they will write to others who are members of the same field. However, professionals commonly communicate across disciplinary boundaries and collaborate with those who do not necessarily belong to their field. We should rethink our approaches in teaching scientific and technical communication to consider how different peoplefrom different areas of expertise engage one another in a communication situation. Based on the understanding that different disciplinary cultures and languages alter contexts for communication, astudy examining how experts from science, engineering, mathematics, and architecture come together as a single group and collaboratively invent discourse can contribute to new knowledge to inform curriculum development.

Gooch, John C. CPTSC Proceedings (2001). Articles>Risk Communication>Collaboration


Communicating about Environmental Risk with Stakeholders  (link broken)   (PDF)

To explore the barriers to successful communication about environmental risks, a research project addressed the following questions: what do people understand about the terminology and the graphics used in risk messages? what sorts of communication modes and timing do people prefer? Surveys and focus groups were conducted in two towns to explore the level and types of risk (e.g leaking gas tanks) with which people are uncomfortable. The findings extend the discoveries of other environmental communication researchers: People are confused by regulatory language, they do not trust the government, and they want 'true stories,' credible witnesses, and face-to-face interaction with other stakeholders.

Hart, Hillary. STC Proceedings (2001). Articles>Risk Communication>Environmental>Civic


Communicating in a Crisis: Risk Communication Guidelines for Public Officials  (link broken)   (PDF)

Sound and thoughtful risk communication can assist public officials in preventing ineffective, fear-driven, and potentially damaging public responses to serious crises such as unusual disease outbreaks and bioterrorism. Moreover, appropriate risk communication procedures foster the trust and confidence that are vital in a crisis situation.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2002). Books>Risk Communication>Biomedical>Crisis Communication


Competing Conceptions of Risk

Risk issues are unarguably contentious. People evaluate risks in incompatible ways and propose conflicting proposals for mitigating or litigating risk issues. The sources of contention are multiple. Sometimes people differ because they have different information; sometimes they differ because they have incompatible interests. This paper addresses one of the more philosophical and systemic bases for differing opinions and approaches: The possibility that people have fundamentally or substantially different conceptions of risk. The philosophical basis for contention over risk is most evident in the scholarly and scientific literature. Experts who study risk or risk issues are more likely to develop well-defined, internally consistent conceptions of risk than members of the lay public. If distinct philosophical and linguistic presumptions underlie competing conceptions of risk, it should be possible to formulate the contentiousness over alternatives in terms of a principled philosophical debate, with implications for risk analysis, risk evaluation and risk communication.

Thompson, Paul B. and Wesley Dean. Franklin Pierce Law Center (1996). Articles>Risk Communication>Rhetoric


A Consideration of the Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident as Apologia  (link broken)

The Rogers report seems to be more than just a report to explain the Challenger accident and give suggestions to avoid a similar tragedy occurring in the future. In a sense, it appears to be a type of apologia. On January 28, 1986 the Space Shuttle Challenger, mission 51-L, launched from Florida's Kennedy Air force Base at 11:38 a.m. Eastern Stand ard Time. As the country watched in disbelief, the shuttle disintegrated 73 seconds later in an explosion of hydrogen and oxygen. All seven crew members died. On February 3, President Reagan issued an executive order to set up a commission to investigate the challenger accident. The commission was sworn in on February 6, and presented its report to the president on June 6 of the same year. This report, commonly known as the Rogers Report, after its chairman William R. Roger, had a dual mandate from the president. First to look at the probable causes of the accident, and second, to develop recommendations for corrective action. This was done through a comprehensive investigation involving all of the following: interviews with more than 160 people, more than 35 formal panel investigations, examination of more than 6,300 documents (which included hundreds of photographs and more then 122,000 pages), the generation of almost 12,000 pages of transcript and another 2,800 pages of hearing transcripts.

Holombo, Chrystal. Michigan Tech University (1998). Articles>Technology>Risk Communication>Engineering


Consumer Attitudes and the Governance of Food Safety   (peer-reviewed)   (members only)

This paper reports the analysis of a recent study of public perception of food safety governance in Spain, using genetically modified (GM) foods as an indicator. The data make clear that Spanish food consumers are aware of their rights and role in the marketplace. They are critical of current regulatory decision making, which they perceive to be unduly influenced by certain social actors, such as industry. In contrast, consumers demand decisions to be based primarily on scientific opinion, as well as consumer preferences. They want authorities to facilitate informed purchasing decisions, and favor labeling of GM foods mostly on the grounds of their right to know. However, consumers' actual level of knowledge with respect to food technology and food safety remains low. There are several ambivalences as to the real impact of these attitudes on actual consumer behavior (specifically when it comes to organizing themselves or searching out background information).

