Environmental Risk Communication


Advances in information technology and recent terrorist events are causing many people to question the way in which environmental risks are communicated. Environmental risks consist of incidents or trends, either human-made or natural in cause, that have potential to inflict harm to human health and/or ecosystems and could include physical assets or the economy (i.e., business and social disruption).

Communication of environmental risks can be divided into two distinct categories, according to the time-sensitivity of the need for sharing information: 1) events that might occur in the future where prevention is the focus, and 2) emergency scenarios where an event has occurred, and there is a need for immediate notification and deployment of mitigation actions. Moreover, the consequences of these events can produce either acute or chronic effects.

Many risk communication stakeholders, both those providing and receiving risk information, are confronted with the overarching challenge of how best to communicate environmental risk. At issue is the question of what constitutes environmental risk communication, as well as how risk-related information can be delivered in a meaningful, cost-effective and secure manner.

Improper risk communication is emerging as an environmental risk in and of itself.

In an effort to address these concerns, the Vanderbilt Center for Environmental Management Studies (VCEMS) hosted an environmental risk communication summit during the spring of 2002. Summit participants, by invitation only, represented a wide variety of risk stakeholders: local, state and federal government; industry; non-profit environmental groups; emergency responders; media; and academics and scientists. In addition to VCEMS, summit co-sponsors included The Consortium for Risk Evaluation with Stakeholder Participation (CRESP) program of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Vanderbilt Institute for Environmental Risk and Resources Management.

Summit attendees met in small groups for facilitated discussions on: 1) managing prospective and imminent risks, 2) the role of risk communication in each context and 3) strategies for effective risk communication. The summit concluded with a plenary session in which attendees collectively defined a short-term action plan to address identified environmental risk communication needs. What follows is a summary of summit findings and recommendations.

Important Environmental Risks To Be Managed

A prerequisite to discussing the topic of environmental risk communication is defining the key environmental risks that warrant management's attention. A variety of risks were identified, some of which are more acute in nature, while others have longer-term implications. Among the important environmental risks cited were:

  1. Persistent pollutants that provide insult to air, water and soil (e.g., vehicle emissions)
  2. Infectious diseases (including biological agents)
  3. Radiological contaminants (e.g., nuclear power, Cold War legacy)
  4. Chemical agents (e.g., toxic exposure)
  5. Somewhat surprising, however, was the inclusion of the following environmental risk to the list:

  6. How risk itself is communicated -- provision of misinformation or withholding of information, leading to increased anxiety and related psychological impacts, as well as less informed decision-making.

The significance of this last entry is the emergence of improper risk communication as an environmental risk in and of itself. It acknowledges that decisions that adversely impact human health, ecosystems, physical assets and the economy may be made when risk is improperly communicated. This underscores the importance of effective risk communication.

The communication process is at the heart of effective environmental risk communication, because it establishes the policies and procedures under which individuals and organizations will operate.

Considerable discussion was devoted to how an individual forms a perception of a specific environmental risk. Among the factors identified were:

  1. Degree of familiarity with the concept of risk assessment
  2. Comfort level with uncertainty and low probability/high consequence events
  3. Time sensitivity of the event
  4. The context in which risk is experienced (e.g., acute vs. chronic; voluntary vs. involuntary; existing exposure vs. potential exposure)
  5. Comfort level with the "risk manager"
  6. Environmental quality as a societal concern (often tied to the state of the economy)
  7. Media attention that heavily favors the reporting of sensationalized risks, as opposed to the risk of day-to-day situations
  8. Lack of a sense of urgency associated with foreseeable environmental problems whose effects are more long-term in nature
  9. Scenarios with the potential to affect large numbers of people that are not well understood (e.g., effects of pollution, science of immunology)

It was generally agreed that more knowledge is needed about how people form and respond to their "core risk values." In fact, this knowledge is fundamental to establishing environmental risk management priorities and, subsequently, environmental risk communication strategies.

Characteristics of Effective Environmental Risk Communication

Summit participants identified key ingredients for effective environmental risk communication. This discussion was multi-faceted, covering such topics as communication processes, infrastructure and media, as well as message content and delivery. It was acknowledged that some forms of risk communication are better suited for dealing with prevention situations, others are more appropriate in handling emergency scenarios, and some can be effective in either case.

Communications Processes

The communication process is at the heart of effective environmental risk communication, because it establishes the policies and procedures under which individuals and organizations will operate. Summit participants expressed concern that, all too often, risk stakeholders are left out of the communication process or the dialogue is one-directional with the absence of a feedback loop.

Exemplary risk communication processes were viewed as having the following characteristics:

  1. The organization has a single point of contact for communicating risk (e.g., communications officer) and a designated place to host media interaction
  2. Effort is made to engage risk stakeholders early in the process
  3. Emphasis is placed on fostering and maintaining relationships between risk managers within an organization and between different stakeholder organizations
  4. Effort is made to build a relationship with local community -- "invest in being known," including the establishment of feedback mechanism
  5. Frequent communication is maintained in non-crisis times with the media and community (e.g., media days)
  6. Educational programs are offered to younger age groups to help prepare them to become an effective communication conduit in the future
  7. The public is involved in preparedness exercises
  8. Post-incident debriefings are held on a regular basis

Communications Infrastructure

Another requirement for effective communication is the ability to disseminate risk information in a timely, reliable and targeted manner. Summit participants felt that this is aided considerably by the existence of

  1. A clearinghouse (control center) where risk information is collected, assessed and distributed
  2. Redundancy in the communication system design, so that information can continue to be disseminated in the event of a systems failure
  3. Innovative communication technologies (e.g., visual representation of risks using geo-spatial tools) that enable information to be more effectively gathered and disseminated

