Communication for Action at UR2016

At the Understanding Risk 2016 conference in Venice, BBC Media Action, King’s College London, and Resurgence organised a session on Communication for Action: What’s Needed? The session drew on the experiences of researchers and practitioners who are actively involved in risk communication.

Emma Visman, Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King’s College London, began the session highlighting that the gap in communicating knowledge is not new – this has been something that we have had difficulty in implementing for a long time. But we seem not to be learning our lessons. She gave several reasons for this behaviour – there are a lack of opportunities for sharing learning, there is no reward for sharing failure, and there is a lack of risk communication as part of science training. She went on to outline some advice to help with this communication gap: regular sharing of lessons – including what did and did not work, the need for a two-way communication process, at all levels, scientists need to understand the needs of the users of the outcomes, and people at risk require a seat at the table to have a voice in decisions.

Diagram attributed to Emma Visman’s presentation in UR2016 session

Mark Harvey, CEO of Resurgence, then walked us through two examples of communication in disaster situations. The first was in Srinagar, Kashmir, where an assessment was carried out in 2010 warning of likely inundation in five years related to unplanned development in risk areas. However, this warning did not reach the public health department or the public, and in 2014 300 people died from flooding. The second example was from Myanmar – in 2008 there was vital information on the likelihood of landfall of Typhoon Nargis, but there was poor communication of the risk, referring to it as a “rainstorm”, and a lack of communication via radio (the main source of information for many poorer or rural communities). As a result of the Typhoon, 84,500 people were killed and 53,800 went missing. However, in 2015, Myanmar’s radio station regularly communicated the progress of Typhoon Komen and flooding risks with BBC Media Action, including guidance on how to prepare and respond. As a result, the impacts were less devastating than in 2008, with approximately 100 people killed.

Srinagar and Myanmar
Photos attributed to Mark Harvey’s presentation in UR2016 session.

Allan Vera from Christian Aid focused on a case study of urban resilience in the Philippines. Communities in urban areas at risk from natural hazards felt blamed for their risks, were prohibited return to their homes post-disasters, felt like powerless victims, and did not want to move away from their source of livelihoods despite the risks they faced (and if they were forced to move, they were then exposed to natural hazards they had no previous experience with). Due to a loophole in the law, urban dwellers risk eviction without the recourse of challenge in the face of disaster risks, and as such there is a prolific lack of investment in housing and risk reduction measures. To tackle this, Christian Aid focused on building trust by settling organisers to live within the community, initiating informal conversations about risks, mentoring leaders, encouraging grass-root groups and building leadership skills such as debate and disaster risk management knowledge. The project built confidence and trust within the community, and later, scientists were welcomed into the community to discuss the risks the community faced through workshops. Overall, the approach lead to disaster risk reduction strategies aligned with the community needs and wishes.

Photo attributed to Allan Vera’s presentation on community organisation in the Philippines in UR2016 session.

Lisa Robinson from BBC Media Action finished the round of presentations with some advice on how to communicate risk to enable action:

Know your target audience.

If you address everyone, you address no one. Therefore, figure out who you are targeting and focus your energies on communicating what they need in a way they will understand. Also, understand their motivations to communicate effectively. For example, a study found people were ignoring evacuation advice because they were returning home to save their pets. By communicating an evacuation plan that included their pets, people were more likely to evacuate.

Know what you want to change.

Identify the problem that you want to change. Identify what help you need to achieve those changes. Realise there is a process between knowing information and behaviour change. For example, most people who smoke know that it is bad for their health. But this does not change their behaviour. We need to understand the process between information and change to reach the end goal of change.

Be engaging.

Good intentions are not enough to bring about action. As a communicator, your job is to make it interesting so the end-user will pay attention. Change cannot be made without starting a conversation. So start the conversation.

lisa robinson
Image attributed to Lisa Robinson’s presentation in UR2016 session.

Communicating Risk and Hazard to Policy Makers

At the UCL IRDR 5th Annual Conference this year, Sir Mark Walport, Chief Scientific Adviser to HM Government, gave a presentation on communicating risk and hazard to policy makers. He summarized the challenges and common pitfalls that scientists often come across, and gave advice on how to look at the issue in a more mutually-beneficial way.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

– George Bernard Shaw

Put yourself in their shoes

He began by pointing out that from the policy makers point of view, they do not have the expertise or time to research particular topics, which is where expert scientists and advisers come in. Scientists are employed to do the research and then communicate it in such a way to help the policy makers make decisions. The first thing to remember is that policy makers have time commitments, which means that scientists need to communicate risk quickly and clearly, particularly in an emergency situation. They are intelligent people, but they won’t necessarily have your expertise, so conveying the information in a simple (but not overly simple way) is necessary. They understand the concept of uncertainty, error, and risk, so these issues do not need to be swept under the carpet, but don’t need to be explained in such a detailed way as you would in an academic paper. Policy makers are also different. So they may prefer different means of communication – therefore be prepared to explain things in a variety of medium.

What’s important?

Another key point to keep in mind is to think about what your audience cares about, and then translate your information into a way which is relevant for them. For example, the government is primarily concerned with the health, wellbeing, security, and resilience of the population, followed by economic advantages to the country. Think about how the information you have will impact on those things they care about, and convey that information. There is always a risk with trying to convey all the information you have ever gathered on the topic all at once – this is trying to boil the ocean. You will lose their interest. Instead, tell them only what is relevant for them to make a decision. The other information is not wasted – it has increased your understanding of the topic, and will provide a good back-up store of information should it be needed in the future.



There is often a confusion in the terms used by scientists, compared to policy makers (and even compared to “normal” human language). Scientists are renowned for having a specific definition of every term they use. Indeed, that is how science works, it requires careful and systematic labeling and defining of things, to avoid confusion and ideally to allow for better understanding of precisely what you mean. Ironically, in the non-science world, this can lead to misunderstanding if the exact terms are not fully understood, or are completely different to those used by the other party. Use of a common language, or at least awareness of the differences is needed, to be able to communicate effectively. Scientific precision needs to be balanced with the need to be understood by non-specialists.

Scientific concern vs public attitudes

The policy maker is not a scientist. Their concern is not making decisions solely on the scientific evidence. If it was, they would be scientists. Instead, policy makers need to balance a range of demands, including (but not limited to) public attitudes, economic implications, international relations, and scientific evidence. So scientists need to realise that they’re not have the same conversation. For example, the majority of the scientific evidence suggests nuclear power is low risk, it also suggests hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is low risk. However, the majority of public attitudes are against having a nuclear power plant or a fracking station in their back yard. Policy makers have to balance the scientific evidence with the public attitudes (etc) before they make a decision.

Differences in values

There is confusion often when science turns into advocacy. This is often experienced in the Environmental Sciences, probably because we are passionate about our topics. But we need to recognise that our values may not be the same as other people’s values. Things in this world are rarely black-and-white. Whilst science strives to define and logically evaluate evidence in an objective manor, we must remember that the non-science world is hugely subjective and opinionated. Scientists can help to provide evidence and guidance on topics, but must remember that ultimately, decisions are rarely made in policy based solely on the science.

Our job is to try to communicate that evidence in such a way that the message gets through as clearly and with as much impact as possible. By developing our communication skills, hopefully we can better influence and advise those whose job it is to make the decisions.