risk communications

Risk Communications: COVID-19 case study

Risk communications is in my view is incredibly difficult. In the world of professional communications, it is one of the hardest things to get right. COVID-19 or Coronavirus is going to provide an interesting case study in how to effectively communicate risk (or how not to). And lesson one might usefully be the Prime Minister’s press conference this week.

risk communications feature

First the problem: Scientists and statisticians understand risk as a probability. There is a 20% chance of x happening means: possible but not very likely while an 85% chance means: really quite likely but not certain.

However, most people do not think as clearly as this. And in general, they are encouraged by journalists, especially tabloid journalists, to read low risk as a likelihood. [I strongly recommend Nate Silver’s book The Signal and the Noise, if you want to understand this more clearly’. Since reading it I have become a student of Bayesian thinking.]

As a result, ‘over-reaction’ or ‘panic’ can easily be triggered by too much information. And if, as an organisation facing a problem, you know the press is going to over-react the temptation is not to provide information.

However, in public life, if you don’t come clean about risks you lay yourself open to charges of ‘white-washing’ or lack of transparency. This destroys trust.

So, for the government, this is a case where too much information, the wrong tone or a misspeak could cause or add to the panic. Too little information and it risks being accused of a cover-up.

The unusual Number 10 press conference on 3rd March may have looked calm and professional, but all three men knew they were walking that particular tightrope. It is a very good watch for students of risk communications.


Here are my take-aways:

  • The choice of people at the podium was crucial. We had the Prime Minister, the Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Witty, and the Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance. These were very senior, obviously clever advisors. They stood either side of the Prime Minister giving a very nice image of support.
  • Both advisers constantly referred to the data and to modelling. They made it absolutely clear that they were sharing science, not opinion. I loved the point where Professor Witty said ‘The behavioural science shows that in times of crisis the British public demonstrates extraordinary altruism’. Even when saying people will help each other he felt the need to refer to science!
  • Despite the brainpower of the two advisers, there was absolutely no use of jargon. This looks effortless but I am certain it was really difficult. These men will have spent the last three weeks in technical briefings by data and health scientists. Having been in a few of those meetings myself I can tell you that the jargon will have been impenetrable. But also, as contagious as the virus itself.
  • Key points were stressed time and again. The importance of washing hands was not considered too prosaic for these great brains to pronounce on. And to repeat.
  • No question was dodged – except perhaps the one about the PM taking paternity leave. This gave a very clear impression of transparency. In fact, there were several questions that weren’t answered but in each case one of the spokesmen said either ‘we are not going to answer’ or ‘we can’t speak about that at this stage’. In media training, I am constantly reminding people that they must at least acknowledge the question before adding or changing the subject.
  • There was no repetition of the journalists’ sensational language. It was predictably the Daily Mail journalist who invited comparison with a war effort. However, the Prime Minister decided not to accept the invitation! All three spokespeople were careful to use their own words.

Despite the controlled and measured tone of the press conference, the coverage was extensive and somewhat sensationalist.

As a seasoned watcher of these things, it is clear that there was no great slip-up and no stand-out message from the press conference beyond the hand washing and ‘we have a plan’. Given these are a bit weak for a hungry journalist the coverage varies across newspapers and broadcasters as different journalists firstly choose and then beef up particular angles. When you don’t get agreement on the headlines you can be sure the story is not so strong.

The Daily Mail went with ‘Life on hold’, the Guardian went with ‘Murder inquiries to be axed’ which is more than a bit of a stretch from the very cautious ‘with a significant loss of officers and staff, the police would concentrate on responding to serious crimes and maintaining public order’. The Times found an angle from elsewhere – video checks on some NHS wards, but used a sub-heading from the press conference: ‘Prime Minister unveils strategy to deal with coronavirus disruption’. The Telegraph led with ‘expect 20pc of all workers to be off sick’. This is definitely a misrepresentation: the tone of the press conference was ‘we don’t know yet’. The Express went with ‘Britain ready for the worst’ which is at least accurate.

Overall, the broadcast coverage I saw and heard was more measured, but there was an awful lot of it. That in itself gave the impression that Britain was facing into a major epidemic.

Downing Street will probably be happy enough with the coverage. The PR wisdom in such cases would be you do what you can to be transparent and factual but accept there will be a ‘sensationalist hit’. However, you trust that most people will not over-react to the headlines. What matters most is not the first hit of the story but how sensationalist the tail is – and of course how the public reacts.

