Gorkana Insight & Analysis Team
Newgate's Jason Nisse tells Gorkana what he told a conference at Harvard on risk communications.
I’m standing on the stage of a lecture theatre at Harvard University. In front of me are around 65 regulators, senior executives of major corporations, scientists and academics. There are people here from NASA, ExxonMobil, the US Food & Drug Administration, GDF Suez and the body that regulates the Canadian Oil Sands. Half a dozen hands go up. And they all basically want to ask the same question?
“How can we get journalists to understand us better?”
“As soon as we build a relationship with a journalist, they move on. What can we do?”
“The media only seem to be interested in sensationalist stories. How can we get them to focus on the important issues?”
This is not an audience unused to communicating. The conference at which I was speaking - Effective Risk Communication: Theory, Tools, and Practical Skills for Communicating about Risk – has been running at Harvard for more than a decade and is designed for people whose job it is to communicate with the public, albeit primarily about risks in medicines, energy generation, minerals extraction and the like. Their daily job is to take complex information and concepts and provide concise, easy to understand information that helps people make informed decisions: Is the benefit of a vaccine worth the risk of side effects? Is it better to licence hydraulic fracking or leave shale oil in the ground? Is it worth the inconvenience and cost of building a new terminal at the local airport? These are the issues that the media loves to cover.
I found the discussions fascinating. There were world leading experts on risk communications – such as RagnarLöfstedt of Kings College, London or Baruch Fischhoff of Carnegie Mellon University – talking about communications conundrums as diverse as why Swedes are happy to having nuclear waste dumps on their doorstep or whether predicting a percentage chance of rain is misleading. There were case studies about public health in Canada, a ridiculously pointless graphic of what to do if a nuclear bomb goes off in your town and great discussions about how bloggers are making life difficult for the mayor of a large city and how to deal with (the increasingly common) bomb threats on University campuses. At times the conference felt like a therapy session, with people agreeing about the inability to get top management to focus on communications issues, scientists to talk in plain English (or Spanish, French or Dutch) or groups with similar interests to talk to each other.
When I came to speak attention turns to the, almost unanimous, view that it was becoming more and more difficult to communicate with the media. Horror stories rained down from Canada, Argentina, Mexico, the US, Belgium and the UK. Journalists seemed to have less time and there are fewer specialists who knew the issues in depth. Some well-known media outlets were pilloried. One high profile journalist came in for a major attack from various quarters.
To try and find a solution to all these concerns I first asked how many people actually bought a paper each day, how many people bought fewer papers than they used to and how many people went to free websites for their news. If you ask any audience this you soon realise the problem – people are simply not spending as much money on media. As a result, the media has less money less resources,fewer journalists and the journalists left have less time to research and develop stories. This leads inevitably to increasing superficiality.
Instead of complaining, these experts in risk communications should see it as an opportunity. Their expertise in explaining difficult concepts to the public means they should:
a) Be able to explain things more plainly for the media so they are better understood
b) Be able to communicate directly to the public through social media.
The latter was the most difficult for the audience. It was clear that the use of social media in many other countries is not as developed as it is in the UK. But there was a great recognition of the opportunities created by social media – as one Washington-based regulator said: “When the beltway is blocked, you use the side roads”.
Harvard was beautiful. The Maine lobsters were delicious. The audience was engaged. The discussion was fascinating. But the real test will come if these risk communicators can put integrated media relations into practice.
Jason Nisse is director of Newgate Communications. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Details of the conference can be found here.