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Too little too late? - Not the quantity but the quality determines the success of risk communication

20/2000, 20.09.2000

The life expectancy of people in Germany is higher than ever before. Life is safer than ever. And yet there is a subliminal fear about the possible risks which hang like the sword of Damocles over large sections of society. Risk assessments and risk-benefit analyses are in a difficult position because of the sensation hungry mass media and emotional discussions. Instead of putting across their message to their target groups, they often leave behind a feeling of frustration amongst all those concerned. How can we change that? Around 80 representatives of industry, politics, science, public authorities and consumer organisations from 13 countries came together to examine this question at a working conference in the Federal Institute for Health Protection of Consumers and Veterinary Medicine. On behalf of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), they were looking for ways and means of ensuring more effective risk communication involving all those concerned using the example of chemical products. The results of the workshop will be presented at the next meeting of the competent OECD body in November of this year and are to be integrated into a practical guide for risk communication.

One of the core points: confidence and quality are the foundation for effective risk communication and are far more important than a wealth of information. Risk communication should not be seen as a one-way street but as a feedback process which leads in an ongoing to more information for all those concerned. Industry, public authorities and consumers inform each other about their interests and fears, learn to understand and consider each other. At the same time they lay the foundation stones for risk assessment. The goal of risk communication should not be reduced to convincing people that a specific risk must be accepted under these or other circumstances. It is far more a matter of jointly identifying ways of dealing with risks. Consumers should be placed in the position where they can take informed decisions.

Risk communication involves numerous factors but they cannot all be influenced to the same degree. Social perception of a risk is one of the framework conditions which it is difficult to influence. Self-imposed risks are accepted far more readily than external ones. In the event of complete rejection (dioxin is poison) the size of a potential risk is of subordinate importance. Risk communication can only succeed if it considers how people perceive risks and if it is accepted that risk perception to a large degree is an emotional process which cannot be influenced rationally. This must be taken into account when drawing up communication programmes. Furthermore, risk communication must take account of national and local risk perception (the risk of dioxin-contaminated eggs was viewed completely differently by the Belgian compared with the German consumer).

There must also be acceptance of the image of the media as one of the most important mediators in risk communication (people obtain around 70% of their knowledge third hand). The media see themselves as guardians and trendsetters. Like other stakeholders they are subject to economic constraints and are interested in events but not in accompanying the risk communication process. Hence, risk communication must not be reduced to the information from the media but also be directly targeted towards the consumer. This can be done directly but also through consumer organisations and other NGOs (non-governmental organisations), public institutions, doctors, interest groups and self-help groups.

When it comes to improved risk communication, other factors are more easily influenced. They include continuity of communication which must accompany this process. They also include the quality of communication and, by extension, credibility. All the stakeholders must work hard to achieve the latter. Risk information from industry, irrespective of how good it is, could only ever achieve its goal to a limited degree because it is "biased" or will be deemed to be so. Nevertheless, industry can do a great deal to improve risk communication by providing the reliable information needed for risk assessment. This includes relevant toxicological data, information about the ingredients in their products or a reliable labelling which is comprehensible to the consumer. It should be taken for granted that the results of toxicological tests are, in principle, public. Also, risk assessment institutions on the political and scientific level should be obliged to make their assessments accessible to the general public.

A neutral institution, which acts as an independent mediator between the stakeholders, would take on considerable importance from the "trust angle". Economically independent state institutions would be suitable candidates.

Finally, close co-operation and an exchange between all the players from industry over consumers are necessary for risk communication. The various stakeholders should be included from the very outset in the risk communication process. All those concerned must be on an equal footing. Greater transparency in competencies and concepts for the structured sequence of risk communication would facilitate this. Risk communication must be set up as an ongoing dialogue with the consumer and other stakeholders. The communicative reaction to "events" must be viewed as an exception!

Special attention should be paid to the fact that the uncertainty factors are always included in risk assessment. The importance of uncertainty factors must be rendered visible in such a manner that it can be understood.

Another factor which should not be underestimated is that risk communication is expensive. Therefore, the groups involved must provide both the human and financial resources. Finally, expectations about the success of risk communication should not be overly high. People's satisfaction with the risk measure taken is not an indication of successful risk communication.


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