Posted: 2001
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Article SummaryThis manual on how to use risk comparisons and risk statistics was commissioned to help chemical plant managers explain air emissions to their neighbors. Chapter III on risk comparisons, especially, is still relevant. Later research hasn’t borne out all its seat-of-the-pants conclusions, but the advice at the end of the chapter about the worst risk comparisons holds firm – in my terms these comparisons fail (especially when people are outraged) because they try to compare the hazard of high-outrage and low-outrage risks. The other chapters are also useful and not really outdated, I think. The appendices are both outdated and all too likely to be misused. They’re what the client originally wanted most. Vincent Covello, Paul Slovic, and I wrote the rest of the manual to soften them.

Risk Communication, Risk Statistics,
and Risk Comparisons:
A Manual for Plant Managers

Washington, DC: Chemical Manufacturers Association, 1988

Part I
Effectively Communicating Risk Information

Guidelines and Rules for Effective Risk Communication

There are no easy prescriptions for effective risk communication. There are no magic bullets, no “cookbook” approaches. However, those who have studied and debated risk generally agree on seven cardinal rules (see Covello and Allen, 1988). Although many of the rules may seem obvious, they are continually and consistently violated in practice. As a plant manager, you can build a successful risk communication program on these rules.

Rule 1. Accept and Involve the Public as a Legitimate Partner.

Two basic tenets of risk communication in a democracy are generally understood and accepted. First, people and communities have a right to participate in decisions that affect their lives, their property, and the things they value. Second, the goal of risk communication should not be to diffuse public concerns or avoid action. The goal should be to produce an informed public that is involved, interested, reasonable, thoughtful, solution-oriented, and collaborative.

Guidelines: Demonstrate your respect for the public and your sincerity by involving the community early, before important decisions are made. Make it clear that you understand the appropriateness of basing decisions about risks on factors other than the magnitude of the risk. Involve all parties that have an interest or a stake in the particular risk in question.

Rule 2. Plan Carefully and Evaluate Performance.

Different goals, audiences and media require different risk communication strategies. Risk communication will be successful only if carefully planned.

Guidelines: Begin with clear, explicit objectives – such as providing information to the public, motivating individuals to act, stimulating emergency response, or contributing to conflict resolution. Classify the different subgroups among your audience. Aim your communications at specific subgroups. Recruit spokespersons who are good at presentation and interaction. Train your staff – including technical staff – in communication skills; reward outstanding performance. Whenever possible, pretest your messages. Carefully evaluate your efforts and learn from your mistakes.

Rule 3. Listen to Your Audience.

People in the community are often more concerned about issues such as trust, credibility, control, competence, voluntariness, fairness, caring, and compassion than about mortality statistics and the details of quantitative risk assessment. If you do not listen to people, you cannot expect them to listen to you. Communication is a two-way activity.

Guidelines: Do not make assumptions about what people know, think, or want done about risks. Take the time to find out what people are thinking: use techniques such as interviews, focus groups, and surveys. Let all parties that have an interest or a stake in the issue be heard. Recognize people’s emotions. Let people know that you understand what they said, addressing their concerns as well as yours. Recognize the “hidden agendas,” symbolic meanings, and broader economic or political considerations that often underlie and complicate the task of risk communication.

Rule 4. Be Honest, Frank and Open.

In communicating risk information, trust and credibility are your most precious assets. Trust and credibility are difficult to obtain. Once lost they are almost impossible to regain.

Guidelines: State your credentials; but do not ask or expect to be trusted by the public. If you do not know an answer or are uncertain, say so. Get back to people with answers. Admit mistakes. Disclose risk information as soon as possible (emphasizing any appropriate reservations about reliability). If in doubt, lean toward sharing more information, not less – or people may think you are hiding something. Discuss data uncertainties, strengths and weaknesses – including the ones identified by other credible sources. Identify worst-case estimates as such, and cite ranges of risk estimates when appropriate.

Rule 5. Coordinate and Collaborate with Other Credible Sources.

Allies can help you communicate risk information effectively. Few things make risk communication more difficult than conflicts or public disagreements with other credible sources.

Guidelines: Closely coordinate all inter- and intra-organizational communications. Devote effort and resources to the slow, hard work of building bridges with other organizations. Use credible intermediaries. Try to issue communications jointly with other trustworthy sources such as credible university scientists, physicians, trusted local officials, and opinion leaders.

Rule 6. Meet the Needs of the Media.

The media are prime transmitters of information on risks. They play a critical role in setting agendas and in determining outcomes. The media are generally more interested in politics than in risk; more interested in simplicity than in complexity; and more interested in danger than in safety.

