Introduction: Risk and Crisis Communication


Ki ora! Welcome to 219.312 Risk and Crisis Communication research and teaching resources site. My aim is to post here latest research trends, on-going risk and crisis case studies, and my experiences teaching the course at Massey University.

What is Risk Communication?

Risks are inherent to all actions in our life. Bad weather, slippery roads, outdated anti-virus software, and food allergies are some of the risks we face in everyday life. We do all we can to reduce such risks, and when we cannot completely eliminate the uncertainty, we plan early to reduce the impacts resulting from risks. Seat-belts, for example, help us reduce health impact from accidents. Informing the chef of any food allergies would ensure your enjoy the dinner at the table, and not under a surgeon’s knife.

Often, we are not pay enough attention to risk information. In fact we may downplay several information about potential risks because we think it is negative news, or we don’t want to be distracted from our plans. Not planning ahead and wishful thinking that risks will just disappear with time may result in greater negative impact.

What is Crisis Communication?

Risks, when not handled properly, result in crisis.

Hot coffee, when not carried carefully back to the car, spills and stains your dress.

Natural disasters, industrial accidents, leaks and contamination, spread of infectious diseases, acts of terrorism and violence, are also part of life unfortunately. After 2008, we can add financial crisis to the list of unfortunate events. Such events result in enormous human and economic costs.

Communication aimed to prevent crisis and disasters from happening in the first place is the study of issue and risk communication. Communication during and after the disaster is the study of crisis communication.

Know more about risk and crisis communication here soon.

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Science and advocacy: Does advocacy hurt scientists credibility?

Scientists are most trusted sources of information for the public on important science and technology issues, including climate change. Yet, scientists are often the least cited sources in mass media coverage of climate change—they rank below other media sources such as government officials and NGOs.  Even scientific publications, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, does not strongly influence media attention to climate change issue (Schmidt, Ivanova, & Schäfer,  2013).

One probable reason that scientists do not feature prominently in media coverage of science is perhaps due to the cultural norms among scientists that advocacy and objective science are at opposite ends. In fact, scientists may believe that advocacy is inconsistent with their training as objective scientists.  Even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) carefully crafts its scientific reports as ‘policy relevant and not policy perspective.’ Unfortunately, this interpretation and ‘advocacy space’ has been taking up by interest groups, who may not always have evidence-based, scientific backing for policies and positions they advocate.

In a new paper published by John Kotcher and colleagues at Center for Climate Change Communication, Does Engagement in Advocacy Hurt the Credibility of Scientists? Results from a Randomized National Survey Experiment, challenge the assumption that the public may find advocacy by scientists as less credible, serving scientists’ own political and personal interests than serve for greater common good. Americans perceptions of scientists’ credibility, trust in scientific community, and support for funding scientific research were unaffected by scientists increasing advocacy engagement on climate change.  Even though the American public were found to be a bit sceptical about scientists’ advocating for nuclear power, it was at least attributable to the imaginary scientist’s evaluation of scientific evidence rather than scientist’s political motives.  These findings provide perhaps the first-of-its-kind of evidence to ameliorate some of the perceived barriers by scientists for more effective science communication with the public and policy makers.

However, conservatives—who are most likely to dismiss human-induced climate change as real and happening—did respond more negatively to scientists public engagement advocacy statements, indicating that political and cultural worldviews could still be the primary barriers for public understanding and engagement with science. This finding also indicates the importance of the need to find key messengers, opinion leaders, within the different cultural groups that may be more powerful drivers of public attitudes and policy support on climate change.

This means that scientists may not have to speak more often to the public, they may have to engage with other cultural icons in society—such as political and religious leaders—in order to push for a more science-based polices that could heal the planet from many of our current problems.

Although this paper does not address, future research can test if public perceives more personal, direct messages from scientists—as on their Facebook or social media pages—as more honest and credible than news paper citations.  If this is the case, there is a need for more scientists to be speaking from such personal platforms, instead of speaking to the public only through journalists.

While the public is less discriminating about scientists’ advocacy engagement, the tougher battle could be within the scientific community, about its cultural norms of communicating science with the public. Equally important is to build scientists and scientific organizations capacity to communicate with the public  and media.  It took IPCC over 15 years to recognize the importance of communicating with the public and hire a communications and media relations specialist, after lot of bad publicity due to ‘climategate’ scandal.

Equally important could be structural barriers for scientists to speak out against their primary funders, namely government and the private sector. Future research could also explore perceptions about advocacy among scientists, including the barriers and opportunities they perceive to participate more in policy debates about science and technology issues.

Read more:

Do Scientists Lose Credibility When They Become Political? Ed Yong, The Atlantic

Public may be more accepting of advocacy by climate scientists than previously thought

The Science of Science Advocacy: Should researchers advocate for the inclusion of science in public policymaking?

