A paradoxical risk communication problem

Risk communication may well be the hardest thing most PR practitioners will ever need to do. The complexities of innumeracy, emotion, confusion and deliberate distortion which bedevil most risk communication problems present massive problems for practitioners.

Recently the blog has seen just how difficult it can be, and just how perceptions can change according to the standpoint of the protagonists, sometimes in the most paradoxical ways. The blog’s local council is proposing to remediate a local park and arts centre by removing the park soil and trees; removing underlying  contaminants; putting in a new layer of soil; and, replanting the garden. The park and arts centre were once the site of a Victorian Gas & Fuel operation which was closed with the advent of natural gas and rationalisation of operations and converted into a park. The historic buildings on the site are now a flourishing arts complex which the blog supports.

The blog was initially very concerned about the proposal. Council staff on the consultation booths at the site couldn’t answer simple questions; there seemed to be no evidence of a risk analysis; and it was unclear whether the Council had been directed to clean up the site or not.

At the weekend there was a rally on the site, mainly attended by people who use the park as a dog walking site. As the rally and the speeches progressed the blog couldn’t help thinking that 95% of the people attending would, under normal circumstances, be shouting from the rooftops about any contaminant within a kilometre of anywhere they went. The best efforts of proponents to discuss the risk would be ridiculed and nothing less than a 100% clean up would satisfy.

The main speaker went so far as to say that we ought to be suspicious of scientists (Tony Abbott, Stephen Harper, Maurice Newman and the late Ray Evans would reprise this view when it came to climate science) although another speaker gave a scientific explanation of why she believed a report prepared for Council was flawed. The Mayor and some councillors were there and were given a hard time although the blog’s experience of the ones who were there has been universally positive. They can hardly be thought of as your traditional bad guys.

In between becoming more and more confused the blog fell to ruminating on risk communication rather than listening to another speaker who finished her remarks by channelling the thoughts of her dog. Ruminating about risk always leads to thoughts of the guru of risk communication, Dr Peter Sandman, who coined the phrase Risk=hazard+outrage.  His website http://www.psandman.com/ is always worth visiting and his consultancy work has been outstanding. Funnily enough a Masters by course work student the blog was supervising used Sandman’s methodology to analyse a speech by then Health Minister, Abbott, on avian flu. The speech was actually a model of intelligent balanced risk assessment and communication. Indeed, it was a credit to however in the Department wrote it. Thinking about it one wishes the same person had scripted more of Abbott’s comments over the years.

And that’s what seems to be missing from the debate about this gasworks park – some balanced risk assessment and communications. The blog is inclined to believe the current situation is probably safe – there was remediation some 30 years ago; what’s left is covered by half a metre of soil; there appear to be no cancer or other ill-health clusters around the area; and the garden has flourished. By Bolshie inclination the blog wants to protest; has signed the petition; and even engaged in some Tom Wolfe Mau Mauing the flak catchers’ tactics with the staff handling the consultation. But deep down the blog is concerned that it doesn’t really know for sure one way or the other.

The Council has apparently been looking at the issue for a couple of years and has commissioned various reports. They have had a consultation process which has been less than convincing and they have the obligatory brochure. The blog would not like to be arguing the Council position. About 80% of the clean-up cost will be borne by ratepayers and the chances of getting the full cost from the government, which once owned the site, are probably nil. Rumours and accusations are flying and the latest is a suggestion that the site is being readied for sale for development purposes even though that is transparently nonsense.

But most importantly the situation is totally paradoxical – the official body is saying the park is not safe and the people are saying it is. Not even Peter Sandman has had to deal that often with an issue as unusual as that. In the meantime the Council has done the sensible thing and extended the consultation period. Perhaps they should also call Dr Sandman – who is, according to his website, moving from being semi-retired to almost retired but still doing the odd job.