Seven Cardinal Rules of Risk Communications

To demonstrate the qualities of trust and credibility in the eyes of the public, the Environmental Protection Agency published a seven-step guide1 to risk communications applicable for any agency.

  1. Accept and involve the public as a legitimate partner. The public should be involved early and before any decisions are made. Involve all parties that have an interest in the issue under consideration.
  2. Plan and evaluate your efforts. Weigh messages against clear objectives internally before releasing them to the public. Another strategy is to identify important external stakeholders and subgroups and tailor some of your communications toward them. Mistakes and failures happen in all industries and communications, but taking the time to edit and improve based on feedback and evaluation is key to continuously improving your relationship with your stakeholders and the public perception of your organization’s trustworthiness and credibility.
  3. Listen to the public’s specific concerns. If people do not feel like they are being heard, they are less likely to listen. Collecting input from interviews, facilitated discussion groups, advisory panels and surveys communicates to the public that their opinion matters.
  4. Be honest, frank and open. Short-term judgments of trust and credibility are based largely on verbal and nonverbal communications. Long-term judgments are based more on actions and performance. If you realize errors, correct them immediately, and avoid speculation and exaggeration.
  5. Coordinate and collaborate with other credible sources. With the right alliances and partnerships with other groups and organizations, joint communications carry much more weight.
  6. Meet the needs of the media, as they play an important role in reaching the people. Be open and accessible to reporters and provide sound bites, graphics or other materials as necessary. Provide background material on complex issues, but strive to keep interviews short and focused.
  7. Speak clearly and with compassion. As mentioned earlier, tailor your communication style to your audience. For example, technical jargon and acronyms are useful shorthand when speaking to a group of engineers but can alienate the general public.

1. Covello, V. T., Allen, F. W., & Covello, V. T. (1992). Seven cardinal rules of risk communication. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Images: “Log Boom” by David Hiser/US EPA