One of the challenges faced by risk communication is in how risks are perceived by target audiences. The perception of risk plays a major role in how well, or how poorly, messages which communicate risks and hazards are received by those the messages are intended for. This perception process can produce a wide range of outcomes from risk communication efforts, some of which may not have been intended by those who craft and disseminate those messages.
According to Lundgren and McMakin (2004), one approach to risk communication, known as the Hazard plus Outrage Approach, considers how messages related to risk are perceived. This process defined two separate measures of how risks are perceived and communicated:
Hazard, a technical and objective measure of risk which examined the possibility of the occurrence of a potential hazard, the potential consequences should it occur, how to manage the risk, as well as how to respond to an incident. This measure is primarily determined by experts who are knowledgeable about risks, and
Outrage, a subjective measure of risk which looks at how risks are perceived by those who are, or could be, exposed to them. While this method of assessment can involve factual information which has been presented by risk communicators, it is also influenced by more subjective measures, such as informal communication processes, social networks, and personal and cultural values.
Lundgren and McMakin (2004) believed the consideration of both was key in the effective transmission of messages related to risk communication, and that the larger the difference between hazards being communicated and outrage by the recipients of those messages, the greater the potential for controversy and ineffective communication.
One example of the disconnect between Hazard and Outrage, and its potential consequences, can be found in the examination of a fire-fighting department in the south-western United States by Scott and Tretheway (2005). They found that the perception of risk sometimes nullifies efforts to communicate objective information about the degree of risks faced by firefighters:
As might be expected of an organization situated in a high risk occupation, members often acted on attenuated notions of risk that minimized the dangers of hazards. In their attempts to resolve insecurities, members produced attenuated risk appraisals that were counterproductive to the extent that they enabled modes of risk management that ultimately heightened risks to self (p.19).
- Lundgren, R., & McMakin, A. (2004). Understanding Risk Communication. In Risk Communication: A Handbook for Communicating Environmental Safety, and Health Risks (pp. 13-28). Columbus, OH: Batelle Press.
- Scott, C., &. Trethewey, A. (2005, October). The Discursive Organization of Risk and Safety: How Firefighters Define and Appraise Occupational Hazards. Presented at the Carolinas Communication Association, University of North Carolina, Charlotte.