Research about Communicating Risk becomes a Hard Reality:

Post by: Kim Stephens


Image by P Shanks via Flickr

How do you create resilient communities?  It’s a tough question. Just yesterday I sent out a tweet about preparedness and the ubiquitous fact sheets that government agencies produce. Does anyone read them? If someone does read them, do they take action, e.g. prepare a  “go-kit,” or purchase insurance, etc.? Maybe, I mused, images of disasters would help encourage people to prepare. One of my colleagues @Cherylble (Cheryl Bledsoe)  answered “@Kim26stephens, you presume a natural interest in emergency management and I would tender ppl only interested if hazard is imminent #smem”.

An imminent hazard is certainly something that spurs action. Therefore, it would seem that if the public only knew and understood their risks (e.g. the frequency of hurricanes)  then they would take the necessary steps to mitigate those risks. But the research study “Communicating Actionable Risk for Terrorism and Other Hazards” – Michele M.Wood,1,∗ ,† Dennis S. Mileti et. al., published 10 June 2011,  found that it is much more important “… to emphasize the communication of preparedness actions (what to do about risk) rather than the risk itself.” They call this type of activity “communicating actionable risk“.  Another key finding, which is highly relevant in today’s connected world, was that “households in American are most likely to take steps to prepare themselves if they observe the preparations taken by others…”. I’m effectively boiling down an entire article to one paragraph so I suggest you read it,  however, it is interesting to note their conclusion:

“Communicating preparedness actions to motivate people to act is more direct than communicating risk and hoping that people will infer that they should take actions, and then, based on their inferences, act. This is a substantial departure from theoretical perspectivies and program practices that seek primarily to communicate risks so that people might, then, infer that action-taking is warranted.”

This research has been put into direct practice in Queensland Australia, an area of the world I seem to write about weekly. I am seriously in awe of the new website put together by Green Cross Australia in partnership with a veritable alphabet soup of government agencies, volunteer organizations, research institutions and even private industry called: “HardenUp: Protecting Queensland“. They do about a million things right here, but most importantly they do communicate actionable risk and then, from within the framework of the site, encourage people to share and promote their preparedness activities in a seamless manner.  As an aside, Green Cross Australia has a focus on climate change and helping people adapt to the potential changes that could occur, such as increased natural disasters and changing sea-level.

It’s not surprising that people will react if they see others preparing. If a storm is coming and I see my neighbor nailing up plywood on windows, I’m likely to think, “Hey, that looks like a good idea.”  However, how can we make more subtle preparedness activities visible and essentially social when there’s not a storm?  You guessed it: social media.  HardenUp offers multiple chances for citizens to share how they are preparing. When users create their plan (in a really nice interface, by they way) they are asked to post what they have done to their social network.

The “tips” section is also designed for sharing. It was envisioned, in part, as a way for people who lived through major disasters to communicate what they learned. In order to get the survivors input, however, some clarifying had to be done about the name of the site.

In a message to survivors, Jelenko Dragisic, CEO of Volunteering Qld and a HardenUp partner, stated that their intention for the website was definitely not to tell people who suffered losses from last year’s major flooding events to “Harden Up,” rather their intention was simply to communicate to the segment of the population that is not prepared. He also implored these survivors, who know the dangers all too well, to share their experiences.

 Many people think they can leave it up to insurance and government bodies and emergency organisations to come to their rescue, both literally and financially. Or they believe there’s nothing individuals can do when faces with a natural disaster. But those people are wrong…being prepared can make a hell of a difference. Knowing how to get out, having emergency supplies, being informed, really can be the difference between life and death…As people who’ve had direct experience of this, I invite you to share your stories with other Queenslanders.”

User-generated tips are also linked to social media to encourage peer engagement: visitors can view all of the tips and then click the “Like” button to instantly post their favorites it to their facebook page. Peer pressure is also subtly applied throughout their site, for example,  a “ticker” runs at the bottom of every page that states  the number of preparedness actions that have been taken to date: 10,530. I love the tag “What about you?” next to the number. In other words, according to a Green Cross representative, Jeremy Mansfield: “Harden-up is not about vulnerability, but a call to action to build self-resilience.”

