Effective risk communication saves lives and builds disaster resilience

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Effective risk communication should consider the psychological, social, cultural and political forces influencing how people comprehend, perceive, and react to risk.

Is it safe to return home? This was the question faced by communities in New Zealand following the devastation wrought by the Auckland floods and Cyclone Gabrielle last month. Red and yellow stickers were pasted on homes and buildings deemed “dangerous, affected, or insanitary”. While the message on the stickers was clear, it left local communities confused and frustrated: several weeks after the disasters, many thought it should be safe to return home.

The controversy illustrates the challenges of risk communication

The controversy illustrates the challenges of risk communication. It’s not enough to share risk information. The information needs to be understood, trusted and acted upon.

Know your audience

Effective risk communication should consider the psychological, social, cultural and political forces influencing how people comprehend, perceive, and react to risk. Understanding target audiences, how they consume information and what motivates them makes risk communication engaging and relatable: risk is about people’s lives, families, and livelihoods. Risk perceptions are dynamic and change over time. Social listening techniques – through traditional and social media monitoring, surveys, polls and interviews – can help inform and adjust messaging as perceptions evolve.

It is also critical that communication about risk reaches the ‘last mile’ of those most at risk. This means proactively ensuring information is accessible to all and no one is left behind because of language, social or physical barriers.

But raising awareness of risk is not enough. All too often, relevant risk information doesn’t lead to meaningful action.

Incentivizing risk reduction through effective communication

The UN’s latest flagship report on worldwide efforts to reduce disaster risk – the Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction 2022 (GAR2022) – explores why, if science can tell us so much about disaster risk, we are not doing a better job managing those risks.

The report notes that disaster risks are increasingly interconnected and complex, with cascading and compounding impacts that are felt globally. Yet human perceptions of risk are often flawed, and better risk knowledge doesn’t always lead to appropriate action. Research by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman explores human thinking and decision-making, dividing it into two main types: “thinking slow” – deliberate thinking and focused reasoning – and “thinking fast” for quick and binary decision-making. Understanding risk, probabilities and complex systems require us to tap into our slow-thinking mode. But human minds tend to consider disasters as “thinking fast events”, which leads us to take mental shortcuts to simplify decision-making.

For instance, homeowners may fail to renew their flood insurance, even though they know they live in a flood zone. They are affected by what behavioural scientists call “optimism and myopia biases”: the probability of the disaster is perceived as being so low that the potential consequences are ignored. Human beings are notoriously bad at understanding probabilities, which is often how experts estimate the level of risk. For instance, a 100-year flood means a 1% chance that a flood of this magnitude might occur in a given year. This doesn’t mean a 100-year flood happens only once a century. For somebody buying a home in a 100-year flood zone, there is actually a 22% chance of experiencing a flood of that intensity over a 25-year period. Stretching the time horizon is an effective way to address the myopia bias.

Behavioural science can help us understand these shortcuts and the cognitive biases that affect human perceptions of risks

Behavioural science can help us understand these shortcuts and the cognitive biases that affect human perceptions of risks. Behavioural insights can inform effective risk communication and incentivize risk reduction interventions. For example, public health communication studies have shown that fear-based messaging does not work unless accompanied by an effective call to action that gives audiences a sense of agency and describes practical steps required for change.

Examples of biases affecting risk perceptions

  • Amnesia: no wildfires have affected this area in recent memory, so the risks are ignored
  • Herding: none of the neighbours has fireproofed their houses, so the risk must be low
  • Inertia: residents are unsure about the best way to fireproof their houses, so they take no action
  • Myopia: making decisions based on limited and personally relevant information

Building trust affects behavioural change

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of building trust to affect behavioural change. But trust cannot be built overnight. Effective risk communication should build on an ongoing dialogue among national and local governments, scientists, communities, and the media, across formal and informal channels. It should be evidence-based, drawing on available scientific expertise and acknowledging uncertainties. By developing a shared understanding within societies about the risks they face, all stakeholders can take action and make commitments to plan, invest and prepare for any scenario.

Strengthening capacity at all levels

Embedding risk communications in the disaster risk management cycle requires capacity building at all levels: across the media, disaster management agencies, scientists, community leaders, and schools. It requires building knowledge about disaster risk reduction, communication approaches, media literacy and supporting scientific communities to better communicate with non-expert audiences and the public.

International cooperation can help support capacity-building efforts by providing a platform for collaboration and peer exchanges. In February, Romania hosted a 2-day international conference on risk communication, bringing together a range of policymakers, experts, media, youth, and high-level representatives from civil protection authorities from across the region, to discuss the importance of cultivating an all-of-society approach where open discussion between stakeholders ensures that evidence, trust, transparency and popular participation are aligned to reduce risk.

The event was organised in the format of an Action-Oriented Dialogue (AOD), an innovation of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), to encourage Member States and stakeholders to proactively take forward action on specific priorities and thematic areas in line with the regional European Forum for Disaster Risk Reduction Roadmap 2021-2030, which was agreed in 2021.

The event in Romania follows similar AODs to take forward resilience-building actions on specific topics, including on heat and wildfire risk governance in Greece, and on investing in disaster risk reduction.

Risk communication is an ongoing process that will rarely be perfect

Risk communication is an ongoing process that will rarely be perfect. But ensuring it is an integral part of disaster risk reduction efforts is a significant step forward.

We cannot change the weather or prevent tectonic plates from moving. But an ongoing dialogue within society can provide the foundation for a shared understanding of risk and how to manage it. It should involve every corner of society.


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