Risky Business: The element of mistrust in risk communication

By Nicola Bawden

Trust is commonly emphasised as one of the most important elements in effective risk communication. In matters of health and environmental risks where consensus is sought through stakeholder negotiation, mistrust commonly exists between parties, which hinders communication.

Leiss (1995) argues that all parties have valid reasons for mistrusting the motives or behaviours of others, based on historical experience. He uses the analogy of a poker game in analysing the process of decision making in risk management. He features a group of players, the stakeholders, representing strongly differing interests at the negotiating table:

“…in which bluffing, raising the ante, and calling the perceived bluffs of others are matters of survival.”

Bluffing is undertaken to deliberately deceive your opponent, an act attributed to seemingly untrustworthy behaviour. Such a tactic becomes applicable, however, as communication of risk management can similarly be viewed as a “game of chance”, given the uncertainties associated with risk.

During negotiation of risk matters, participants representing different interests each have conflicting evaluations of the same situation. Therefore, in order to advance their own interests, they are motivated employ “dirty” tactics. For example, “environmentalist” organisations typically assert a risk adverse perspective, such as rejecting large-scale development projects. In this instance, their claim of an unacceptable risk should be regarded by other parties as a bluff.

A more complex case study illustrating these tactics is given from the 1990s involving the lumber industry in Canada using antisapstains (fungicides) to control mould. Following labour union pressure over occupational health and environmental impacts from using the antisapstain, the lumber industry was forced to discontinue using a compound which proved excellent as an antisapstain agent. Tension rose between the stakeholders over the best alternative compound to be used, in assessing the negative environmental and health risks against the importance of the industry to the economy, resulting in a meeting to try and resolve their stalemate.

After much deliberation and bluffing among the parties, a majority agreement was signed and accepted as “consensus”, resulting in the implementation of the recommended changes. Leiss goes on to conclude that given the right circumstances such as stakeholder negotiation, acceptable risk management outcomes for society are possible. In the age of globalisation, however, does this remain a realistic goal, to get everyone around the one table and somehow breakdown the barriers of mistrust to reach a consensus without an officiating body?

I believe Leiss’ arguments need to be put into context, as his paper was written sixteen years ago. For example, he refers to practices which abuse public trust such as concealing relevant information. Today, improved technology and the internet have made information much more readily accessible to the public, and anything hidden generally has a way of becoming exposed, these days sooner rather than later.

Given that each stakeholder generally has a hidden agenda and is acting in their own interests, the dilemma that citizens face becomes clear in trying to determine who and what to believe when making decisions.


Leiss W. 1995. “Down and dirty” The use and abuse of public trust in risk communication. Risk Analysis 15(6):685-692.


4 comments so far

  1. Caitlin Murray on

    Great work Nicola.
    An example of improved technology and getting information out would definitely be Wiki leaks, which has exposed a lot of information that was kept secret, however I think there may have been some merit at keeping some of it quiet. I also completely agree with the bluffing tactic so many organisations and parliamentary groups use it in scare campaigns, which is touched on in the paper with groups releasing information about health risks of products that were never proven.

    • nicolabawden7 on

      Thanks Caitlin!
      I completely agree with your example of Wiki leaks, I was thinking about this as well whilst writing the blog, but just ran out of room to elaborate! It can certainly cause a lot of tension when exposing secret information in any environment.

  2. Bahram Mirfakhraei on

    Hi Nicola,
    I also believe that barriers of mistrust should be broken and this makes the risk communication much easier. As you mentioned, due to improvement of technology, communication is easier these days and risk management outcomes can be achieved easily. However, the big question is: Why at first place, producers and stakeholders try to abuse the public trust and take advantage of it? I think if they change their point of view and look at themselves as a part of society, they understand that they also will be affected by the decisions that they make. Such point of view will make them more responsible. Moreover, if they know that after losing the public trust, it will take a long time to gain it back, they will try to maintain the public trust instead of taking the risk of losing it.

    Bahram Mirfakhraei

    • nicolabawden7 on

      Thanks for your comment Bahram.
      You make a great point and I agree that it is definitely a big problem that needs to be addressed. A new perspective from producers and stakeholders could be the start of a better, more open relationship with the public in the future.

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