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A risk communication taxonomy for environmental health.

Many excellent references are available for risk communication training (1-5), but practitioners are also interested in summaries of these techniques. This paper presents a taxonomy of risk communication to help meet this need. It is a quick reminder, rather than complete training, and it cannot replace professional experience. A more important reason for this taxonomy, however, is that our profession needs a framework for incorporating the expanding literature of risk communication. Thus, this taxonomy is intended to serve the dual purpose of reference guide and framework for further development.

There is some degree of controversy over the proper framework for viewing risk communication research. Some researchers believe that two schools of thought are emerging: cognitive models (6) and planning models (7). While these two frameworks are not mutually exclusive, this paper emphasizes the latter framework and relies on a traditional model (8) that divides communication into four parts: a source sends a message to a receiver through various channels. Sources and receivers can be individuals or groups. Channels include television, newspapers, public meetings, and a growing number of approaches. The most crucial point here is that good risk communication is more than a clever message--it is an interactive exchange that depends on all the model elements (1).

This taxonomy adds a second dimension based on traditional management operations: planning, organizing, staffing, directing, and control (8). In this taxonomy, planning emphasizes the commitment to clear, consistent objectives. Organization focuses on legal, social, and political roles in risk communication. Staffing considers the needs of individuals both inside and outside the organization. Directing considers the leadership, experimentation, and negotiation that is essential for progress. Control is primarily concerned with evaluation methods.

Figure 1 shows the numbering system for this taxonomy, and Figure 2 incorporates this numbering system into a taxonomy of problems and strategies for risk communication. Figure 2 is largely self-explanatory, but the following sections of this paper (with numbers corresponding to Figures 1 and 2) provide commentary on the taxonomy. The appropriate context for Figure 2 should include two major warnings. First, risk communication techniques are labeled as strategies, not solutions. This is in deference to the art of risk communication. A mechanical application of these techniques will not solve every risk communication problem; indeed, no approach can guarantee such results in risk communication. Second, some of the strategies in Figure 2 may seem simplistic. However, they are intended to be quick reminders of techniques documented in the literature. Further readings for each of the problems and strategies are listed in Appendix 1.

Source Issues

1A. Planning. This category recognizes that a pro-active approach to risk communication requires careful planning. However, one of the biggest problems in planning is to establish the need for risk communication. It can be tempting to bypass different publics on difficult technical decisions. Nevertheless, publics should be respected for their political power. A healthy respect for this power is a practical starting point to establishing the need for risk communication. This concept is formally recognized in various right-to-know laws (5)

All too often, professionals misunderstand or disagree about the actual objectives of risk communication. This is crucial, because objectives help define the success of risk communication. For example, most objectives in environmental health are not simply to inform, but to change behavior (a far more difficult task). Also, a growing number of risk communication issues (especially where laws are vague) place environmental health professionals in a negotiation context. The selection of strategies depends on our objectives.

Time pressures seem to be a universal problem. The recommendation to "plan ahead" may appear too convenient of this taxonomy, but a never-ending series of crisis deadlines is often a symptom of poor planning.

1B. Roles. This category emphasizes the need to clarify the roles of environmental health professionals in risk communication. For example, it is especially important to explain the legal limits of our professional roles. Also, we play a social role in addressing the emotional concerns of different publics. Most experts believe it helps to acknowledge other's emotions and even to show some of your own emotions. Examples and anecdotes in explaining statutes and regulations can be especially effective. Of course, every role should have enough authority to match the assigned responsibilities.

1C. Staffing. A common problem of younger staff is credibility. However, anyone can encounter this problem, and the advice is universal--enlist other credible sources. This may include a careful documentation of existing codes and technical literature. It should also include other professionals. Personal pride may keep us from relying on other individuals, but we should see ourselves as part of a professional network.

Although environmental health professionals are as skillful at risk communication as many of the purported experts, there are various ways to build on this expertise. Organizational policies and procedures in risk communication should guide agency actions. Indeed, this taxonomy may help define specific policies tailored to the needs of an organization. In addition, a small library can form the basis for developing seminars with case studies. Accompaniment by a senior member on difficult cases can also increase expertise.

