Public Communication, Consultation & Participation

Public Communication, Consultation & Participation

Jun 6th, 2013

Riskope thanks Susan Zabolotniuk for this contribution.  This post is a complement to the  Oboni, Oboni, Zabolotoniuk paper entitled “Can we stop misrepresenting reality t the public” presented at the CIM 2013, Toronto conference. It is about Public Communication, Consultation & Participation in the mining industry.

It is normal that experts will disagree in their analysis of results, such as with probability or frequency estimates. Yet when the public disagrees with an expert risk analysis they are dismissed as emotional or lacking scientific literacy. A good example of this was with the tobacco industry,

Scientific literacy “stands for what the general public ought to know about science” (Durant, 1993). Essentially a minimum understanding by the general public that would enable them to participate in environmental decision-making. That would “help solve practical problems” (Shen, 1975). This concept is important because there is an accepted difference in scientific literacy between the public and scientific experts. However, there also is an assumption that the public are ignorant about scientific risk and probability and that an increased scientific literacy would help decrease perceived risks (Frewer, 2004).

An increase in scientific literacy may in fact increase perceived risks. But the question remains as to whether the level of required scientific literacy is “so high that it is difficult to attain and difficult to motivate the public to attain it”? (Frewer, 2000). It is simply unrealistic that the average citizen can obtain sufficient scientific literacy. At least at the level necessary to thoroughly tackle any or all technical risk reports, be they nuclear, energy, or mining. The bar or standard must be reasonable.

Consequential to this is that corporations must communicate risk information to the public. Information that would be accepted as technically adequate and seemingly objective, a difficult task. Risk managers must move their communication approach. They must transition from paternalistically doling out pieces of information that support their risk management approach to partnering with the public (Fischhoff). That will achieve to demonstrate that the practices meet acceptable levels and standards.

Public Communication, Consultation & Participation

Two components of environmental risk communication are trust and credibility, which corporations must earn (Peters, Covello, McCallum, 1997). Research must aid risk analysis and policy making by, in part, “improving the communication of risk information among lay people, technical experts, and decision-makers” (Slovic, 1987) . The goal of risk communications seems unclear given the decades of failed communications. “Avoiding all conflict is not a realistic, or even a legitimate, goal for risk communication” but rather to have “fewer, but better conflicts” (Fischhoff, 1995) guided by facts.

Partnering with the public requires effective communication, but more importantly, public consultation and participation. Rowe et al (2004) clarify the difference between communication and public participation. The latter is used to solicit public opinion and engage in active dialogue. The following analyzes public consultation and suggests an approach where technical expertise can best be integrated with local knowledge (Webler & Thuler, 2000).


A challenge with public consultation is that the approach used to obtain input has a secondary effect. That is that disadvantaged groups may be excluded or may be dominated by special interest groups. In that case the results may not be representative of the community (Abelson et al, 2003). To be effective and obtain participation of a representative group, meetings may need to move from town to town or be held on weekends to facilitate attendance and fair participation (Webler & Thuler, 2000).

Rowe & Frewer (2000) established acceptance and process criteria, the former ensuring that participants are representative of the affected population and that they are involved as early as possible in the process. Process criteria require participants to have access to appropriate resources to enable them to successfully fulfill their brief.

What is required is an acceptance by industry risk professionals that a partnership can be created with the public. However, we have to earn trust  that the public can understand risk. In addition we have to trust industry is forthcoming with their risk information.

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Category: Crisis management, Hazard, Optimum Risk Estimates, Probabilities, Probability Impact Graphs, Risk analysis, Risk management, Tolerance/Acceptability

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