Risk Communication

The terms risk and crisis communication are often used interchangeably. However, the point of risk communication is to avoid crises. Risk communication is forward-looking in that it identifies, in advance, situations where decision-making is required in the face of uncertainty.

- Julie M. Smith, DVM, PhD, University of Vermont

Risk communication is the exchange of information about risks. What are risks? Risk refers to the uncertainty of danger, hazard or exposure to peril that we face every day. The possibility of a disease outbreak on a farm is a definite risk while raising livestock. At its best, risk communication is “an open, two-way exchange of information and opinion about risk leading to better understanding and better risk management decisions” (Army Corps of Engineers, 2012). Risk communication is a dialog.

This type of communication is important for any situation that might lead to a crisis. The plan should be part of a farm plan process and include strategies—depending on the scope of a biosecurity issue—for how a situation will be explained to all relevant stakeholders (employees, service providers, customers, government officials, the general public etc.), and how the communications are being received and understood by these groups.

Be Prepared to Answer Questions

Chicken with virulent Newcastle disease

Chicken with virulent Newcastle Disease. Photo source: USDA APHIS

One sick animal may not constitute a crisis, but several sick animals and carcasses visible in a field will get public attention. Know where the risks are on your farm for the introduction of infectious disease agents, and practice effective, every day biosecurity methods to reduce those risks. If a disease outbreak occurs—especially if it is a regulated or foreign animal disease that will involve working with regulatory agencies—be prepared to talk with everyone you do business with about ongoing efforts to contain and eliminate the disease.

The communication "dialog" may take place in person, via email, during telephone calls, on social media, or an interview with the news media. It is best to consider how you would communicate within all of these "channels".

The Rumor Mill

Two farmers walking along a field

Photo source: USDA New Farmers

Being prepared to answer questions honestly and accurately is a skill in itself. You don't need to be a media personality to be successful, but anticipating how your business will respond to a crisis should be thought about ahead of time and documented.

When new diseases emerge, the boundaries of science are challenged. These challenges are a breeding ground for rumors.  To minimize the likelihood of rumors developing, everything should be done to ensure public and animal safety and to limit the spread of the disease to people and among animals. In addition, special attention should be given to assuring the public that everything is being done to accomplish these tasks.

Public perception of the overall effectiveness of response to a disease outbreak is often created in the early phases of the response, when interest and attention is highest. These impressions can last long after the crisis. Therefore, any delay in conveying a competent and reassuring message to the public about a disease outbreak could have long-lasting negative impacts on public perception.

Seven Rules of Risk Communication

The "rules" below are recommendations for communicating with the public about risks and crises. Adapt these rules for the farm, when you might need to keep people informed about an emerging or emergency situation with public implications.

  • Accept and involve the public as a legitimate partner

    • Clarify that decisions about risks will be based not only on the magnitude of the risk but on factors of concern to the stakeholders.
    • Involve all parties that have an interest or a stake in the particular risk in question.
    • Recognize that people hold leaders accountable; follow the highest moral and ethical standards.

  • Listen to the audience

    • Do not make assumptions about what people know, think, or want done about risks.
    • Listen to all parties that have an interest or a stake in the issue.
    • Identify with the audience and try to put yourself in their place.
    • Recognize people’s emotions.
    • Let people know that you understand concerns and are addressing them.
    • Understand audiences often have hidden agendas, symbolic meanings, and broader social, cultural, economic, or political considerations that complicate the task.

  • Be honest, frank, and open

    • State credentials, but do not ask or expect to be trusted by the public and stakeholders.
    • Express willingness to follow up with answers if the question cannot be answered at the time speaking.
    • Make corrections if errors are made.
    • Disclose risk information as soon as possible, emphasizing appropriate reservations about reliability.
    • Do not minimize or exaggerate the level of risk.
    • Lean toward sharing more information, not less, to prevent people from thinking something significant is being hidden.
    • Discuss data uncertainties, strengths, and weaknesses, including the ones identified by other credible sources.
    • Identify worst-case estimates and cite ranges of risk estimates when appropriate.

  • Coordinate and collaborate with other credible sources

    • Devote effort and resources to the slow, hard work of recovery, partnerships, and alliances with other producers.
    • Use credible and authoritative intermediaries.
    • Consult with others to determine who is best able to answer questions about risk.
    • Try to release communications jointly with other trustworthy sources.

  • Meet the needs of the media

    • Remain open with, and accessible to, reporters.
    • Respect deadlines.
    • Provide information tailored to the needs of each type of media, such as sound bites, graphics and other visual aids for television.
    • Agree with the reporter in advance about specific topics and stick to those during the interview.
    • Prepare a limited number of positive key messages in advance and repeat the messages several times during the interview.
    • Provide background material on complex risk issues.
    • Do not speculate.
    • Say only those things that you are willing to have repeated. Everything you say in an interview is on record.
    • Keep interviews short and follow up on stories with praise or criticism, as warranted.
    • Establish long-term trust relationships with specific editors and reporters.

  • Speak clearly with compassion

    • Use plain language.
    • Remain sensitive to local norms, such as speech and dress.
    • Strive for brevity, but respect people’s needs and offer to provide more information if needed.
    • Use graphics and other pictorial material to clarify messages.
    • Personalize risk data by using anecdotes that make technical data come alive.
    • Acknowledge and respond to emotions that people express, such as anxiety, fear, anger, outrage, and helplessness.
    • Recognize and respond to what the public deems as important in evaluating risks.
    • Use comparisons to help put risks in perspective.
    • Avoid comparisons that ignore distinctions that people consider important.
    • Include a discussion of actions that are either underway or can be taken.
    • Promise only what can be delivered.
    • Follow through with promises and commitments.

  • Plan carefully and evaluate performance

    • Begin with clear, explicit objectives.
    • Provide information to the public.
    • Offer reassurance that something is being done.
    • Encourage protective action and behavior change.
    • Stimulate emergency response.
    • Involve partners, businesses and colleagues in dialogue and joint problem solving.
    • Assess technical information about risks. Know its strengths and weaknesses.
    • Pretest messages.
    • Identify important organizations and subgroups within the audience.
    • Aim communications at specific groups and subgroups in the audience.
    • Recruit spokespersons with effective presentation and human interaction skills.
    • Train staff, including technical staff, in communication skills.
    • Recognize and reward outstanding performance.
    • Evaluate efforts and learn from mistakes.

Seven Rules Content Source
From EPA’s Seven Cardinal Rules of Risk Communication, adapted for the Kansas Cattle Feedyard Biosecurity Guide. Retrieved from https://agriculture.ks.gov/divisions-programs/division-of-animal-health/animal-diseases/biosecurity-resources

Respond: Disease Containment

Responding to a disease outbreak on the farm requires containing the spread.