1D. Leadership. This category emphasizes special needs for leadership in risk communication. For example, the media often want answers when an investigation is underway but incomplete. If an agency allows different members to speak with the media (or to critical groups), this often leads to so-called "conflicting reports" (real or imagined). Such a situation calls for effective leadership. Even when conflict in an organization is genuine, a wise approach is to appoint a single credible spokesperson on the most sensitive issues. Honest debate should still proceed, but it weakens the entire agency when it is labeled "conflicting reports." For potential conflicts among agencies, individuals should be appointed to coordinate with various authorities.

1E. Evaluation. To improve risk communication, it is necessary to have a clear evaluation of strengths and weaknesses in an organization. If professionals have a positive approach to risk communication, there are various techniques for evaluating risk communication skills (9). Based on these evaluations, training can be tailored to individuals and organizations.

Message Issues

2A. Planning. Organizational objectives can have a subtle influence on risk messages. For example, there is no universally accepted definition of risk! It is defined differently among organizations and individuals, depending on their objectives. Thus, it is crucial to state assumptions made about risk. Most publics are more interested in the qualitative aspects of risk (especially outrage factors) (4). By anticipating these factors in risk messages, outrage may be reduced.

2B. Roles. Although it is not always presented in this fashion, messages are intended to fill certain roles. When those roles are misunderstood, a variety of problems can arise. For example, in the search to place risk in a proper context, it is tempting to make comparisons with other known risks such as smoking, driving, or flying a plane. Research tells us to be extremely cautious about risk comparison (2). When risk comparisons do work, the role or intent of the comparison is usually well understood. The most acceptable approaches include comparisons with legal standards. The worst examples are those that imply the acceptability of a risk (for example, risks compared to smoking may imply that smokers should be forced to accept risks that are less than smoking).

Uncertainty also plays a major role in our messages. Morbidity and mortality can rarely be predicted with absolute certainty. Even when people demand absolute answers, we must acknowledge this uncertainty by explaining data gaps, levels of confidence, and expert disagreements. That is our professional role. In return, professionals are often accorded specific legal authority for their expert opinion. For example, environmental health professionals can embargo food stored at improper temperatures before proving microbial contamination. Thus, uncertainty does not preclude action. While this is open to legal cross-examination, recent research supports the use of expert opinion--it can even out-perform computer programs (10).

2C. Staffing. Environmental health professional s have their own jargon. For written communications, computer programs can reduce jargon (commercially available programs include Right Writer and Grammatik). For the spoken language, observing successful risk communicators can also help.

Even when jargon is removed, complex scientific concepts are part of many environmental health issues. A supporting document (sometimes called a "white paper") that includes definitions and explanations can help. Brochures and fact sheets are also part of the same strategy.

2D. Leadership. There is some controversy about what constitutes a complete risk message. Therefore, leaders should be responsible for defining a complete risk message. Most experts agree that risk messages should include practical actions for individuals (what would you do when faced with this risk?) and legal context (what agencies can and cannot do). Other considerations usually include estimates of benefits as well as risks, the uncertainty of these benefits and risks, and different measures of risks (11).

2E. Evaluation. Biased messages may never be eliminated, but they can be controlled by independent evaluation of risk communication. Thus, peer review is as essential for risk communication as it is for risk assessments. Within an organization, authors should be accountable for their writing.

Channel Issues

3A. Planning. Long-term planning is vital for improving media relations. In the short term, everyone is vulnerable to unfair news reports. However, a different picture emerges when long-term development is considered. By considering media needs (especially deadlines) and responding favorably to fair reports (sometimes with a quick phone call to the reporter), media relationships can gradually improve.

3B. Roles. A primary role of the media is to sell their product. Journalists may be accused of sensationalizing risks, but the elements of death, politics, and scandal continue to sell newspapers. That is why we must study what makes a story newsworthy. By anticipating the most volatile aspects of a story, these problems can be addressed before they escalate. While this will not eliminate sensationalism, research repeatedly shows this to be far more effective than reacting to a crisis.

3C. Staffing. A communication breakdown occurs when people do not receive needed information, or they simply do not believe the channel of information. In emergency situations, it is especially important to provide staff for confirmation needs. Sometimes a "1-800" number is useful. Other times it is simply a matter of providing multiple channels for the same information (for example, telephone, brochures, and T.V.).

