How to manage risk and uncertainty when communicating

Risk and uncertainty is inherent in most research projects. Much of the information generated by research is not absolute and may change as new information emerges. This makes it difficult for researchers to communicate with people other than their peers and colleagues. This is especially true when communicating with government decision makers about controversial issues. Researchers want to give fool-proof information to maintain their credibility, while others need to make decisions on the best available information. So it’s important to plan how you communicate risk and uncertainty. It requires you to carefully design messages and develop an open and transparent process.

Why it’s hard to communicate uncertainty

Technical data can be complex

Research related to areas such as risk assessment is often complex and difficult to express in simple language. For example, it often involves probabilities or management options that are hard to interpret in terms of risk.

Science does not progress without ‘disagreements’

When there is scientific uncertainty or ‘risk’, there is usually also scientific disagreement about the level of risk or the interpretation of the data. The problem is compounded by the general perception of people that science is ‘always right’.

The peer review process takes time

The traditional process of peer review means that scientists are generally unwilling to communicate their research without the data being accepted by accredited colleagues. This can delay the communication of important data and increase the level of concern and conflict for those affected by, involved or interested in the issue.

7 tips for communicating ‘uncertain’ technical information

  1. Find out what people want to know - What you think is important and what others think is important may differ greatly. While it is important to communicate information you consider critical, you need to consider the concerns of people who are in involved in, affected by or interested in your research.
  2. Acknowledge uncertainties - This will help your long-term credibility and help to educate people about the nature of scientific research.
  3. Put information into perspective - It is important not to raise expectations beyond what can be delivered and to not minimise risks. People need enough information to feel confident in making their own decisions.
  4. Release information early - Delays in releasing critical information can lead to:
    • uninformed decision making by affected groups/individuals
    • cover-up claims and subsequent loss of credibility
    • the build up of prejudiced attitudes or emotions
    • reactive communication strategies
  5. Take care when simplifying information - Maintain a fine balance between providing too much complex information and too little.
  6. LISTEN - It is as important to listen to target groups and understand their perceptions, concerns and needs as it is to inform them.
  7. Interact - Avoiding interaction with interested or affected individuals/groups is a recipe for trouble. Involve them early and consult them regularly.

Principles of risk communication

  • Involve people early

Early involvement shows your commitment to the needs and concerns of people involved in the issue. It demonstrates that research is relevant to them. Be proactive in your communication efforts.

  • Group those you want to communicate with

Divide into groups those who are involved in, affected by or interested in the issue. This makes it easier for you to understand particular needs and concerns while identifying specific communication channels to each group.

  • Clarify roles at the beginning

Do not promise people the opportunity to provide input and then ask them to ratify your proposals/research results. Clearly define roles together with those you are communicating with.

  • Clarify involvement preferences

Find out what type of involvement people prefer. Work with them to develop a process for their participation which they are comfortable with.

  • Plan carefully

To integrate participation with organizational timelines, you need a comprehensive strategy, a detailed plan and clear timelines.

  1. Deal with internal concerns - Participation programs can lead to increased tension with internal political sensitivities. Deal with internal organizational/project concerns before they become a major stumbling block to the process.
  2. Personal contacts - Develop personal contacts and use face-to-face communication tactics - they are essential to the success of any participation program.
  3. Use the expertise and knowledge of others - Encourage and actively use community/industry advisory groups. Bring them into the decision-making process. Focus on people with special expertise. For example, a local educator may help develop an educational plan for the community.
  4. Develop a team approach - No one individual or group can manage all the aspects of an issue/problem. Recognise and encourage input from all sectors.
  5. Keep processes open - Secret decisions or research can create negative feelings and lead to loss of credibility. Make every effort to create an ‘us’ and ‘our’ approach to research and policy development and avoid a ‘them’ and ‘us’ division. Be honest.
  6. Use consensus approaches - Consensus groups work on the principle that all viewpoints are considered. They avoid compromise decisions in favour of a shared vision and are particularly powerful when:
    • local groups/communities are involved
    • there is shared commitment
    • an external facilitator is used to start the process
    • all the groups/individuals involved are willing and able to commit a large amount of time to the process
  7. Use conflict as a tool - Resist trying to reach consensus on all issues. Conflict can open up dialogue and raise the profile of an important issue.
  8. Recognise values and feelings - Recognise that people's values and feelings are a legitimate aspect of any issue, and may convey valuable information, such as:
    • what is important to people
    • technical aspects of the issue
    • creative approaches for resolving the issue
  9. Use surveys - You can use surveys as both a research and participation tool. They help practitioners to:
    • actively seek input
    • find out about public opinion
    • explain decisions (based on survey results) to special interest groups
    • explain decisions (based on survey results) to the public through the mass media
  10. Use monitoring efforts - You can effectively involve groups in research and monitoring efforts.
  11. Be less bureaucratic - Informal meetings and simply-written materials will help to convey a sense of openness that will help the participation process.
  12. Respond to input - If you solicit input, be prepared to respond to that input and to explain your response.
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