Public involvement: the key to successfully communicating risk

Whether the risk exists or not, risk communication has become an essential form of communication in agriculture and bioscience. According to the World Health Organization, “Risk Communication is any purposeful exchange of information about risks between interested parties.” Common risks faced in bioscience and agriculture often relate to the safety of emerging technologies. Risk messages are common, especially in medicine. Does the phrase “risk of a heart attack is 15%” sound familiar? There are many important factors to consider when communicating risk such as the actual risk and data involved, distribution of information and public concern.

Haroon Ahmed, et al. (2012) writes in the British Medical Journal that the presentation of data uncertainty is one of the most difficult aspects of risk communication. However, it is better to acknowledge uncertainty when communicating risk to the public instead of spreading misinformation. Explain the uncertainty in the risk if there is any. If there isn’t, explain in an understandable way what science and research led to this conclusion. In the case of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), mitigate the concern of risk by pointing the consumer towards studies such as the Snell, et al. (2012) study in the Food and Chemical Toxicology journal that examines 12 long-term studies proving the safety of GMOs.

When distributing risk communication information ensure the public is involved. Legitimately and honestly describe the risk to the public in an understandable way. As a communicator, always be open to discussing all issues. When the public perceives a risk, and the technology is proven to be beneficial and safe don’t discredit the concern. Instead, address the public concern and share credible sources and studies to ensure there is not risk. When it comes to research and numbers, always be clear and explain all parts of the study. Numbers without context do more harm than good. Lastly, when dealing with a potential risk technology always coordinate and comply with the media, providing accurate and trustworthy information.

Always keep in mind that risk involves unknown and unfamiliar threats to consumers. Be sensitive to these concerns when communicating the science or threat of risks.

Always keep in mind that risk involves unknown and unfamiliar threats to consumers. Be sensitive to these concerns when communicating the science or threat of risks. Communicating risk can often be difficult when the risk is controlled by others, like GMOs or CRISRP gene editing. Consumers are often more sensitive to this risk because of developed mistrust of corporations. For strategies to alleviate mistrust in new agriculture technologies, the strategies in my recent blog post on communication GMOs can be repurposed for similar developing technologies. Use credible scientific sources to gain trust with consumers.

One strategy to mitigate pubic concern about risks it to offer consumer choices whenever possible. This strategy has recently been employed by Cargill as they begin to work with the non-GMO project to offer more choices in the products. However, because organizations like the non-GMO project often spread misinformation and fear, other steps should be taken to gain public trust with the technologies.

Further information on developing a risk communication plan can be found here.


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