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Training the next generation of risk communication professionals

Lydia Cumiskey

Water Youth Network

We need to support the next generation of risk management researchers and professionals to broaden their understanding about risk communication. Many of them are working in silos within their own disciplines and need opportunities to think about how scientific information can be communicated to those who need it most.

So, together with a team of young professionals at the Water Youth Network and a host of supporting organisations - GFDRR, NERC, FM Global, and NASA - I led the development of a 24-hour Interdisciplinary Pressure Cooker event on risk communication at the Understanding Risk Conference in Mexico City. We wanted to push the boundaries of young professionals and researchers and challenged them to work together in interdisciplinary teams to devise risk communication solutions for real-life case studies in Mexico.

Once we selected the lucky 35 participants to join the event, we had the difficult task of devising a risk communication challenge that they could complete in 24 hours. Given the unique nature of the event, it sparked huge interest from a range of organisations. Before we knew it, we had support from risk communication specialists all over the world including the UK Environment Agency, BBC Media Action, British Geological Survey, Rural Livelihood Risk Management Consulting, Resurgence, and Universities of Plymouth and Reading. A few teleconference calls later, themes emerged on how to frame the risk communication challenges for our two case studies – urban flooding, subsidence and resettlement challenges in Iztapalapa Mexico City and coastal flooding and environmental degradation in Dzilam de Bravo Yucatan in Mexico.

Firstly, we wanted to encourage the participants to really focus on the importance of understanding the audience by conducting an audience analysis. We wanted to provide them with as much local knowledge as possible to do this effectively but we struggled to find information on psychographics of the population in the case studies. Instead we decided to conduct interviews with local people to give the participants insights into how different people think about risk.

Secondly, we wanted to emphasise the importance of identifying the expected change the risk communication output would actually lead to. This could be changes in the way the audience, think, feel or behave in relation to the risks they are exposed to. For example, would the communication strategy change people's knowledge (understanding the likelihood of a hazard), attitudes (willingness to take risk seriously), or practices (having an emergency kit at home)?

We recognised it would be hard to really identify the impact in such a short amount of time without fieldwork and assessments with the communities at risk so instead we brought in specialists with lots of experience of working with the communities in the case study areas to provide feedback to the teams about their approaches throughout the day.

During the event the teams really engaged with the challenge to think about their target audience and felt the connection between their risk communication solutions and how this would influence their target groups. One participant, Eduardo, a Civil Engineering student from Mexico, found that the most challenging thing about the event was “picturing the people we were talking about in the study case, so we never forgot that even though it was an hypothetical challenge, it was real people.” The information videos and case study specialists were vitally important for the teams.

The team working on a challenge related to subsidence in Iztapalapa conducted their audience profiling exercise to understand the motivations, drivers, routines, constraints and vulnerabilities of a representative young mother, called Rosa. Their solution ‘‘The Rosa Project” focused on training vulnerable women, like Rosa, to transform them into agents of change in their community.

Upon reflection after the event, time constraints meant that the teams did spend a lot of time thinking about the audience and less time detailing the specific elements of their risk communication solution. Ideally with more time both could have been achieved.

The day after the event we brought the participants to visit the Iztapalapa case study and talk to a resident. The participants really enjoyed this experience and were already thinking about how to tailor their solutions based on this new insight.

Overall the challenge was very successful in highlighting the importance of keeping people at the heart of everything that is done in relation to risk communication. It was a huge learning point for participants who have never done this kind of exercise before. For example, Tyler a PhD candidate from New Zealand indicated that after the event he “will spend more time thinking from the user perspective and returning to the user personas.”

I’m really looking forward to supporting more events like this with the Water Youth Network and learning about others’ experiences of risk communication.

Lydia Lydia Cumiskey is the Disaster Risk Reduction Team Coordinator for Water Youth Network