Communications Risk Analysis: How Much Fear?

When is it productive to communicate fear,
and when is it counter-productive? Christine Gorman looks at this issue in an
article that discusses communications risk management about bird flu.

When do you cry wolf if the little boy has been crying wolf too often lately? That’s the age-old dilemma, isn’t it?

In a fascinating article about how to communicate about the potential risks of a human epidemic resulting from the mutation of avian flu, Christine Gorman of TIME interviews Peter Sandman, a risk communications specialist, who says a little alarm might be a good thing in this situation.

The article makes me think about the need for those of us who don’t have medical understanding to decipher the warnings and think about how to adapt to day-to-day changes that would be necessary if a full-blown pandemic of human influenza were to occur. Do you have three months supply of food on hand? Do you know how you would care for a sick family member while isolating her from the rest of your family? These are but a few of the scarey, almost inconceivable changes we would need to prepare for.

But it’s all based on the possibility that a mutation of the virus could occur and that’s not a sure thing. So the communications challenge is to warn of the dire possibility while also noting that the worst case hasn’t occurred yet. The risks we face today, given our communications capacity, require us to think differently and to be as well-informed as possible without becoming jaded or inured to potential risk. Developing the ability to filter through pertinent information and take advantage of it is a skill that requires more intentional thought than mere casual media usage allows. It’s a skill that is significantly more important in our present information age.

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