Communicating risk via the media is really hard. A good case study for this came this weekend when The Sunday Times splashed with a leaked report from the National Police Co-ordination Centre about planning for a No-Deal Brexit.
Risk of UK Crimewave
Under the headline ‘Police Plan for Riots and Crimewave if there is a No-Deal Brexit’ the paper runs through some alarming details of what might happen. This includes a rise in crime as Britain suffers food and drug shortages, an expectation that people will become sicker (presumably because prescription drug supplies are affected) and concern about food and goods shortages leading to widespread unrest. It also predicts widespread disruption to the national road network.
The list comes from a confidential discussion paper which is yet to be presented by the National Police Co-ordination Centre. It was not a definitive version of anything – and of course it was written by someone told to ‘imagine the worst’ so the police could plan for it.
Clearly, the report is highly newsworthy but what is not stressed in the coverage is that this was part of a process of preparing for possible events, rather than predicting the events themselves.
Risk Story Killed
It was alarming stuff and widely reported on the day, but the story has died quickly – and I think there are a couple of reasons for that. One is that the Home Secretary Sajid Javid did a great job of killing the story when asked about the report on The Marr Show on Sunday. The link is below and the relevant comments run 9:45 -11:45.
The Home Secretary’s (clearly prepared) line was ‘I am not going to comment on these things in detail but is a good thing that the police, like everyone else, is preparing’. As you can hear he repeats a version of this several times despite Andrew Marr doing his best to get something more. Had Sajid Javid said something different, such as ‘it is possible there will be food and drug shortages’ the story would have had a lot more coverage.
That probably reads as a very slight difference in the form of words but in terms of the way a journalist can report the next chapter, it makes all the difference in the world. One kills the story and the other gives it a second wind.
Editors Maybe on a Short Leash
There are probably other reasons that the story did not get out of hand. I suspect the BBC and perhaps some others are being very careful about reporting No-Deal Brexit risk. I have no inside knowledge but, having worked in the Corporation, I suspect there have been some very serious high-level discussions – in the last few months – about responsible reporting of Brexit ‘risk’. As I said the political sensitivities are huge and the dangers of panic, fear etc. are so obvious. Editors and senior correspondents are almost certainly on a short leash.
However, this is just the start and there are a lot more stories about ‘No-Deal Brexit risk’ to come.
The wider point is that being open and honest about ‘risk’ is hard for a number of key reasons.
Four Reasons Why Communicating Risk is Hard
Firstly, there is a general consensus that normal people do not understand the concept of risk. Personally, I am sceptical about this but it is a widely held view. It goes like this: if you say there is a small risk of a terror attack in London this weekend, what people will hear is there is a possible or even likely terror attack in London this weekend.
The assumption then is that ‘normal people’ or a high proportion of ‘normal people’ will overreact.
Secondly, any journalist reporting that comment will report ‘risk of terror attack in London’, absolutely hardening up the story.
This is exactly what happened in The Sunday Times and in The Express who both hardened up the National Police Co-ordination Centre story to get the headline. Here is The Sunday Times link and here is The Express.
Anyone glancing across the headlines without taking time to understand the story will be misled about the probability related to the risk.
Thirdly, there is another problem of communicating risk openly and that is that people get tired of being scared and under-react. Many risks do not actually happen. And that encourages people to think they will never happen. Public organisations are understandably careful about ‘crying wolf’. Too many earthquake warnings and people do not move when they are told they really need to.
And fourthly, being open about risk can be taken as a political act. And that is a real problem. Anyone will think twice about going public about a particular perceived risk if they think senior politicians will publicly attack them.
As a spin doctor and media trainer, I would like to be able to say there is a simple formula that answers this problem of communicating risk, but there really isn’t. It is complicated, it requires very careful planning and very disciplined communicators. And it is still difficult.
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