Guidelines: Be open with and accessible to reporters. Respect their deadlines. Provide information tailored to the needs of each type of media, such as graphics and other visual aids for television. Provide background material for the media on complex risk issues. Follow up on stories with praise or criticism, as warranted. Try to establish long-term relationships of trust with editors and reporters.

Rule 7. Speak Clearly and with Compassion.

Technical language and jargon are useful as professional shorthand. But they are barriers to successful communication with the public.

Guidelines: Use simple, non-technical language. Use vivid, concrete images that communicate on a personal level. Use examples and anecdotes that make technical risk data come alive. Avoid distant, abstract, unfeeling language about deaths, injuries, and illnesses. Acknowledge and respond (both in words and with actions) to emotions that people express – anxiety, fear, anger, outrage, helplessness. Acknowledge and respond to the distinctions that the public views as important in evaluating risks. Use risk comparisons to help put risks in perspective; but avoid comparisons that ignore distinctions that people consider important. Always try to include a discussion of actions that are under way or can be taken. Tell people what you cannot do. Promise only what you can do, and be sure to do what you promise. Never let your efforts to inform people about risks prevent you from acknowledging – and saying – that any illness, injury, or death is a tragedy.

Although these rules and guidelines can be helpful, they are no substitute for your own judgment. Much of the work needed to make research on risk communication relevant to plant managers has not been done. (For details, see Covello, von Winterfeldt, and Slovic, 1987.) Therefore, you will need to rely heavily on a combination of intuition and experience. Only you can know whether a particular piece of advice is valid and applies to your situation. Risk communication can never be made risk-free.

Actions versus Words

Virtually all communications about risks should include a discussion of what control measures and precautionary actions are being taken. In most risk situations, actions speak louder than words. Often, actions are what people most want to know about. People want to know what you are doing to prevent an accident or how you are preparing for the possibility, not how likely you think one is. People want to know what you are doing to reduce emissions, not just how much is being emitted and how many deaths or illnesses may result. People often care about the competence and conscientiousness of the plant manager more than about the risk itself. Many people perceive mismanagement, incompetence, and lack of conscientiousness as the central issues in risk assessment. Explaining what you have done, are doing, and plan to do to reduce and manage the risk is at least as important as explaining how small you think it is. Bear in mind that people may be much more willing to listen to what you have to say about how small you think the risk is after you have explained what you are doing to make it still smaller. At the same time, present information about plant safety records, drills, and other efforts to protect people and the environment – for example, programs to reduce or eliminate chemical odors.

Besides outlining measures you can take, be sure to tell people what you cannot do. Promises, when they are not kept, can destroy credibility. If you cannot take certain measures – for example, because they are too expensive, because they are against the law, because the technology or data are not available, or because the home office has not given approval – you are better off saying so. Giving the impression that you will take an action that you cannot take or have no intention of taking can be disastrous.

The Role of Risk Comparisons

Because risk comparisons help put risks into perspective (see Part III), they are a powerful tool in risk communication. Still, they cannot take the place of long-term, sensitive interaction with the local community. Risk comparisons are useful only in the context of a continuing, sound community relations program. Almost any accurate risk comparison will work if you, the plant manager, have established trust and credibility with the people in the community. But if you have low credibility, inspire no trust or have no relationship with people in the community, even the best risk comparison will fail. (For more detail on establishing trust, see Hance, Chess and Sandman, 1987.)

Risk comparisons, although only a part of the answer, should be a fundamental component of any risk-communication program. In the next few years, you will be called upon constantly to explain chemical risks and to put them into perspective. Moreover, as Title III of Superfund goes into effect (not to mention various state laws and referenda, such as California’s Proposition 65), the demand for information about risk will increase sharply. Many plant managers are looking for better ways to explain risk information both accurately and in a way that will make sense to people with no technical training. Finding better ways to compare risks is thus an important part of improving risk communication.

Public Perceptions of the Chemical Industry

There are limits to what one chemical plant manager – no matter how skilled – can accomplish through risk communication. The chemical industry worldwide faces the problem of explaining risk to a public that is sometimes fearful, often hostile, and almost always skeptical.