Communications Media

Risk information should be disseminated through a variety of media. A multi-media approach increases the likelihood that risk stakeholders are properly informed, taking into consideration such factors as time-of-day, immediacy of information need and ready access to various media channels. The following communications media were identified as having relevance to effective environmental risk communication:

  1. Word-of-mouth
  2. Informing prominent community leaders, who in turn disseminate the information to their constituents
  3. Public speaking engagements and involvement at community meetings
  4. Interactions with focus and advocacy groups
  5. Radio, television, telephone (cell & stationary) and fax
  6. Broadcast via bullhorn and house-to-house personal contact
  7. Internet dissemination (e.g., Web, e-mail, chat rooms)
  8. Data transmission technologies (e.g., global positioning systems)
  9. Experiential contact (e.g., field trips)
  10. Print media (e.g., newspaper, flyers, signs/posters)
  11. Other channels (e.g., license plates, bumper stickers, billboards)

Message Content

Reaching the proper audience through appropriate means at the proper time is a prerequisite to effective environmental risk communication. However, the content of the message also plays a key role in a successful communication outcome. Summit participants associated the following qualities with exemplary message content:

  1. The message is consistent, complete and understandable
  2. Emphasis is placed on promoting knowledge and awareness
  3. Communication is in an active (here is what we are doing) voice
  4. Information is provided with honesty, humility and compassion
  5. What is known and not known is explicitly stated
  6. Focus is put on keeping the story simple and emphasizing the big picture
  7. Relevant details and appropriate analogies/tradeoffs are provided commensurate with the type and significance of the risk involved to portray the proper risk perspective
  8. Information presented is customized according to audience age, language, culture, experience, education level and attention span

Personal Message Delivery

When the communication media involves a spokesperson that is being interviewed or is interacting directly with an audience, the credentials of the messenger and the context of the message become critical to communication success. Summit participants acknowledged that the spokesperson should:

  1. Have credibility and an established reputation with the audience
  2. Anticipate the needs of the audience and be an effective listener
  3. Stay calm and unflappable
  4. Promote healthy discussion and mutual respect for opposing views
  5. Acknowledge stakeholder ownership and right to know
  6. Be responsive and accessible


As expected, summit participants viewed impediments to effective environmental risk communication as being the inability to attain the characteristics presented in the previous section. The following additional impediments were also recognized:

  1. Lack of valid data to support claims made about risks
  2. Differing perceptions among risk managers about what is important to communicate
  3. Jurisdictional disputes that inhibit information gathering and dissemination efforts
  4. External factors, such as the changing political climate; availability of long-term risk planning studies; and non-disclosure of risk-related information due to anti-terrorism, business confidentiality and legal considerations.

Short-Term Action Items

In forming an agenda for enhancing environmental risk communication methods and practices, summit participants reached consensus on a single overarching objective: to better educate risk stakeholders. Participants identified the following short-term (i.e., 2002-2004) initiatives to promote risk knowledge and awareness:

  1. Conduct an environmental risk communication "market research" study to identify the environmental risk stakeholders, what they want to know and who they want to hear from
  2. Prepare environmental risk communication case studies that document exemplary practices and lessons learned
  3. Convene a focus group of news media editors and reporters, to understand how editors assign reporters to stories and what registers with reporters when covering an environmental risk-related story
  4. Evaluate how environmental risk communication effectiveness is impacted by national security constraints on information disclosure
  5. Assess environmental risk communication management linkages, towards identifying where risk communication management linkages need to be established and/or strengthened
  6. Develop and publish environmental risk communication guidelines
  7. Introduce environmental risk assessment, communication and management into the educational curriculum
  8. Encourage formation of environmental risk communication advisory committees at the community level
  9. Organize symposia to promote knowledge and awareness of environmental risk communication methods and practices
  10. Develop a national "risk" dialogue through various media
  11. Promote the importance of risk communication in emergency response planning and training exercises, perhaps using EPA's Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act and the Risk Management Program rule as vehicles
  12. Encourage greater use and integration of information technology
  13. Develop and promote risk assessment methods at the macro level to support effective environmental risk communication

While seemingly worthwhile initiatives that are practical and achievable, the success of any of these activities will hinge on finding the appropriate individual to champion the cause, as well as a sponsoring agency. Time did not permit summit attendees to address these considerations nor to discuss measures of success that could be used to evaluate the outcome of each initiative.

Concluding Remarks

The environmental risk communication summit provided an important forum for a diverse set of risk stakeholders to benchmark what is currently known about environmental risk communication, achieve consensus on critical needs and define a short-term action plan to begin to address these needs. Although a meaningful experience, absent post-summit follow-through to better define proposed initiatives, metrics for success and sources of funding, little of lasting value will have been achieved. Therefore, it is incumbent on summit participants and the risk stakeholder groups they represent to work proactively and collaboratively for these initiatives to be realized.


The success of the environmental risk communication summit rested with a variety of individuals involved in its planning and implementation. In particular, the author would like to acknowledge Chuck Powers, Randy Manning, Camilla Warren, Jim Vines, David Case, Mark Cohen, Susan Buck, Edsel Daniel, James Dobbins, Tricia Drake, Meghan Lockman, John Minor, Ann Olsen, Kristen Shepherd, Linda Breggin, Jim Clarke and David Kosson for their assistance, advice and guidance.


Center for Risk Communication -- www.centerforriskcommunications.com

Risk World -- www.riskworld.com

Society for Risk Analysis -- www.sra.org

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2002 issue of Environmental Protection, Vol. 13, No. 10, p. 44.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2002 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

Kristine Uhlman, CGWP, CPG, has more than 25 years of experience in contaminant hydrology and groundwater related environmental studies.

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