Establishing Trust is a Risky Proposition

In my last post (‘The Innovation Paradox: Risk versus Progress’) I reviewed and commented on the 2015 Trust Barometer’s findings and Richard Edelman’s seven imperatives for rebuilding trust in light of the public’s concern about innovation and the pace of change. In that post I suggested Edelman’s imperatives reminded me of the work that has been done in the field of risk communications over the last 30 years ago and how Richard’s suggestions are aligned with the research on the importance of trust and transparency.

My Introduction To Risk Communication

Relatively early in my public relations career (1987), I had the good fortune of securing a large, long-term client, an agriculture chemical manufacturer and warehouse, whose international headquarters in Basel Switzerland mandated that all their operations engage in an open and ongoing dialogue with their communities on the safe manufacture of chemical products. It was the first significant and meaningful community relations program that I developed and my first exposure to a new and growing field of public relations practice and research: Risk Communications.

The initiative at this local plant in south-western Ontario, about 60 miles west of downtown Toronto, was actually part of a program initiated by the Canadian Chemical Producers Association (now called the Chemical Industry Association of Canada) called “Responsible Care” — to inform, engage and rebuild trust in the importance of chemicals and chemistry in our daily lives. According to the CIAC’s history on Responsible Care, “Canada’s chemistry CEOs faced the faced: the public did not trust the industry. Building public trust would require something above and beyond the law: a commitment to doing the right thing”.

This “made-in-Canada” program, which soon became the international standard for all chemical industry outreach and engagement adopted by chemical industry associations in 60 countries, was founded on the principle that the public had the right to be informed and engaged — a counter-intuitive perspective for most who worked in the industry that was separated from the community by barbed-wire fences.

Lead by the public affairs team at the Chemical Manufactures Association in Washington, DC — the community relations component of the Responsible Care program was rolled out across North America by two of the most effective trainers that I had ever met — Erin Donovan and Dr. Vince Covello. Along with my client’s plant manager, we attended a three-day training program that combined the theory and principles of this new field of risk communications and hands-on community relations/engagement principles and practices. We were inspired and committed to immediately incorporating these new learnings into our practices and our plans.

While building trust with the public shouldn’t have been a “game-changing” idea, it is important to remember the context in which this initiative was launched. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a series of “industrial” accidents captured the headlines and concern of the public and government officials. Names like “Love Canal”, “Three-Mile Island”, “Bhopal” and “Chernobyl” unleashed a growing sense of unease and fear for communities that hosted chemical and energy plants. These names soon became synonymous with how not to communicate during a community disaster. And communications researchers like Drs. Paul Slovic, Baruch Fischhoff and James Flynn (no relation) soon began to study why certain publics responded in certain ways to concerns about risks while others responded in nearly the exact opposite manner.

In 1988, Covello and Allen publish a manifesto-style list of principles that risk communicators should live by in order to build trust and credibility with their communities.

Here are the Seven Cardinal Rules:

1.  Accept and involve the public as a legitimate partner;

2. Plan carefully and evaluate your efforts;

3. Listen to your audience;

4. Be hones, frank and open;

5. Coordinate and collaborate with other credible sources;

6. Meet the needs of the media; and,

7. Speak clearly and with compassion.

If you look closely at Edelman’s seven imperatives, you will see some similarity to the nearly 30-year old cardinal rules written by Covello and Allen.

Risk communications researchers and practitioners, were well ahead of public relations scholars in identifying  two-way symmetrical, relationship-based communications as the primary means and methodology to creating trust with stakeholders and priority publics. While much of the foundational risk communication research was done in the era before social media, I still believe that the principles and imperatives identified three decades ago hold true for the practice of public relations today.

Here is my short summary on the evolution of the field or risk communications from a paper I presented at a conference a number of years ago:

In 1989, after communication missteps at Three Mile Island, Bhopal, and Love Canal that caused community outrage and fear (Covello, 1992), the U.S. National Research Council (NRC) initiated a number of research studies to understand how the public reacts to risk issues and, more specifically, how to facilitate a more meaningful dialogue between organizations and the public on risk elements. For the NRC, risk communication was “an interactive process of exchange of information and opinion among individuals, groups, and institutions; often communications involves multiple messages about the nature of the risk(s) or express concerns, opinions, or reactions to risk messages or to legal and institutional entities or organizations for risk management” (Vogt & Sorensen, 1994, p. 20).

For government agencies the development of an interactive process of exchange with the public on sensitive and, sometimes, controversial environmental issues was often very difficult. Many witnessed the almost impossible challenge that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) faced in its early days of the Love Canal crisis, to build trust and credibility with the community of Niagara Falls, NY. According to the then EPA administrator, W.D. Ruckelshaus, the only way to achieve trust with the public was to involve them in defining and deciding acceptable levels of environmental risk (Ruckelshaus, 2001). However, building trust and developing an interactive process of exchange with the public isn’t a typical public affairs model within government agencies. According to Cutlip, Center and Broom (2000), “often, but certainly not always, government public relations programs deal with one-way communication directed to constituents” (p. 490).

In what is generally regarded as one of the first attempts to define the field of risk communication, social scientists Vincent T. Covello and Fred Allen joined together in drafting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Seven Cardinal Rules for Risk Communication. Within that 1988 guidance document, Covello and Allen stated that “risk communication is any purposeful exchange of scientific information between interested parties regarding health or environmental risks” (as quoted USEPA, 1992, p. 37).

