Missing: A cutting-edge hub for risk communication for action
Senior Advisor for Resilience and Humanitarian Response
When I lived in Los Angeles, my neighbour got grumpy with me one day when I suggested we prepare our apartment building for earthquakes. He said: “If an earthquake hits and damages the property, so be it! It survived the 1994 earthquake just fine. Earthquake insurance and retrofitting is so expensive it’s not worth it. Part of living in California is dealing with the fires, mudslides, earthquakes, tsunamis...and now it's also horrible traffic, no middle class, rising crime, unaffordable housing, homeless encampments, etc…”
It’s not that my neighbour didn’t know about the risk of earthquakes, of course. It’s that he had a list of very common reasons to ignore it, including fate, history, cost, and competing priorities.
I get his points, but when someone lives near a fault line (or flood zone or other high risk area) and does nothing about it, something is wrong. These days we have more access to risk data and risk assessments than ever before about the mounting risks around us – from severe weather through to cyber-attacks – yet the pace at which people take action to manage these risks lags far behind, be they ordinary people, like my neighbour, or policy-makers.
What’s currently being done?
Efforts are underway in many sectors to improve the understanding of risks and possible solutions. Physical scientists strive to visualise data in more understandable ways or tell intriguing stories. Social scientists continue to unveil the complexities of how we think about risk. Journalists seek more compelling ways to engage audiences (this report even manages to make plywood exciting!) Some practitioners are turning to visual art and music as a means of conveying risk information. Meanwhile, government agencies, civil society organisations and others continue to work closely with people at the community level.
Much of this innovative work stems from interdisciplinary approaches. In Bangladesh, the Shongjog initiative (of which BBC Media Action is a part) convenes a wide range of actors, including the government, to improve communication with at risk groups. In Mexico, a “pressure cooker” event challenged 35 young professionals from different backgrounds to jointly develop a risk communication strategy in 24 hours at the Understanding Risk Forum, a biennial event convened by the World Bank’s Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery.
All of these efforts are critical, yet improved understanding of risk alone is rarely enough to prompt meaningful action. Some people know the risks they face but have limited options for taking action due to poverty or other factors. Change is a complex process influenced by cognitive biases, personal factors, perception, sense of urgency, governance, perverse incentives, social norms and more.
Risk communication must reflect this complexity with sophisticated approaches, based on evidence of what works. In other words, risk communication must be a process, not a product, a point well made in the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) research report on risk communication and behaviour. And dialogue must naturally be a part of that process. An OECD report on trends in risk communication policies and practices notes that governments need to improve how they actively involve citizens and others in two-way communication for risk reduction.
Risk communication must be incorporated into decision-making at all scales, at the earliest stages. The emerging Global Risk Assessment Framework (GRAF) – an ambitious initiative convened by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) – has systemic change at its core and is taking risk communication seriously as a part of that.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good risk information product of course – apps, maps, messages, posters, pictures, videos, virtual reality, games and gimmicks. But whatever the product, it must be part of a process – an ongoing conversation with people at risk, anchored in a strategic plan for change.
How is BBC Media Action communicating about risk?
Our work in Nepal is taking a long-term approach to risk communication. It works through media programmes that not only provide information on safe building practices, but also role model behaviour to boost confidence, challenge gender norms, analyse options, and provide a platform for public discussion. All these can influence decisions at the household, community and government levels. Impact research is underway on the rebuilding programme, but early research indicated it was especially useful for marginalised groups who liked getting information in simple, understandable ways. It also inspired women to become more active in rebuilding work in their own communities.
In Bangladesh, we broadcast a national TV reality show to build resilience alongside roadshows and work with the Red Crescent to integrate new communication tools into their already established system of long-term, two-way conversations with communities about risk identification and resilience. The project reached 22.5 million Bangladeshis, with impact research showing 78% of viewers reporting better understanding of how to prepare for extreme weather – and, more importantly, 47% of viewers reporting they took action after watching the programme.
And in Eastern Africa, we’ve just started to build the capacity of local journalists and technical experts to prompt public conversations about how forecasts can be applied to practical decision-making as part of the Weather and Climate Information Services for Africa (WISER) programme.
Why do so many risk communication initiatives fall short?
There are many understandable reasons but, for me, these three are tops:
- Skills and knowledge: Many people working in risk reduction are not familiar with the well-established and well-evidenced techniques of using media and communication to prompt lasting change, widely used in the health sector for example.
- Funding and scope: Obtaining funding to build on learnings from other sectors can be difficult when risk communication is positioned as a PR exercise or a small-scale after-thought rather than integrated into programming and decision making from the outset.
- Evidence: Given the limited number of large-scale, well-designed risk communication initiatives, there is a lack of evidence to indicate what works in practice, which can make the funding argument more difficult.
If you’re from a risk reduction background, these points will be familiar to many of you. The question is, what can be done to advance the practice of risk communication to create a world in which all people understand the risks they face, know how to address them, take informed actions to manage them effectively, and flourish in life?
A number of impressive organisations are dedicated to this question already: The Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at the University of Cambridge, The Harding Centre for Risk Literacy at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, the Lloyds Register Foundation Institute for the Public Understanding of Risk at the National University of Singapore, and the Science Media Centre, housed at the Wellcome Collection in London.
Each of these organisations plays a critical role in helping translate technical information into meaningful content for ordinary people. Yet, as I understand it, they don’t extend into the practical side of how to implement long-term risk communication strategies and measure the impact of those.
What do people in the risk reduction sector think?
At the 2015 UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR), BBC Media Action and Resurgence held a roundtable to discuss the need for a community of practice on the practical side of risk communication. There was unanimous demand for one, and different ideas emerged on how this might take shape. Since then, we’ve come across many other people who are similarly eager for a formal community of practice on risk communication for action to materialise.
So let’s make it happen. It should be a collective effort and BBC Media Action has some ideas and experience to contribute. About ten years ago we worked with leading aid agencies and media development actors to transform how the humanitarian sector communicated with people in the midst of crises, culminating in the Communication with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) Network, which has grown to a membership of around 30 organisations.
Communication for disaster risk reduction requires a very different approach from that used during humanitarian emergencies, involving different timeframes, actors, incentives and barriers, and hence, would require its own dedicated hub.
What would a cutting-edge hub to support risk communication entail?
For starters, I see it convening diverse and top-notch actors, including academics, development practitioners, civil society leaders, media and communication professionals, government, the investor community, the faiths, indigenous wisdom, the private sector and others in order to advance thinking and practice globally. It would address the three points above by building:
- Knowledge and evidence – gathering and synthesising data on what works, consolidating learning and sharing it widely in practical, accessible ways.
- Skills - creating tools and delivering workshops that boost practitioners’ ability to design and deliver risk communication initiatives that prompt action.
- Relationships - convening practitioners within and across sectors, catalysing cross-sectoral approaches and influencing policy and practice to increase impact.
- Experience - funding select pilot initiatives that hold high potential for delivering impact through exemplary practice, generating evidence on what works, and advising on initiatives that have existing funding and ensuring they deliver maximum impact.
But what do you think?
Is there a strong community of practice out there that focuses on the practical aspects of how risk communication can influence action? If not, what would you want a hub to deliver? How could it help you or your organisation achieve its goals? How might it be structured? Where would funding come from? Let’s discuss!
Join the conversation on Twitter and help advance risk communication #riskcommhub
Lisa Robinson is a Senior Adviser on Resilience and Humanitarian Response with BBC Media Action.