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Communicating in times of uncertainty

It is not always possible to be clear about a risk. But principles of openness and transparency still apply, backed up by good communications practice.

Communicating scientific uncertainties

Consumers can become confused by the communication of scientifically uncertain information (this is also discussed in influencing factors) so it is important that you communicate it right.  Communications must always convey clearly any areas of uncertainty in the risk assessment, whether and how these can be addressed by the risk assessor and/or risk manager, and the implications of these remaining uncertainties for public health.This is a trust-enhancing exercise by showing that you are willing to be transparent and admit uncertainties. Acknowledging the uncertainty related to a risk may improve public confidence in the scientific output being transmitted.

Some advice:

  • Communicate scientific uncertainty
  • Communicate scientific uncertainty with empathy
  • Communicate scientific uncertainty with a message of what you are doing to overcome or manage this uncertainty
  • Understand that different types of uncertainty will be received with different responses. For example, a risk that is uncertain because it is contested by different experts will be much more negatively received than where the risk is uncertain through a lack of scientific knowledge.
  • Cultural differences in how publics respond to uncertainty may exist – different cultures score differently on a cultural value called ‘uncertainty avoidance’.

 

Dealing with perceived contradictory / conflicting messages

Transparency is closely linked to openness and is equally important in building trust and confidence. Transparent decision-making and a transparent approach to explaining how an organisation works, its governance and how it makes its decisions, are also crucial. Communications must always convey clearly any areas of uncertainty in the risk assessment, whether and how these can be addressed by the risk assessor and/or risk manager, and the implications of these remaining uncertainties for public health.

Some advice:

  • Keep good relationships and dialogue with other stakeholders (including journalists)
  • Monitoring and be aware of past communications on a topic: what is the discourse associated with the topic? Has the message changed over time? Is it likely to be interpreted as uncertain?
  • Acknowledge and deal with past communication

Related Case Studies

Bisphenol A: A case of uncertainty

Bisphenol A (BPA)-based plastic is clear and tough, and is used to make a variety of common consumer goods.The controversy surrounding the potential health effects of BPA has recently spread from the scientific arena to mass mediated public debate.