3D. Leadership. The choice of proper channels (large meetings, numerous small meetings, television, and so on) is becoming even more challenging with emerging technologies, such as e-mail (12). It will take leadership to experiment with these technologies to determine the most effective channels for a particular organization. In general, the large, public meeting is not the best channel for conveying technical information.

3E. Evaluation. Inaccurate news reports can be damaging, even if they are not sensationalized. By evaluating what the members of the media know (it varies), background material can be provided to help improve accuracy. With consistent follow-up on reports, inaccuracies can be reduced.

Receiver Issues

4A. Planning. How can we know the objectives of different audiences? In highly publicized events, the answers can be very explicit. However, the opposite problem of apathy is perhaps more serious. How do we get people concerned about significant risks? The key is to listen to the audience. We can attract attention by addressing their concerns, objectives, and misconceptions. This is central to the cognitive models approach. Careful listening is at the heart of understanding the receiver.

For example, a macro-objective applies to society, and it is typically the work of agency officials. A micro-objective, however, is an individual's objectives. When agency officials talk to individuals about risk, policies should always be related to individual actions; specifically, always prepare an answer to the question, "What would you do?" If time pressures are inherent to the job, a common mistake is to overload people with information. This weakens overall comprehension.

4B. Roles. If various publics do not trust government officials, our educational role is weakened. Dishonesty (perceived or real) is the biggest destroyer of trust. In a multicultural society, there are limits to how much speakers can identify with audiences by norms of dress, language, and behavior. Still, within reason this approach can also help.

4C. Staffing. Studies continually show that most audiences have poor listening skills. By repeating the message, especially over multiple media (T.V., radio, papers), messages have a better chance of reaching a broad audience. However, the problem is deeper than listening skills. The sad truth is that most people are uninformed about risk (the literature refers to this as "risk literacy") (1). We need more "consumer guides" on various risk issues, written by and for public groups (with help from environmental health professionals). On the positive side, the literature shows that, if motivated, a surprising range of people can eventually understand risks. Whether they agree with agency decisions is a separate issue, but an adequate understanding of the risks is a critical part of risk communication.

4D. Leadership. Even with successful efforts, problems can occur after key decisions are made. If publics are involved early, the chances of this event can be reduced. However, we should leave room for new options when issuing decisions on sensitive issues (for example, draft documents distributed for review). The balance of these actions is fundamentally a leadership issue.

4E. Evaluation. Public responses to risk communication can be wildly unpredictable, so how can problems be anticipated? First, we must abandon the concept of a single "public." There are many publics of widely varying attitudes and education. We can evaluate different publics by pre-testing and post-testing written communication. Orally we can rely on interviews or focus groups. Second, as more hidden agendas are identified, responses become more predictable.


Given these many different problems and strategies, it may seem impossible to be a good risk communicator. However, good risk communication happens all the time. Some of the techniques listed here are well-known, but hopefully there are a few new ones for your repertoire.

The techniques listed cannot be comprehensive because the field of risk communication is rapidly growing. Furthermore, a taxonomy does not capture the intricate interactions of multiple problems and strategies. Nevertheless, it is a starting point for professionals in the field.

An open question is the effectiveness of this taxonomy as a diagnostic tool for communications problems. Experience with the taxonomy will be the best indicator. Logically, its effectiveness depends on a good understanding of management operations and communication elements. For example, evaluation will not, by itself, resolve conflicting organizational objectives. Similarly, a well-crafted message will not, by itself, resolve audience outrage. Moreover, a correct diagnosis is insufficient if application of the strategy is mechanical and unskilled. Nevertheless, this taxonomy focuses attention where it belongs--on management operations and communication elements.

Like all taxonomies, it should be expanded and revised by the people who use it. For example, as management theories develop in the areas of total quality management, implementation, leadership, and organizational theory, there may be more extensive ways of classifying the management side of the taxonomy. Also, as theories for mental models develop, new ways of classifying communication elements may emerge. Finally, the changing roles and opportunities for environmental health professionals (12) should also influence this taxonomy. I invite further development, and for those involved with e-mail (13), my Internet address is listed below.


1. National Research Council (U.S.) (1989), Committee on Risk Perception and Communication, "Improving Risk Communication", National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.

