Purpose of communication
Given the variety of risks to be addressed, the purpose of food risk/benefit communication can vary greatly and includes building trust and consensus, creating awareness, educating, changing knowledge, influencing perceptions, attitudes and beliefs, promoting action and changing behaviour.
Risk/benefit communication should not be seen as an attempt to convince or persuade people to adopt the judgement of the communicator about the tolerability or acceptability of risks or benefits. It is rather the attempt to help people to make more informed judgements and enable them to have agency and control over the risks/benefits that they face in their own lives. In addition, effective risk/benefit communication is a central privilege for taking an active part in contemporary discourses about risks or benefits, and in particular about food.
Communicating during a crisis presents a particularly difficult challenge for risk communicators in maintaining public confidence.
Although communicating food risk and benefit information is a complex task, its purpose can be generally divided in three potential goals: share information, change beliefs or change behaviour.
The ultimate goal of risk communication is to assist stakeholders, consumers and the general public in understanding the rationale behind a risk-based decision, so that they may arrive at a balanced judgement that reflects the factual evidence about the matter at hand in relation to their own interests and values.Ortwin Renn, EFSA 2012 When food is cooking up a storm.
The simplest form of risk/benefit communication has the goal of just putting the information out there. Openness and transparency require a commitment to publishing risk and benefit assessments so that all key audiences have an opportunity to access scientific outputs. Minutes of meetings, papers presented at key meetings and other material need to be made available on a website to build awareness, understanding, trust and confidence.
A more ambitious goal for risk/benefit communication is to change what people know and believe. Sometimes, a health behaviour is right for everyone, but often this is not completely sure. In this case, it is especially important to share risk and benefit information to allow people to make their own informed decisions. One challenge is that not all people wish to make decisions about issues or be informed of the various risks and benefits. For this reason, people routinely make mental shortcuts to make decisions easier.
A third step in food risk/benefit information is to change people’s behaviour. The primary goal so for people to act. Changing behaviour as a goal for risk communication requires that we know what the best course of action is. And if changing behaviour is the goal, communication may not be the only or best solution. Public health successes often rely on policy changes like the strict rules related to functional foods or increasing taxes on unhealthy food.