Scientists have long been afraid of engaging in ‘advocacy.’ A new study says it may not hurt them

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Media Use and Public Perceptions of Global Warming in India

Media plays a vital role in informing the public about environmental threats. Although climate change is a global problem, developing countries such as India are often more vulnerable to the impacts due to poverty, illiteracy, and low public awareness. Using data from a nationally representative survey in India, this paper explores the relationships between media use, issue attention, and trust in informational sources on one hand and science-based climate change beliefs, risk perceptions, and policy support on the other. Results suggest that the Indian media, through consistent and accurate coverage of global warming using trusted sources, can play a positive role in increasing public engagement among a largely unaware population. Implications for climate change communication in India are discussed.

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The Role of Collective Efficacy in Climate Change Adaptation

Research on adaptive capacity often focuses on economics and technology, despite evidence from the social sciences finding that socially shared beliefs, norms, and networks are critical in increasing individuals’ and communities’ adaptive capacity. Drawing upon social cognitive theory, this paper builds on the first author’s Ph.D. dissertation and examines the role of collective efficacy—people’s shared beliefs about their group’s capabilities to accomplish collective tasks—in influencing Indians’ capacity to adapt to drinking water scarcity, a condition likely to be exacerbated by future climate change. Using data from a national survey (N 4031), individuals with robust collective efficacy beliefs were found to be more likely to participate in community activities intended to ensure the adequacy of water supplies, and this relationship was found to be stronger in communities with high levels of community collective efficacy compared to communities with low levels of community collective efficacy. In addition, community collective efficacy was positively associated with self-reported community adaptation responses. Public education campaigns aimed at increasing collective efficacy beliefs are likely to increase adaptive capacity.

Read the complete paper here:  

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Why Do Campaigns Fail? Lessons for Campaign Mangers to Succeed

Research Translation

Why Do Campaigns Fail? Lessons for Campaign Managers to Succeed

The case of the national youth anti-drug media campaign: A critical analysis from a strategic communication perspective

Why do a majority of communication and marketing campaigns fail? The success rate of health campaigns in the US is only about 8% on average (Snyder et al., 2004).  Some known culprits are poor funding of campaigns and inadequate planning, but why do even well funded, expert-driven campaigns fail to achieve its objectives? In order to understand why even big budget, carefully conceived campaigns fail, we conducted a strategic communication analysis of US government’s most visible anti-drug campaign.

Unprecedented in size and scope, the U.S. government’s 1 billion dollar National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign had everything going for it: A large budget, a dedicated office to co-ordinate the programme—White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) along with Partnership for Drug Free America (PDFA)—and a team of industry professionals—Porter Novelli, Ogilvy and Mather (O&M) and Fleishman-Hillard—to design and implement the campaign. Yet, independent evaluations of the campaign showed that in spite of high exposure and favourable recall of campaign messages, the campaign had no impact on the initiation, cessation
or reduction in youth drug use.

In fact young people who had never used drugs, when exposed to the campaign, were 2.5 times more likely to try drugs a year later—an unintended ‘boomerang’ effect. For those youth already using drugs, the campaign did not result in reduced use or quit rates. The parents campaign component—as significant influences on youth—was partly successful: Parents exposed to the campaign were more likely to talk to their kids about drugs and do fun activities together as positive parental involvement. But the campaign did not improve parent’s monitoring behaviour, a key campaign target.  Moreover, parental exposure to the campaign had no impact on their children’s beliefs and behaviours.

To examine these counter-intuitive results, we developed and tested the campaign using a strategic communication framework developing from health communication research and the “10 Steps in Strategic Marketing Planning Process” by Kotler and Lee (2008). In short, our examination suggests that campaigns progress through four stages: Formative research (background research), Strategy and tactics, Implementation, and Monitoring and evaluation. While many campaigns are formulated in these four stages, the key to success is the ability of campaign managers to transfer the learning’s from one stage to the next, and to effectively respond to external and internal threats (See Figure 1).

To understand the strengths and weakness of the campaign, we conducted an extensive review, including the analysis of 25 campaign documents and academic articles. We also conducted 20 in-depth interviews with the federal government officials who directly managed the campaign, campaign experts, members of the advertisement agencies, and community organisations. We used content analysis to analyse the interviews and documents by coding them into strengths and weakness during each of the four phases of the campaign. We further sent our analysis to interviewees for verification and feedback.

The results were analysed for each of the four phases of the campaign. In the formative stage, ONDCP and Porter Novelli conducted a broad literature review, and consulted over 200 experts in public and private sector of what had worked and not worked in public health campaigns. This extensive exercise culminated into a strategy document, informally named the ‘Burgandy Bible.’ Most interviewees, and published literature, agreed that the strategy document contained a solid evidence based plan that drew on the best available social scientific research theories and evidence. The failure, however, lies in the strategy document’s inability to anticipate or formulate effective responses to organizational weaknesses or threats.

