Let’s Be Clear: Risk Communication for Radiation Safety Professionals (Part I)—Be Clear, Concise, and Compelling
There is a broad range of professions that routinely interact with ionizing radiation, which means the work of radiation safety professionals is also wide ranging. Regardless of what industry you work in—medicine, science and research, nuclear power, mining, construction, waste management, etc.—the one constant is the need to protect workers and to help them understand and respects the risks when they are exposed to radiation.
What is risk?
In very simple terms, risk is the possibility of something (usually something bad) happening. By its very definition, risk is uncertain. That’s why clarity is especially important when communicating about risk.
Following is a compilation of advice and best practices from some prominent North American organizations to help you clearly deliver compelling messages and help your audiences understand radiation-related risk.
What is risk communication?
Risk communication is about communicating effectively when something has been identified as a risk. In their Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication (CERC) manual, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) describe risk communication as the means through which a “communicator hopes to provide . . . information about the expected type (good or bad) and magnitude (weak or strong) of an outcome from a behavior or exposure” (pg.7).
Typically, risk communication is about a bad outcome and the probability of it occurring. Often it is used to help someone make an informed choice about the risk, such as whether or not to undergo a medical treatment.
Effective risk communication can not only help prepare people for possible outcomes, but it can also suggest appropriate actions to reduce the risk. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) defines risk communication as “the essential link between risk analysis, risk management, and the public” (pg. 1).
They warn that effective risk communication is about more than simply crafting messages. “Risk managers need to consider risk communication as an important and integral aspect of risk management. In some instances, risk communication will, in fact, change the risk management process itself.”
Risk communication concerns might, for example, determine
- what kinds of analyses of risks and benefits are performed,
- how risk assessments are summarized,
- what options are explored, and
- who is consulted when exploring possible courses of action.
Barriers to effective communication
Risk communication also comes with an increased likelihood of miscommunication. The people receiving risk communication are often given complex information that can be hard to understand.
According to Public Health Ontario, some of the issues that compound problems when communicating risk include:
• use of jargon,
• concerns about the motives of interested parties, and
• apparent disagreements among “experts.”
These concerns can make it difficult for people to know who to trust, where to go for credible information, and what actions to take.
Consider the perspectives of your target audience
“It is not enough for a communicator to just listen to stakeholder concerns; we have to actively investigate them, understand them, respect them (or at least take them seriously), and use them to shape our communication plan.”
~ Himsworth, Byers, and Gardy
Sandman’s Hazard x Outrage framework (in The Mission, the Message, and the Medium, pg. 18) 
The foundation for effective risk communication (all communication, really) is understanding your audience and tailoring your communication to meet their needs.
Risk messages are often based on the information prepared for internal purposes (e.g., to determine whether a particular risk exists or what risk management option to choose). That information typically reflects the knowledge, perspectives, priorities, and language of experts, which is not usually appropriate for non-expert audiences.
For example, according to NRC, “a primary challenge to effective risk communication is the difference between how the NRC and the public define or perceive risk. The NRC’s assessment of risk balances the likelihood of an occurrence against its possible consequences. The public’s perception of risk, however, is based on the probability that something bad will happen, compounded by aspects of the situation that they find upsetting” (pg. 1).
In the Technical Basis for the NRC’s Guidelines for External Risk Communication, the authors remind communicators that, how someone feels about specific risks is determined by a variety of factors:
- whether or not the risk is assumed voluntarily
- How much control those exposed can exercise over the risk
- the extent to which those exposed might also benefit from the risk (e.g., radiation risk in healthcare)
After all, what is considered an “acceptable risk” is often a value question, not a technical question. For example, even when you successfully explain a technical assessment of potential health and safety consequences, the public may still find the risk unacceptable.
Based on these challenges, NRC urges communicators to consider the perspectives of their target audience:
- What do they know or not know about the risk and ways to control it?
- What are their perceptions of the risk?
- What concerns might they have?
- What do they need to know to make decisions?
People receive information about risks from many different sources—friends and family, social media, news media, advocacy or public interest groups, government agencies, etc. These different sources often present inconsistent or even conflicting views about how significant the risk is and what should be done about it.
As a risk communicator, one of your biggest challenges might be showing empathy for the perceptions of your intended audience. NRC reminds communicators that legitimacy is inherently reciprocal. “Only if a source acknowledges the legitimacy of the audience’s felt concerns will it have a chance to be seen as legitimate itself.”
And CDC notes that, “in low-trust, high-concern situations, empathy and caring carry more weight than numbers and technical facts” (pg.37).
You must demonstrate concern for your audience and their perspectives, even if you or your organization consider their position to be incorrect or unfeasible. If you come across as insensitive to their concerns, you risk aggravating the issue or creating apathy.
As we acknowledged earlier, risk assessment is not an exact science. So, when you are communicating with the public about risk, be honest about the uncertainties and address the following questions:
- What are the weaknesses of the available data?
- What assumptions are the estimates based on?
- How sensitive to change are the estimates?
When appropriate, you should also address what steps are being taken to decrease the amount of uncertainty.
Inform appropriate action
“People don’t care about the overall risk, just how it will affect them personally.”
~ NRC Staff Member
Effective Risk Communication
The central question answered in a risk message should be, “What should the recipient know to improve the choice among personal options (including the consequences of doing nothing)?”
To determine what risk information to emphasize, consider the choices your audience will have to make (e.g., whether or how they might change their behaviour in response to the risk).
Risk communication should emphasize the most important facts to support the choices they have to make. For some decisions, the magnitude of the risk might be the most important aspect; for others, how risks are created or controlled might be more important.
Emphasize the need for appropriate action, be clear about what the action should be, and outline the possible consequences of not acting appropriately.
“Be brief, accurate, straightforward, easy to understand, and consistent.”
Use plain language
There are a number of things you can do to improve the clarity of your risk communication. Chief among them is to use language that is appropriate for your audience. To find out more about how to use plain language for more effective risk communication, watch for Part II of this article in our March 2022 issue.
 US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication: 2018 Update.
 US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), The NRC’s Guidelines for Risk Communication Quick Reference Guide.
 National Research Council (US) Committee on Risk Perception and Communication, Improving Risk Communication, “Chapter 7: Recommendations for Improving Risk Communication.”
 Chelsea Himsworth, Kaylee Byers, and Jennifer Gardy, The Mission, the Message, and the Medium: Science and Risk Communication in a Complex World.
 US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Technical Basis for the NRC’s Guidelines for External Risk Communication.
 US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Effective Risk Communication: The Nuclear Safety Commission’s Guidelines for External Risk Communication.