Risk communication: For better or worse

Risk communication: For better or worse

Written on 07/02/2020
Hope Kiwekete

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the fact that there is no better time to communicate than during a time of crisis, and the uncertainty it’s created reminds us that risk will always be part of life



This outbreak is undeniably affecting our lives and businesses alike. However, what strikes me is that, whether for better or worse, communicating about risk has gained prominence. It is like watching or listening to breaking news!

Post Covid-19, organisations will have to reassess their risk management strategies – and that includes how those strategies will be communicated.

Demand for fact-based risk awareness
“Communication seeks to promote awareness and understanding of risk,” states the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 31000:2018 Risk Management Guidelines.

Incidents from my own career have shown me the importance of clear communication and fact-based risk awareness. For example, once my colleagues and I were assigned to assess the performance of some key suppliers. The aim of the exercise was to alert the relevant heads of department about what decisions needed to be taken.

During the reportback session with top management, I realised that evidence-backed feedback was crucial. The need for a solid body of facts also underpinned any risk-mitigation interventions.

On a national level, media briefings by representatives of the National Coronavirus Command Council have given the public an idea of the risk-adjusted approach taken by government in the fight against Covid-19.

Timely feedback is not crying wolf
We have a clear window of opportunity now to reassess how we communicate risks in our own organisations. During the lockdown, I have been reading topics related to communication during a crisis. I found the second edition of Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication (2014) fascinating, which refers to a punchy slogan from the United States of America’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): “Be first. Be right. Be credible.”

Why? According to the CDC, “That’s the mantra for crisis communication.”

The Covid-19 havoc is giving us free schooling on the need to inform stakeholders in a timely fashion. This is by no means an easy task. We see this in organisations that have had a delay-and-watch approach towards how their risks manifest. And when they do manifest, in some instances the risk practitioners are blamed if they failed to inform their stakeholders in time.

Making it relevant and accurate
The available risk information on Covid-19 hotspots, epicentres and vulnerable members of society needs to be relevant and accurate.
Gaya Gamhewage, an expert in the Infectious Hazard Management department of the World Health Organization, wrote in 2014: “In risk communication, trust is the currency of transaction.”

However, where there is openness on the known or unknown, the source of information is hardly disputable. The Covid-19 pandemic is uncharted territory. Public health professionals are still trying to understand its trajectory.

I came across the following headline from CTV News in Montreal: “Ontario criticised for lack of French at Covid-19 press conferences”. It was published on Tuesday, April 14, 2020. I instantly thought of clause 7.4 Communication, in the ISO 45001:2018 standard.

The context relates to an organisation putting a process(es) in place “needed for the internal and external communications relevant to the occupational health and safety management system (OH&S), including determining (d) how to communicate”.

Therefore, even as communicating risks to interested and affected parties could be in an organisation’s official language, it should also be in a language they understand.

Creating a knowledge platform
South Africa adopted a five-level approach during the nationwide lockdown. We have become used to terms such as “flattening the curve”. Much knowledge is being accumulated during this period. In my view, this knowledge will influence risk-management strategies in almost every sector of the economy.

Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, and other epidemics, many risk practitioners perceived catastrophic public health risks as emerging risks that would not become reality in the near future. Hence, even the most responsive business continuity plans for many organisations have not escaped the socio-economic impact of the lockdown. However, we do now have a knowledge platform.

There are several organisations that have developed, implemented and maintained OHS in accordance with the ISO 45001:2018 standard. As they gradually prepare for business resumption during the easing of the lockdown, attention could also be paid to clauses such as:
“6.1.2.1 Hazard identification and 8.1.3 Management of change. One of the requirements is that an organisation shall ‘take into account, but not be limited to: changes in knowledge or information about hazards and OH&S risks’.”

The Department of Employment and Labour has also gazetted the “Covid-19 occupational health and safety measures in workplaces”. Hence, irrespective of how each of us perceives the Covid-19 risks, the knowledge being acquired will define how we improve our risk management strategies.

Changing the status quo
The intention behind communication is to change the status quo – not to trigger panic. In the various spheres of the communities, one could not deny the fact that social distancing sounded liked a taboo. That is what happens when our traditional norms are challenged.

The workplace is no different. Risk communication is increasingly accompanied by the educative nature of threats and their impact. That is why the risk levels are elevated to either low, medium or high. As a result, an informed workforce is motivated to work differently. They embrace the power-effective risk communication.

The media have done a tremendous job of keeping us abreast of Covid-19 developments. How about incorporating their input into sustained interventions within our organisations? I’m reminded of what President John F Kennedy once said: “There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long-range risks of comfortable inaction.”

Testing, testing … the microphone
On a different note, I spent my early career years in aviation. I worked as a Flight Follower (FF) operating a High Frequency (HF) radio, monitoring flights from point of departure to their destinations. One of my key duties was to record in a log book the aircraft positions as well as en-route weather. The pilots radioed the base with a call sign Fox Fox, short for Foxtrot, the phonetic alphabet internationally used in aviation. Foxtrot means the letter “F”.
That meant I had to man my post at all times. The communication signals needed to be clear and effective. The HF radio had to be on the right frequency, it was vital that the radio worked optimally (weather permitting) and I to be constantly alert.

Call to action
Similarly, today, we need to evaluate whether our communication signals are clear and effective.

The reality is that recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic might not be around the corner. And certainly things will never be the same. I also cannot underestimate the challenges involved in risk communication. There’s a popular saying that cautions against “shooting the messenger” – in other words, when we are communicating unpleasant possibilities, we draw negative reactions from others to ourselves!

The insights discussed here could comprise the basis of a to-do list in our quest to inform our stakeholders of risks, for better or for worse. As Dr K Viswanath, a professor at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, reminds us: we should be open about what we know – and also what we don’t know.