The strategy document included communication objectives for each of the target audiences (different youth segments, parents, friends) along with strategic message platforms to achieve each objective, a strength.  It failed to include any specific measurable objectives, or a formal monitoring and evaluation plan to assess campaign impacts and outcomes, a critical weakness. Moreover, the document’s original insistence on 25 strategies with 16 different audiences appeared far too ambitious in the implementation stage.

Pressure to get the campaign started as early as possible resulted in advertising that was not pre-tested with the target-audiences, or part of the agreed strategy.  Pre-existing fear-based ads by PDFA were therefore used. “The Anti-Drug” advertising theme for parents worked well, but the “My Anti-Drug” theme for youth did not as one interviewee said, “youth weren’t looking for an anti-drug”.

While the parents component of the campaign was managed entirely by Ogilvy and Mather, the youth component was spread across several advertising companies due to government ‘pro bono’ regulations.  As a result many ad agencies volunteered to do the ads for the youth that did not always follow the best practices in the strategy document. The discrepancy in the implementation of youth ads (pro bono) and parent ads (paid) most likely reflected the relative allocation of ONDCP funds; 60% toward parents and 40% toward youth ads even as the youth were primary targets of the campaign.

The implementation stage also exposed holes in the applicability of social science theories to shape youth behaviour through 30-second TV advertisements: An expert asserted that TV ads were a “blunt instrument not a surgical tool”.  While the use of celebrities did achieve higher visibility of the campaign in the media, reduced funding for non-media tactics (5% compared to 75% on TV advertising), such as school programs to dissuade youth from drug initiation, could have resulted in reinforcement of key message long after the ads disappeared from the television.  Differing philosophies, priorities, and ways of doing business between the campaign management and its partners added to the organisational tensions.

Changes in White House (new administration, Bill Clinton to George Bush) and ONDCP leadership also shifted the campaign focus, such as targeting a single drug, marijuana, ‘gate-way’ drug, ignoring inhalants and alcohol use.  The ‘gateway drug’ hypothesis was not only challenged by the Behavioral Change Expert Panel (BCEP), a team of behavioural science academic experts to bridge the gap between strategy and implementation, but also by the rise of legalization of medical marijuana movement.

The campaign evaluation was managed externally, by University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication, with little input from campaign managers due to government regulations. Although the evaluators were lauded for innovative methods of campaign evaluation—a good standard, according the Government Accountability Office—there methods were criticized for using an untested method (propensity scoring), lack of baseline data, and relying on self-reported measures. The campaign evaluation did not time well with different campaign phases and did not help to improve the campaign. Moreover, the evaluation team did not evaluate non-media strategy and tactics. Finally, the complex evaluation process and results were difficult to communicate to policy makers, resulting in low funding for the campaign in subsequent years.

Recommendations for Campaign Managers

  1. Managers should facilitate a core multifunctional team to enable communication links between contractors working on different stages of the campaign.
  2. Managers should effectively communicate learning from one stage of the campaign to the next for mid-course corrections.
  3. Managers should monitor internal and external factors, and proactively engage with negative media coverage to resolve issues before the issues turn into organisational or campaign crisis.
  4. While media campaigns are important to raise public and media exposure, campaign managers should seek to maximize the impact by achieving synergy between advertising and non-advertising tactics. Managers should prepare for more meaningful participation and flexibility in adapting a national media campaign to local conditions to increase its effectiveness and sustainability long after the 30-second ads were no longer on the air.
  5. Managers should facilitate greater participation by the end-user groups in campaign planning, as the end-users such as community organisations are the arms and the legs of the campaign.
  6. Small, frequent, and inexpensive evaluations such as field experiments, should supplement a large-scale impact evaluation. Policy makers, campaign managers, and program designers could use these “mini evaluations” to feed insights into the campaign development process with a focus on improving processes, institutional capacity building, and strengthening local community coalitions.
  7. Design and results of evaluation should be clear and understandable to facilitate communication with, and decision-making by, key stakeholders, including policy makers who decide on funding future stages of the campaign.


Trowbridge, J., & Thaker, J. (2016).The case of the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign: A critical analysis from a strategic communication perspective. Cases in Public Health Communication & Marketing, 8, 136-169.

Kotler, P. & Lee, N. (2008). Social marketing: Influencing behaviors for good. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Snyder, L. B., Hamilton, M. A., Mitchell, E. W., Kiwanuka-Tondo, J., Fleming-Milici, F., & Proctor, D. (2004). A meta-analysis of the effect of mediated health communication campaigns on behavior change in the United States. Journal of Health Communication, 9 Suppl 1, 71–96.


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