Plant managers are understandably concerned about the public’s distrust of the chemical industry. However, it is important for you not to dismiss that distrust as irrational. Public distrust of the chemical industry is grounded in the belief that chemical companies have been remiss in many ways – insensitive to plant neighbors, unwilling to acknowledge problems, opposed to regulation, closed to dialogue, unwilling to disclose risk-related information, and negligent in fulfilling their responsibilities for health, safety, and the environment. Having determined (with some justification) that chemical companies are not always to be trusted, many people have been slow to notice that the industry is changing, that chemical companies are working harder to gain the public’s trust and attain credibility. One of the costs of this heritage of mistrust is the public’s willingness – and sometimes eagerness – to believe that chemical plants represent one of the greatest risks posed by modern technology. When people appear to be ignoring evidence that chemical risks are small, they may well be responding to evidence that the chemical industry has failed to act responsibly in the past.

Fortunately for you as a plant manager, the prospects for overcoming distrust are much better locally than globally. People stereotype less and scapegoat less when they are dealing with someone they know. Therefore, part of the solution to the global problem is local. When many plant managers have built up a track record of dealing openly, fairly, and safely with their employees, customers, and neighboring communities, the general distrust of the chemical industry may be reduced. In the meantime, anticipate initial distrust. Many people in the community – especially those who have had no direct experience with a chemical plant or have had a negative experience – are likely to view your plant as a microcosm of an industry that they believe has been arrogant and careless; that has killed children; that has destroyed the environment for profit. Building bridges locally, and explaining risk credibly, may be difficult. But that work is essential because of the initial mistrust that faces you.

Factors Affecting Risk Acceptability

Understanding the distinction between risk and risk acceptability is critical to overcoming mistrust and communicating effectively. Even though the level of risk is related to risk acceptability, it is not a perfect correlation. Two factors affect the way people assess risk and evaluate acceptability; these factors modify the correlation.

The level of risk is only one among several variables that determine acceptability.

Among the other variables that matter – and should matter – are fairness, benefits, alternatives, control, and voluntariness (see Slovic, 1987). Specifically, in deciding the acceptability of a risk, individuals will ask themselves:

  • Does everyone share the risk fairly?
  • How will I (or others in the community) benefit from the process that entails this risk?
  • Can the risk be avoided?
  • Have I chosen the risk, or is it being imposed on me without asking me beforehand?
  • How much control do I (or others in the community) have over the risk?

In general, a fairly distributed risk is more acceptable than an unfairly distributed one. A risk entailing significant benefits to the parties at risk is more acceptable than a risk with no such benefits. A risk for which there are no alternatives is more acceptable than a risk that could be eliminated by using an alternative technology. A risk that the parties at risk have some control over is more acceptable than a risk that is beyond their control. A risk that the parties at risk assess and decide to accept is more acceptable than a risk that is imposed on them. These statements are true in exactly the same sense in which it is true that a small risk is more acceptable than a large risk. Risk is multidimensional; size is only one of the relevant dimensions.

If one grants the validity of these points, then a whole range of risk-management approaches will become possible and appropriate. For example, if factors such as fairness, familiarity, and voluntariness are indeed as relevant as size in judging the acceptability of a risk, then any efforts by a plant manager to make a risk more fair, more familiar, and more voluntary are as appropriate as efforts to make the risk smaller. Similarly, if control is indeed important in determining the acceptability of a risk, then any efforts by a plant manager to share power, such as setting up a community advisory board, is a good way to make a risk more acceptable.

Deciding what level of risk ought to be acceptable is not a technical question but a value question.

People vary in how they assess risk acceptability. They weigh the various factors according to their own values, sense of risk, and stake in the outcome. Since acceptability is a matter of values and opinions, and since values and opinions differ, debates about risk are often really debates about accountability and control. The real issue is: Whose values and opinions will decide the outcome? Although the standpoint of the company is still crucial, in today’s world the views of regulators, elected officials, fire and police officials, and the general public count for a great deal. That is one of the reasons why plant managers are being asked to explain risks in the first place: Public values and opinions about acceptability do matter.

When you explain and compare the risks associated with a particular chemical emission, you are providing information that you think people want to have for deciding whether the risk is acceptable. But data on risk levels are only one of many kinds of information on which people base decisions about risk acceptability. Risk comparisons cannot preempt those decisions. No risk comparison will be successful if it appears to be trying to settle the question of whether a risk is acceptable. To illustrate, it is often tempting to use the following argument when you meet with community groups or members of the public. However, you should always avoid it. The argument goes as follows:

The risk of a (emissions from the plant) is lower than the risk of b (driving to the meeting or smoking during breaks). Since you (the audience) find b acceptable, you are obliged to find a acceptable.