Although preparedness is the goal, risk awareness is one of the objectives. The site designers have incorporated a database of over 150 years worth of community-based historical disaster data.  According to Jeremy:

One of the key differences of the site we feel is the ” Information asymmetry” providing people links to knowledge that contextualise  risks, preparedness/resilience and longer term issues around adaptation etc. We think it’s the first time a site has attempted to integrate 150 years of weather history along with regional climate history & trends served up at a suburb level.

I also really like how  “HardenUp” has been built to eventually become a one-stop shop for all emergency information. For example, the “In the event” Hub is turned on if there is a crisis and will house community and authority feeds and real-time maps. There is also a tab to search for volunteer opportunities.

I covet this site. I want one in my community, and I want to help build one for every state in the US. Am I being overly effusive?

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6 responses to “Research about Communicating Risk becomes a Hard Reality:

  1. Pingback: Research about Communicating Risk becomes a Hard Reality: | #UASI

  2. That site has a done quite a number of things right if their goal is reaching people who are already sold on the idea of preparing for disasters, it is about as good as it is going to get (well, accept for being very inaccessible for anyone without perfect vision/language/tech comprehension) If the goal of the site is to reach people who resist preparing for disasters, then they’ve shot themselves in the foot through their tone and use of language.
    There is a divide between how people who prepare for disasters look at the world and everyone else. This divide is extensive enough that it acts a lot like the way political divides are–there is a lot of group bonding that takes place on either side of the divide, and it becomes really easy for people on one side of the divide to make all sorts of wrong assumptions about how the other side thinks. This bleeds into communication-materials are made that reflect the logic and thinking of the communicator, not the intended recipient.
    When communicating to the resistant it is important to learn how to think not just of the meaning phrases you are using, but their opposites, because that is what the people on the other side of the divide are picking up. When we use phrases like: ‘Be Responsible’ it is interpreted by the resister as: ‘we think you are irresponsible’, When we write ‘Do this instead of being afraid’ the most normal response is to push back. Using the phrase ‘Harden UP’ and ‘Protect’ builds in the opportunity for people on the other side of the divide to feel knee jerk push back: ‘%^$# you for you saying I’m soft and irresponsible’. The same website with a tone that implies that you feel the reader is clever and using the site will make them more clever would reach a wider group.
    Mind you, that is only if their goal is to reach the resisters. There is definitely a group of people who respond to that message—and even prefer it, but as said, those are the people who are most likely already taking steps to prepare. There isn’t enough materials out there to show how to do it, so having a a site that does it well is really a great thing (as long as they have full vision, speak English, and have a new computer)

    • Carol,
      Thanks for you insights. Very good points which I think illustrate the need for multiple approaches vs one magic bullet. Reaching the resisters (as you so aptly call them) has been a problem in our profession since it became a profession. However, I do feel that the ability for those already inclined to prepare to share what they are doing and put a little pressure on their friends that aren’t so inclined, is a novel approach. We will never reach 100% preparedness, but a tool like this one, that gives people all the info they need (as long as they speak English, have full vision, and a computer–haha!) I think is a step in the right direction. I’m glad they put it together so that we can learn from their mistakes and improve upon it!

    • I echo those thoughts, Carol, but according to the linked article, the goal was to reach those who were already preparing. The study authors found that the thing that prompted “resisters” to begin preparing was seeing others do it and hear them talk about it. After reading that, I think that the website intentionally ignores those that resist preparing.

      It’s certainly a different way of thinking of thing.s

  3. Great article, Kim. I also am very impressed with several government agencies’ stance on social media during emergencies. I would like to see the “In an Event” hub you mentioned, but I cannot located on the website referenced. Where can I view that capability? Thanks and keep up the outstanding work!

    • I think it must be hidden from the public until needed, but it is developed and ready to go. I will ask them about that. Yes, it’s a great application! Thanks for your comment.

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