Theory and Practice of Risk Communication

The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) has the statutory remit for risk communication. In the course of the six years since its foundation BfR has come to assume a recognised pioneer role in this field. At the first BfR Risk Communication Symposium in Berlin the department of the same name presented the results of its scientific work to an informed public and discussed with experts the demands and reality of communication, evaluation and participation. "Our research projects show that consideration must be given to the way consumers perceive risks if we are to effectively communicate risks", says BfR President, Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel. The tool of the consumer conference, amongst others, was used as a successful dialogue process for close citizen involvement. The regular evaluation of the effectiveness of the risk communication measures also proved its worth.

The first BfR Risk Communication Symposium took up current scientific discussions from the areas of psychology, sociology and the communication sciences on risk perception, assessment and communication. Around 90 participants from science, industry, political circles and public agencies discussed the consequences for risk communication practice.

As consumers are all very different, they also have differing expectations of risk communication. Communication about risks must, therefore, be adapted to the target groups. Successful risk communication can also lead to changes in consumer behaviour. A BfR study on consumer behaviour towards acrylamide in food showed that the majority of consumers felt that they were well informed about the risk from acrylamide and as many as 30% changed their eating habits as a consequence of the corresponding recommendations.

Consumers mainly source information on food and product risks from the mass media. Hence, the way these risks are portrayed in the media influences how they are perceived. For instance consumers are mainly positively disposed towards nanotechnology and expect it to offer benefits in daily life and in medical care. This attitude may have been influenced for example by the fact that the leading German daily and weekly newspapers contain positive articles about nanotechnology and up to now have mostly focussed on the relevant scientific findings.

BfR is of the opinion that, in the case of nanotechnology, the consumer conference has proved to be a suitable procedure for the discussion of the potential risks of new technologies not just by experts but also by consumers. At the same time, this tool does not lend itself to every subject.

The most suitable dialogue process must be selected on the basis of the topic and its potential for social conflict.

Participatory dialogue processes of this kind will continue to be an important risk communication tool for BfR. The aim is to establish public awareness, mutual tolerance of possibly conflicting points of view and public trust in socio-political decisions. All interest groups from science, industry, political bodies, non-governmental organisations and consumers circles concerned will be actively involved in future, too.

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