With respect to the first cardinal rule, “accept and involve the public as a legitimate partner,” Covello (1992) stated that, “the goal of risk communication in a democracy should be to produce an informed public that is involved, interested, reasonable, thoughtful, solution-focused, and collaborative; it should not be to diffuse public concerns or replace action” (p. 13). For the third rule, “listen to the public’s specific concerns,” Covello (1992) says that “people in the community are often more concerned about trust, credibility, control, competence, voluntariness, fairness, caring and compassion than about mortality statistics and the details of quantitative risk assessment. If you do no listen to people, you cannot expect them to listen to you. Communication is a two-way activity” (p. 14).

In 1996, the Presidential/Congressional Commission on Risk Assessment and Risk Management published its definition of risk communication: “An interactive process of exchange of information and opinion among individuals, groups, and institutions” (as quoted in Department of Navy, 2001, p. 21). That same year, the NRC, whose 1989 definition set the stage for a more involved and engaging process, stated that: “Many decisions can be better informed and their information base can be more credible if the interested and affected parties are appropriately and actively involved” (as quoted in Department of Navy, 2001, p. 20). More recently, the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine, in response to the Gulf War Illness crisis, stated in 2000 that “risk communication should be a dynamic process that is responsive to input from several sources, changing concerns of affected populations, modifications in scientific risk evidence, and newly identified needs for communication” (as quoted in Department of Navy, 2001, p. 19).

According to Heath and Palenchar (2000), risk communication “is a sub-discipline of public relations devoted to address risks that befall citizens who live and work near dangerous industries or who encounter potentially harmful technologies” (p. 131). It is the act of conveying or transmitting information between interested parties about (a) levels of health risks; (b) the significance of meaning of health or environmental risks; (c) decisions, actions or policies aimed at managing or controlling health or environmental risks (Covello, von Winterfeldt, & Slovic, 1986, p. 171).

According to Rich, Griffin and Friedman (1999), public involvement in risk decisions is critical, “effective risk communication that allows citizens to participate fully in decisions about those risks is essential to democratizing our society’s allocation of risks” (p. 194). Covello and Sandman (2001) point to the ultimate success of risk communication:

“We knew that it was going to alter the ways in which the public deals with organizations about risk, and in which organizations deal with the public. What we did not realize was that it would transform the way organizations think of themselves as well. We have discovered, at the most fundamental level that engaging in meaningful, respectful, and frank dialogue with the public involves changes in basic values and organizational culture. But we have also found that much more often than not, the improvements that come of it all prove well worth the effort (p. 177).”


Covello, V.T. (1992). Informing people about risks from chemicals, radiation, and other toxic substances: A review of obstacles to public understanding and effective risk communication. In W. Leiss (Ed.). Prospects and problems in risk communications (pp. 1-49). Waterloo, ON: University of Waterloo Press.

Covello, V.T., von Winterfeldt, D., & Slovic, P. (1986) Risk communication: A review of the literature. Risk Abstracts 3 (4), 171-82.

Covello, V.T., & Sandman, P.M. (2001). Risk communication: Evolution and revolution (pp 164- 177). In A.B. Wolbarst (Ed.). Solutions for an environment in peril. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Cutlip, S.M., A.H. Center, and G.M. Broom. (2000). Effective public relations (8th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Heath, R.L. & Palenchar, M. (2000). Community relations and risk communication: A longitudinal study of the impact of emergency response messages. Journal of Public Relations Research, 12, 131-161

Rich, R.C., Griffin, R.J., & Friedman, S.M. (1999). The challenge of risk communication in a democratic society: Introduction. Risk: Health, Safety & Environment, 10, 189-196.

Ruckelshaus, W.D. (2001). Ethics and social regulation in America (pp. 43-52). In A.B. Wolbarst (Ed.). Solutions for an environment in peril. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency. (1992, June). Environmental equity: Reducing risk for all communities. Office of Policy, Planning, and Evaluation. Washington, D.C.

I’m back…did you miss me?

It’s been far too long since I last attempted to post my thoughts about public relations and professional communications. As most writers and researchers know and understand, it takes a concentrated effort to battle the simple distractions in life that provide the simplest excuses not to write. My me it has been a combination of reasons but the most important has been a lack of confidence that my voice or my thoughts matter.

Writing is not my natural communications skill — those who know me (and my family) know that having kissed the Blarney stone at such a young age, I was blessed with the proverbial Irish gift of speech. Give me a microphone, a stage or a classroom and I could speak for days. But put a blank sheet of paper or computer screen in front of me and the gift of speech fails to translate into the gift of the written word. So trying to capture my thoughts in manner that I believe can make a positive contribution to our already overloaded information world has been a struggle. Others have and continue to write about issues that are impacting public relations and professional communications — with great ease and great impact. Some researchers churn out study after study on micro and macro issues, sometimes leaving me to think that it’s already been said and studied.

However, as we well know, it hasn’t all been said and certainly in this discipline and professional field of study and practice, there is still much to know and understand. So my goal in 2015 is to make an efficient (an hopefully effective) contribution to the fields of public relations, crisis communications, reputation management and behavioural communication.

I will endeavour to bring you timely professional and scholarly information and insights but not overload you with details about my dogs, my favourite meals or my attempts to go back to the gym and get physically and mentally fit. While my social media knowledge is fairly good, I must confess that I’m still trying to learn the protocols of an effective blogger. So be patient with my lack of sophistication. There are some bloggers that have been writing for decades and have incorporated the latest platforms and apps — I admire their efforts greatly and hope that over time (and use of these platforms) that I may reach a greater level of expertise. But until then, this blog will a work in progress.

I hope that my thoughts and perspectives provoke you to think, ponder and comment on the issues that I believe are important to both the scholarship and practice of these disciplines.