Drinking Water Risk Communication Toolkit
About Risk Communication
Risk communication is a science-based approach to communicating effectively to inform people about potential hazards to their person, property, or community.
Risk communication is about informing people of both bad and good potential outcomes. In the world of drinking water, potential risks and customer and community interests often overlap. From public health protection to environmental stewardship, members of the water sector should appreciate that their work ultimately comes down to understanding and minimizing risks.1
Risk managers - anyone who identifies, evaluates, and prioritizes risks - use risk communication to:
- Help community members understand the processes of assessing and managing risk
- Use science to help community members understand risks and likely hazards
- Help community members participate in making decisions about how risk should be managed
Risk communication should be a two-way conversation. An agency or organization informs community members, and community members inform the agency or organization. When communicating about risk, always consider the context of the communication and the perceptions and values of the affected community.2
How you communicate is key
- Show empathy and caring for people who are concerned about contaminant exposures.
- Competence and expertise allow us to provide information and communications.
- Honesty and openness about what we know and what we do not know is key.
- Dedication and commitment keeps us engaged over time.3
Great risk communication occurs when:
- The participants are informed,
- The process is fair, and
- Participants are free and able to solve whatever communication difficulties arise.4
- Service provider with duties to consumers and ratepayers based on legal and regulatory responsibilities;
- Expert on its own operations, technology, and the science of water treatment;
- Communicator on water monitoring activities, water quality, and health impacts with a stake in the outcome (changed perceptions or behaviors).6
Water systems are a well-used and trusted information source about contaminants in drinking water.5
A water system may have to perform multiple roles when communicating about risk, including:
- Use clear communications - simplify your language and presentation not your content
- Have a defined goal for communications
- Whenever possible, use concrete examples and information that can be put into perspective
- Communicate Early, Often, Fully, and Consistently
- Remember that perception is reality
- Know your audience – listen and respond to specific concerns
- Use many forms and methods of communication to meet your audience where they are
- Uncertainty is reality and uncertainty is different for everyday, issue and crisis communication7
Empathy is key – people come to information and issues with their own views and experiences.
People’s perception of risk is strongly influenced by "outrage factors" (see box below). This is a normal way for people to understand and think about what is happening to them. It is usually based on shared cultural values, so outrage factors may be different depending on where you live. However, outrage factors are almost always at work when the public is responding to a hazard.
Perceived Risk = Hazard + Outrage
The public usually sees risk as a combination of hazard + outrage, focusing mostly on the outrage. Technical staff typically address the hazards first, but addressing outrage, or fear, is critical to maintaining public trust.6
These communication principles can help ensure that your message is heard – even in difficult situations.
- Have the right people - experts or system staff - delivering messages;
- When communicating with people, stay connected until all their questions are answered no matter how you are connected – through phone calls, public meetings, or other types of communication.
Engage with people in your community as soon as possible when there is a drinking water contaminant issue. Continue to engage with people when there is any change in risk management of the contaminant of concern through time. This will build trust over time that you will be there to support and help communities.
Think about how to deliver your message. Consider using these strategies:
1Mercer, Kenneth L. 2017 On Water & Works: Risk Communication. Journal AWWA.
2Adapted from Talking to Your Customers About Chronic Contaminants in Drinking Water: A Best Practices Guide; US EPA. 2007.
3Covello V. 1992. Risk communication, trust, and credibility. Health and Environmental Digest 6(1):1-4 (April) and Covello V. 1993. Risk communication, trust, and credibility. Journal of Occupational Medicine 35:18-19 (January).
4US EPA Risk Communication Overview – Updated September 2016.
5Consumer Perceptions and Attitudes Toward EDCs and PPCPs in Drinking Water. Water Research Foundation. 2013.
6Adapted from Risk Communication Strategy and Tools: Guidelines for Communicating About Drinking Water Contaminants; Water Research Foundation, 2010.
7Sandman, Peter, November 1987, Risk Communication: Facing Public Outrage, EPA Journal from the U.S. EPA.