The curious case of real risks

One of the curious things about risk is the fact that it is much harder to get people worried about real risks than it is to get them to stop worrying about something which is not really a major concern.

That thought came originally from Peter Sandman, the risk expert the blog referred to a while ago in discussing the paradoxical case of the local gasworks park where the populace was saying it was safe and the official body, the Council, was saying it was not because of contamination from decades ago.

Since then one of Australia’s leading issues management experts, Tony Jaques, reminded the blog of the Sandman insight about real and perceived risks as well as some other examples of risk and perception. Jaques said: “A few years ago I saw a TV documentary which contrasted the treatment of two high profile contaminated sites.  One was the Love Canal site near Niagara and the other was the Seveso site north of Milan.  In the former case the site was evacuated and treated by men in moonsuits and is still totally enclosed. In the other case the contaminated soil was piled up, covered with clean soil and turned into a park, with children running around on it flying kites. As the commentary said: one of these in wrong, but which is it?”

Jaques also pointed out something else about contamination in the same Council area as the gasworks park. “When you drive along Kingsway in South Melbourne, you might … notice a large triangular park area on the corner of Kingsway and Sturt Street. Why hasn’t it been built on?  Because the site was badly contaminated by a former petrol station.  It always intrigues me that it is okay to be a park but not okay to have a block of flats built.”

Looking at the gasworks park situation Jaques said: “My question in your case would be – what is the actual risk the council is attempting to mitigate?  Is it a real health or environmental risk or is it legal liability?”

The question is apposite because the local Mayor, Amanda Stevens, has said in a television interview that the park is ‘safe’ which immediately poses the question of why they want to dig it up and start again. But for practitioners the gasworks problem raises a series of other questions: is the risk real, how has the Council communicated the risks, was it effective, what went wrong, why are the local residents not concerned about reports of contamination which would normally spark outrage?

Whatever the answers, it might well serve as a good case study for a post graduate student. In the meantime the Council has closed off the community consultation and the blog is betting that when it comes to a final decision the park might be largely left as it is.

As for risks, real risks and perceived risks we will no doubt see more of the chasm between real and perceived risk situations in people’s attitudes to flying after the Malaysian Airlines tragedy. In the US statistics suggest that after 9/11 road accident deaths went up – probably because people were afraid of flying and drove more indicating a misunderstanding of the relative risks of various modes of travel. Similarly the security expert, Bruce Schneier, was  asked a while ago whether it was safe to visit the World Trade Centre site. Schneier replied that it was almost certainly very safe as long as you didn’t drive there. Schneier’s excellent newsletter on security, which frequently features valuable discussions of risk and cost benefit analyses of risk, can be found at

And on Tony Jaques more news is available on his new book Issues and Crisis Management which explores issues, crisis, risk and reputation and will be published on October 2 this year. You can find out more about it at

The book seeks to provide an integrated model of issues and risk management within the broader contexts of public relations, communication and management. It features current field research, some theoretical perspectives, case studies, discussion of the role and impact of social media and includes a full-worked example of a detailed issue management plan.