Todt, Oliver, Emilio Muñoz, Marta González, Gloria Ponce and Betty Estévez. Public Understanding of Science (2009). Articles>Scientific Communication>Biomedical>Risk Communication


Corporate Risk Reporting: A Content Analysis of Narrative Risk Disclosures in Prospectuses   (peer-reviewed)   (members only)

This study examines whether companies report risk-relevant information to prospective investors. While corporate risk communication is important for the well-functioning of capital markets, our current understanding of risk reporting practices is limited. The sample consists of Dutch companies raising capital on the Amsterdam Stock Exchange in the late 1990s. In this setting, companies had much discretion in writing the risk section of the prospectus. After a detailed content analysis of the risk sections, the author demonstrates that a measure of risk extracted from these texts successfully predicts the volatility of companies' future stock prices, the sensitivity of future stock prices to market-wide fluctuations, as well as severe declines in future stock prices. Overall, these results support the view that prospectuses of Dutch companies provide adequate information about material investment risks.

Deumes, Rogier. JBC (2008). Articles>Business Communication>Financial>Risk Communication


Crafting a Crisis Communication Plan

In the wake of the tragic Virginia Tech shootings, it is time to ask a few serious and potentially life-saving questions about crisis communication and the plans that either exist, or don't exist, where we work.

Braud, Gerard. Communication World Bulletin (2007). Articles>Business Communication>Risk Communication>Crisis Communication


Crisis Management—Don’t Forget the People

In the past, business continuity and crisis management focused on tangible assets, especially post-crisis recovery of systems and data and reestablishment of facilities and services. This all changed in the aftermath of 9/11, when it became obvious that the human factor was as critical as the technology and the buildings. Watching the suffering of the people affected by the Madrid bombings has reinforced the need to ensure your contingency plans address the people involved.

Perl, David. Communication World Bulletin (2004). Articles>Business Communication>Risk Communication>Crisis Communication


Deciding the Future: Balancing Risks, Costs, and Benefits Fairly Across Generations   (PDF)

Explanations are presented of four principles for intergenerational decision-making and initial guidelines for application: trustee principle, sustainability principle, chain of obligation principle, and precautionary principle. The principles need to be used as a set and include certain actions and public discussions under specific circumstances. Some examples are: comprehensive analysis of possible risks and beneficial or damaging consequences of actions, public discussion of the results of these analyses with those who may be significantly affected before decisions are made, and continuous examination of actions or decisions taken by previous generations to evaluate their continued validity and making adjustments if previous decisions are no longer valid.

U.S. Department of Energy (1997). Articles>Risk Communication>Assessment


Decision Analysis and Risk Management: Two Sides of the Same Coin   (members only)

Every decision involves an analysis of possible future events (costs, outcomes, markets, etc.) and selection of a choice among competing alternatives. Making a decision is making a selection. This white paper will provide you with an outline of how to judge the quality of decisions by exploring how effectively the risks associated with various options have been analyzed.

Egan, Brian Denis. Global Knowledge (2006). Articles>Management>Risk Communication>Business Communication


Designing Alarms and Alerts

Is your design resistant to failure? If a worst case occurs, can the user recover and regain trust in your solution? This article explores the case of warnings, alerts and alarms, and provides an introduction to the important factors in gaining user attention to failures or critical events – and how to deal with them. As designers, we all would like to focus on the “happy trail” through our system; but as many users will tell you, annoyances and obstacles to a pleasurable user experience is how a system handles errors and important events out of the ordinary.

Michelsen, Mikkel. Johnny Holland (2010). Articles>User Interface>Risk Communication>Technical Illustration


The Desirability Paradox in the Effects of Media Literacy Training   (peer-reviewed)   (members only)

This study examines a paradox in findings regarding the effects of media literacy training on adolescents' decision making about tobacco use. Recent experiments have found that media literacy training successfully reduced participants' beliefs associated with risky behavior, whereas at the same time, their positive affect toward individuals portrayed in advertising increased. Study results confirm the hypothesis that media literacy training changes the way individuals think about the desirability of portrayals in the media. Although desirability usually represents individuals' affect toward portrayals, reports gathered after media literacy training also appear to reflect participants' increased awareness of the efforts made by advertisers to produce attractive portrayals designed to sell products and services. This awareness reduces or eliminates the impact that positive affect otherwise would have on decision making. Because this analysis suggests that individuals may respond to survey questions differently depending on their level of skill or involvement, the results raise important issues regarding issues of reliability and validity that may extend well beyond tests of this theoretical model or particular evaluation.

Austin, Erica Weintraub, Bruce E. Pinkleton and Ruth Patterson Funabiki. Communication Research (2007). Articles>Education>Scientific Communication>Risk Communication



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