It looks as if there will be many more chapters of coronavirus communications in the coming weeks and months for students of PR. We know that organisations are dusting off their pandemic policies and planning their own communications. If you want help planning or rehearsing for major communications events, I and The Media Coach team regularly help organisations craft and deliver nuanced messaging. Drop me an email on if you want to discuss how we can help.

Virus image by iXimus from Pixabay

what works in risk communication

Risk communication: what works and what doesn’t

The article below first appeared in the Institute for Materials, Minerals and Mining. You can find it here.

PVC 2014 took place in Brighton in April 2014. The world’s leading forum on vinyl spanned three days and delegates were treated to talks from the best in the business. On day one, Laura Shields, Brussels Director of The Media Coach presented Risk Communication: What Works and What Doesn’t. In case you missed it, or you would just like to recap, IOM3 Communications Manager, Viki Taylor, asked her how people working in science-based, technical industries can communicate better with the public.

What are the issues surrounding risk communication?

Traditionally, when science-based industries have felt under attack, they’ve either put their heads in the sand or stuck a report up on their website to contribute to the debate by putting facts out there, but without actually engaging. But we now live in an age where these not possible solutions. Firstly, digital culture and increasing public pressure mean that people are used to frequent interaction, so silence is taken as a sign of guilt. Organisations need to build trust and trust is not always rational, so if you’re trying to talk to people about the safety of what you do, sticking the facts out there regardless of whether or not your audience understands, does not help. Taking a fact-based approach isn’t always going to help – people have a gut reaction.

Are time frames important when disseminating information?

Yes. With a lot of my clients, they see a scare story and it takes them a month and several different committees to agree on a response. If people are saying things on Twitter, you don’t have a month to reply. It’s important to make sure systems are in place to respond quickly.

How do you feel about digital platforms for risk communications?

Every organisation is different. At the very least, organisations need to have someone who is listening to this stuff. I do think some kind of presence is needed. The [PVC] industry is right to be nervous about it – the internet is a heated echo chamber. But nature also abhors a vacuum, so silence isn’t really an option if damaging and untrue things are being said in conversations you aren’t taking part in.

What is your advice for disseminating scientific information?

Facts and figures do matter. There are three things that can be really helpful when talking to the public. Empathy is important, people need to feel they’re being understood. You need to talk to them, engage and listen. Secondly, you need to help them translate. Don’t give people a report and tell them to read it, you need to provide the tools to help them understand for themselves what is a problem and what isn’t. That includes pointing them to independent information, not just your own. Teach people to appreciate the difference between good and bad science by asking who’s written the report, why have they written it and when. On top of that, they need to communicate well by speaking in a language people understand outside an expert community. Keep things jargon-free and use data selectively. Science data as a tool is viewed as very powerful, but if people don’t understand it, forget it. All of this requires a degree of personalisation as well – if you hide being a position paper, it’s very easy to criticise. As soon as you bring real people into it, it’s much harder for people to do so. It’s also important to note that we process risk visually. People often respond better to visuals than words.


A good number goes a long way with the media

This morning, the UK’s Shadow Public Health Minister Luciana Berger did an interview on the BBC’s Today Programme in which she argued that smoking should be banned in cars where children are present because we know:

“A single cigarette can create concentrations of tobacco smoke in a car that is 23 times more toxic than in a typical house.”

The interview (which you can listen to here for the next 7 days) and figure Ms Berger quoted have been picked up almost verbatim by the mainstream media including The Mail, The Daily Telegraph and The Independent.

As someone who does a lot of work on risk communication I was immediately struck by the 23x figure, partly because of its numerical value and partly because of the visual picture it conjured up of smoky cars and houses.

When humans assess a new risk the brain initially does so by generating images (also known as mental models). This goes some way to explaining why some experts or campaigners are better at explaining risks than others.  Numbers are important as proof – but numbers which create pictures or explain relationships are even better because they allow the bit of the brain that deals with risk to process them more meaningfully. This is something that scientists or other ‘rational’, evidence based professions often overlook when talking about the risk posed by issues as diverse as fracking, GM or chemicals.


The brain assesses risk in pictures

But it’s a lesson that can equally apply to other number-heavy professions when preparing experts for interview. Ms Berger only used two figures in her interview (the other was 500,000 children a week) but they were simple, meaningful and clear.

Picking a few clear numbers and taking the time to put them in context is a far better use of interview preparation time than digging out 20. I have no idea where Ms Berger got her figures  (nor am I implying that they aren’t true). But clearly, they made enough of an impact on the mainstream press who picked them up unchallenged thus ensuring even more free PR for the policy and presumably more exposure for Ms Berger.

A good number counts for a lot with journalists: and some might say its value can’t be measured.