2. Covello, V., P. Sandman, and P. Slovic (1988), Risk Communication, Risk Statistics, and Risk Comparison: A Manual for Plant Managers, Chemical Manufact. Assoc., Washington, D.C.

3. Davies, J.D., V.T. Covello, and F.W. Allen (1986), "Risk Communication: proceedings of the National Conference on Risk Communication, held in Washington, D.C., January 29-31, 1986," Risk Communication, Conservation Foundation.

4. Hance, B.J., C. Chess, and P. Sandman (1990), Industry Risk Communication Manual: Improving Dialogue with Communities, Lewis Publishers, Boca Raton, FL.

5. Hadden, Susan G. (1989), A Citizen's Right to Know: Risk Communication and Public Policy, Westview Press, Boulder, CO.

6. Morgan, M.G., B. Fischoff, A. Bostrom, L. Lave, and C. Atman, "Communicating Risks to the Public," Environ. Science and Technology, 26(11):2048-2056, November 1992.

7. Johnson, B., "The Mental Model Meets the Planning Process: Wrestling with Risk Communication Research and Practice," Risk Analysis, 13(1):5-8, February 1993.

8. Koontz, H. and H. Weihrich (1993), Management, McGraw-Hill Book Co., 463.

9. Hileman, B.,"Expert Intuition Tops in Test of Carcinogenicity Prediction," Chem. and Engineering News, 35-37, June 21, 1993.

10. Regan, M. and W. Desvousges (1990), Communicating Environmental Risks: A Guide to Practical Evaluations, EPA Report CR814676-02, Washington, D.C.

11. Ad Hoc Study Group on Risk Assessment Presentation (1989), "Presentation of Risk Assessments of Carcinogens," Amer. Industrial Health Council, Washington, D.C.

12. Hatfield, T., "The Failure of Sanitarians," J. of Environ. Health, March/April 1991.

13. Hatfield, T., "Electronic Mail Strategies for Environmental Health," J. of Environ. Health, July/August 1993.
Figure 1. Numbering System for Risk Communication Taxonomy

 1. Source 2. Message 3. Channels 4. Receiver

A. Planning 1A 2A 3A 4A
B. Roles 1B 2B 3B 4B
C. Staff 1C 2C 3C 4C
D. Leadership 1D 2D 3D 4D
E. Evaluation 1E 2E 3E 4E

Appendix 1. Page References for Risk Communication Taxonomy

Taxonomy Page References

1A1. 1, p.150; 2, p.2; 3, p.125; 4, p.127
1A2. 2, p.2; 3, p.113
1A3. 3, p.121
1B1. 3, p.115; 4, p.131
1B2. 2, p.4; 4, p.50
1C1. 2, p.3
1C2. 1, p.160
1D1. 3, p.122; 4, p.129
1D2. 3, p.121; 4, p.111
1E1. 1, p.160; 4, p.136

2A1. 3, p.117; 4, p.22
2B1. 1, p.172; 2, p.10; 4, p.91
2B2. 3, p.118; 4, p.97
2C1. 3, p.117; 4, pp.84, 113
2C2. 1, p.156; 3, p.118
2D1. 2, p.174
2E1. 1, p.156; 4, p.138

3A1. 2, p.3; 4, p.103
3B1. 1, p.160; 3, p.111; 4, pp.103, 107
3C1. 3, pp.120-2
3D1. 3, p.120; 11
3E1. 1, p.160; 4, p.105

4A1. 3, p.125; 4, p.75
4A2. 1, p.165; 3, p.122
4A3. 3, p.122
4B1. 2, p.3; 3, p.125
4C1. 3, p.120; 4, p.62
4C2. 1, p.176
4D1. 3, p.125
4E1. 3, p.120; 4, pp.47, 138

Note: The numbering system for the Taxonomy column corresponds to Figure 2
(e.g., 1A1. is "need for risk communication"). The numbering system for the
Page References column corresponds to references at the end of this article.

Thomas H. Hatfield, REHS. Dr. P.H., Assoc. Professor, Enviromental and Occupational Health, California State University, Northridge, CA 91330, Internet: "THatfield
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Author:Hatfield, Thomas H.
Publication:Journal of Environmental Health
Date:Apr 1, 1994
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