The Safety Professional’s Guide to Risk and Crisis Communication

Safety professionals who apply principles of risk communication can more effectively express their safety training and messages to the work force. In an exclusive interview with EHS Today, Pamela (Ferrante) Walaski, CSP, CHMM, explains what safety professionals need to know about risk and crisis communications.

“The profession itself is changing. We see that through a greater focus on prevention through design and designing out safety problems rather than looking for hazards and correcting them after the fact,” said Walaski, president of JC Safety & Environmental Inc. and author of Risk and Crisis Communications: Methods and Messages. “I think a lot of safety professionals need to rethink what they do and how they do it.”

Risk and crisis communication is one area EHS professionals may need to consider as they face broadening roles and responsibilities. As Walaski points out in the introduction to her book, “Risk communications helps audiences understand their risk as well as what activities they can undertake to prepare for the hazard situation. Crisis communications is the process and messages that are delivered at times of high stress, either because the hazard is already occurring or is imminent.”

That process, Walaski said, often is engrained in an EHS professional’s work. “Whenever you speak as a member of your organization, you are usually communicating some kind of risk,” she explained. “Knowing how to frame those words is really crucial.”

Trust, Engagement, Compassion

EHS professionals striving to better understand crisis and risk communications should focus on the following principles:

Understand your audience – “Often, safety professionals tell the audience what they think the audience needs to know rather than what they want to know,” Walaski said. “We also often spend a lot of time trying to give the audience technical information when what they really want to know is that we care about them.” To express their messages effectively, EHS professionals must understand the audience’s needs and convey compassion and empathy from the start. Otherwise, Walaski said, they risk “sounding like a taking book.”

Earn trust and gain credibility – If the speaker does not have the audience’s trust before delivering his or her message, that message is going to be less effective or may even fail completely. “If the audience doesn’t trust you, it doesn’t matter what you say or how you say it,” Walaski said. “Build that trust and credibility in advance, so when the crisis event occurs, the audience is more willing to listen to what you’re saying and accept your messages. It’s critical.”

Don’t be afraid to outline the worst-case scenario – “Sometimes we try to shield [the audience] from the truth because we don’t want them to panic. We try to pretty up the words and language, but in the end, if the worst-case scenario comes to play, we put ourselves in a completely compromised position,” she explained. It’s better to return to an audience saying, “This isn’t as bad as we had thought,” than to have to deliver the news that the situation is worse than originally projected.

Engage workers during training – “Training the work force is risk communication. You have a message, and you need them to do something or behave in a certain way after they hear the message,” Walaski said. Unfortunately, she added, too many training activities involve a trainer lecturing for an hour and then giving a quiz. “It’s no wonder the work force falls asleep or is typing on their Blackberries … They don’t feel a part of it, there’s no engagement,” she said. “And that’s where I think risk communication can help us.”

Show compassion when discussing fatalities – Ideally, EHS professionals never would have to deal with a fatality. Even so, they must be prepared to tell the work force what happened (and why) if a fatality does occur – all while understanding the audience’s emotional reaction. “When you approach your work force with a fatality, their emotions are high. Unless you can demonstrate compassion, concern and sympathy first, the audience is less likely to accept your messages,” Walaski said. EHS professionals can help employees cope with their anxiety by giving them something to do, such as helping with the investigation, making suggestions to prevent a similar incident in the future or participating in a memorial.

Develop a crisis communication plan – “We do a good job developing emergency response plans that tell us what to do when a crisis hits, but the plans often miss what we’re going to say when the crisis hits,” Walaski said. Medium and small companies, which likely do not have such plans in place, especially should consider developing a simplistic communications plan that outlines what the company would say if a crisis hits, and who would communicate that message.

“Our current culture and society relies increasingly on written and verbal messages on a near-constant basis to evaluate the world and the risks associated with living in it,” Walaski wrote in her book’s introduction. “These messages do more than simply provide information; they can cause large groups of people to behave in certain ways as well as change their perceptions of the world around them.”

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