Are rules alone enough?

Uploaded by Nicola Bawden on behalf of Steven Chew

In 1988, Covello & Allen developed the seven cardinal rules of risk communication. These rules are as follows:

  1. Accept and involve the public as a partner
  2. Plan carefully and evaluate your efforts
  3. Listen to the public’s specific concerns
  4. Be honest, frank and open
  5. Work with other credible sources
  6. Meet the needs of the media
  7. Speak clearly and with compassion

These rules have been pinnacle and have offered practitioners helpful guidelines over the years when dealing with risk communication. However are these rules adequate to guide us through the problems we face when trying to communicate risk? K.E. Rowan does not think so and her paper “Why rules for risk communication are not enough: a problem-solving approach to risk communication” explores this.

At first glance, the rule-based approach seems sufficient enough. It gives us a fairly comprehensive guide of what to do and how to approach risk communication. However limitations are present. They do not offer much assistance in determining why a certain communication approach has failed.
The rule-based approach also does not help to anticipate and overcome likely difficulties in future risk situations or even help locate information about how to reduce these difficulties.

With a diagnostic or problem-solving approach, we are able to overcome these limitations. This approach to risk communication is able to recognize the range of problems characterizing risk situations. Risk situations are characterized by breakdowns in credibility, awareness, understanding, agreement about solutions and enactment of effective response (also known as the CAUSE mnemonic). Furthermore the problem-solving approach locates key obstacles to the five communication goals and offers message-generation principles likely to overcome identified difficulties.  The framework integrates research from diverse fields by focusing on ways similar risk communication difficulties can be reduced with analytic communication skills. There are five general obstacles and goals that risk communicators need to understand.

  1. People need strategies for creating trust and diagnosing risk communication situations that are riddled with suspicion.
  2. Awareness creation strategies are needed as risk communication situations are characterized by lack of awareness
  3. Risk communication situations involve difficult
    ideas hence we need strategies for determining why these ideas are difficult and methods to overcome these difficulties
  4. There is need for skills in gaining agreement as risk communication situations involve frequent disagreements
  5. Risk communicators need strategies for motivating action

The problem-solving approach says that risk communication requires knowledge, fair processes and communication skills. It concentrates on enhancing people’s communication skills by providing conceptual tools for analysing and responding to risk situations. The tools used are: specifying goals for risk communication, identifying obstacles for each goal and lastly presenting research-supported methods for dressing each obstacle. In Rowans paper, she goes on to illustrate the use of the problem-solving approach by examining two communication goals in detail: building trust and explaining complex material.

I think that the 7 cardinal rules (and the rules-based approach in general) will always have its place when dealing with risk communication. In most instances, it will prove to be sufficient but may leave some practitioners wanting. However Rowan does make a number of valid points and her argument for the adoption of a more problem-solving approach makes sense, especially when having the need to anticipate and deal with likely difficulties concerned with risk communication. It is certainly a more complicated route to dealing with risk communication, but is it worth the trouble?



Rowan, K. E.
1994.  Why rules for risk communication
are not enough: a problem-solving approach to risk communication.  Risk Analysis 14(3)369-374.

Covello, V. and F. Allen (1988), Seven Cardinal Rules of Risk Communication,
Washington, D.C.: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Policy


2 comments so far

  1. gracerussell89 on

    Risk communication is such a prevalent issue today especially with new technologies surrounding the innovative world.
    Your blog was good to read Steven and i think the article you read addresses some points that most people dont consider.
    However i do believe that public reaction to risk communication can be a great indicator of the success of communication. If knowledge is presented well to the public, irrational fear is eliminated, however if bad communication skills take over and the communication to the public does not address important issues or put some uneducated fearful minds at rest, this will be seen greatly in their reaction.
    There are many examples of this, nuclear power is the one that first comes to mind.

    I agree with Rowan, the rules, i think, might need to be re-constructed to fit in some more important ones.


  2. ushachandra on

    It was a good read Steven. Thank you for the insight. Successful risk communication is a complex art. It requires skill, knowledge, training and practice and most importantly funding. I agree with Grace’s response on how public’s reaction is vital to risk communication. It should always be a two way track for a communication to be successful. This way, the public’s awareness is taken into account as a response. I had another good read by Sinisi out of curiosity on public concerns and risk communication that further demonstrated in relation to the discussion. Effective communication of risk not only disseminates information but also converse the complexities and uncertainties included with risk assessment and management. Well managed efforts will make sure messages are constructively put together, transmitted and received, and that they respond to actions perceived to be meaningful and reasonable.

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