This argument has a basic flaw in logic. Trying to use the argument can severely damage your level of trust and credibility. Some of your listeners will analyze your argument this way:

I do not have to accept the (small) added risk of living near your plant just because I accept the (perhaps larger, but voluntary and personally beneficial) risk of smoking or driving my car. In deciding about the acceptability of risks, I consider many factors, only one of them being the size of the risk – and I prefer to do my own evaluation. Your job as a plant manager is not to tell me about what I should accept but to tell me about the size of the risk your operation entails.

Closely tied to the issue of risk acceptability is the question of what the goal of risk communication should be. The goal of risk communication should not be to avoid responsible action or simply to pacify local citizens. Instead, risk communication should produce an involved, informed, interested, and fair-minded public, so that public opinions and concerns will be (or remain) reasonable, thoughtful, calm, solution-oriented, and collaborative.

Disclosing and Providing Risk-Related Information

Given the public’s increasing demands to participate in decisions about risk acceptability, and given the increasing number of community right-to-know laws, industry spokespeople cannot afford to hold back relevant data about risks. But making relevant information available is not the same thing as packing it all into one incomprehensible speech, pamphlet, or news release. It is better to provide and explain two or three numbers, carefully selected, than to inundate your audience with meaningless facts. Your job is to pick a few numbers and present them well – not to use all of them. In the risk comparison examples presented in Part IV, it is not by accident that only a few numbers are used.

In providing and explaining risk-related numbers, keep in mind that such numbers are not the whole story. Generally, the community is more interested in issues such as your trustworthiness and credibility than in risk data and the details of quantitative risk assessment. Furthermore, people want you, the plant manager, to acknowledge, respect, and share those concerns. By focusing too much on “the data,” you can easily fall into the trap of reinforcing the stereotype of the chemical industry as uncaring. To you, risk may mean risk statistics. But to your audience, risk means illness, suffering, and (possibly) death – not just for them, but for their families and children. Language (including numbers) that distances you from that reality defeats its purpose.


In providing and explaining risk-related information, you need to decide a critical question: Who should speak? The public wants to hear from people who know what they are doing and people who have the power to make changes – that is, experts and managers. Certainly it helps to have top management support, but the outsider from the home office is probably not as good a spokesperson as a plant manager. Clearly you need to have experts on call, including health, safety, and environmental experts at the plant; but experts alone are not enough. Nor can community relations and public relations people at your plant do the job alone – they are too often seen as insulators trying to keep the public out of the manager’s hair. Lawyers are also seen as insulators.

To be effective, spokespeople must have good presentation skills. They must be able to speak well in public, to recognize and avoid jargon, and to clarify technical concepts. Spokespeople also need good interactive skills. They must be able to deal well with people, to listen, to give feedback, and to respond to emotions. Regardless of your aptitudes, you can learn both sets of skills. This fact underlines the importance of training and experience in communicating.

Communication Channels and Media

A spokesperson can use a wide range of appropriate channels and media to communicate: public meetings; formal hearings; informal meetings, both large and small; negotiation sessions; one-on-one conversations; speeches to local groups; open-houses at the plant; pamphlets; brochures; radio and television interviews; news releases. The choice of medium should dictate the nature of the risk communication: how complex and long it can be (the two are not the same), how emotional it can be, and other aspects. Making good decisions about such issues is basic to planning effective risk communications programs.


The public is not a single, undifferentiated mass. To create a good risk communication program, you should segment the audience. Some audiences you should pay attention to are:

  • Employees, retirees and their families, and other plant-related people
  • Environmental activists
  • Health professionals
  • Senior citizens, ill people, and other especially vulnerable population groups
  • Emergency response people
  • Plant neighbors

Audiences can be segmented even further according to demographic, educational, and vocational characteristics. Women, for example, often show a greater interest in problems of chemical risks than men do. A person’s education and attitude toward technology are also determining factors in what they care to hear about. Knowledge about audience characteristics can help you formulate your communications and presentation. Knowledge about audience characteristics can also help you avoid talking down or up to people. Always aim your risk communications at the concerns and information needs of a specific target audience.

Each risk situation will require several formats of different lengths, different levels of complexity, and different levels of generalization. Each format should be designed for specific media and specific audiences. Information for a particular chemical might include everything from a one-paragraph risk description to be inserted in a news release to an entire slide show on the particular risk in question. You should test and evaluate public understanding of your communications before presenting them to your audience. You might first try presenting the communication to small, representative groups of local people and asking for criticism. Or try out the communication informally on non-experts. Keep records of which approaches and methods worked and which ones backfired. No matter how formal or informal an evaluation you do, it is better than reinventing the wheel with each new communication.

Copyright © 1988 by Chemical Manufacturers Association

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