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A risky business - getting your communications right

A risky business - getting your communications right

Risk management relies on effective communications. IIRSM has developed a course to help risk professionals understand the relationship between risk and safety management, communications, and reputation.

I remember the moment I realised just how complex communications can be when you are dealing with public safety and an individual’s perception and tolerability of risk. It was sometime in 1995 and I was the press officer at Faslane, the home of the UK’s strategic nuclear deterrent.

One morning, I took a call from a concerned member of the public who had received a leather handbag from Freemans, a mail-order retailer. She was seeking help and advice as she thought she had been contaminated as she believed the handbag to be radioactive. After a short, contemplative pause, I asked the obvious question –why? Her answer – the bag was made in India and there had been a nuclear accident a few months before, so therefore the bag was contaminated. I did my best to politely reassure her it was highly improbable and extremely unlikely it was radioactive, reassuring her that we are exposed to low levels of radioactivity every day with sunlight, but if she was genuinely concerned, she should visit her GP. It is not the sort of call you forget.

This call clearly illustrated several areas that, in the longer term, helped me to understand the importance of risk communications, public education, and information in the context of higher risk environments with a public safety dimension. The nuclear industry is of course highly regulated, and with that comes a hugely important and well-practiced health and safety culture. The call subsequently made me realise that operational risk management, public perception, and tolerability of risk are as broad and diverse as those either managing or impacted by those risks. To be an effective communicator and to support colleagues managing those risks, I needed to fully appreciate the complexity of the risks, the diversity of the stakeholders impacted, and their understanding of how they are impacted.

Risk management and risk communications have, of course, been propelled into all our lives since the start of the pandemic. Public health authorities across the globe are running their respective public information campaigns to help mitigate the spread of the disease, as well as educate people as more becomes known about the disease. 2020 has sharpened individual risk perception and awareness of risk, as we have faced decisions to make about everyday tasks such as shopping or meeting other households when permitted. As we emerge from the pandemic, people will expect more from those with any responsibility for risks and public safety in all areas of society. Those that have communicated effectively have mitigated the risks and gained public trust.

This responsibility not only supports operational business needs (including financial), regulatory requirements, and moral obligations, but also helps mitigate risk, avert issues, improve outcomes, trust, and ultimately reputation. This is where communications play a pivotal role. There is an inherent, symbiotic relationship between risk and communications. Where there are limited communications (and therefore understanding of the risks) it can lead to increased risk, poorer outcomes and create issues that, if not managed correctly, can lead to a crisis situation, loss of trust, and reputational damage. It is unfortunately not uncommon, and many contributing factors can lead to limited engagement in effective communications:

  • Competing priorities, time pressures, and resources.
  • Mindset and culture, e.g. group think and silo operations.
  • Limited parameters of risk, e.g. legal and compliance led vs a pragmatic or strategic approach.

Effective communication is essential to managing better outcomes in risk management because trust is critical when managing risk, and particularly so with those risks with a safety dimension. Quite simply, communications are the conduit to earn that trust.

Recognising this symbiotic relationship between risk, communications and reputation, IIRSM has now developed a training course that provides practical guidance, tools and techniques for risk professional on the essentials. Effective risk management, risk communications and reputation management are not just a corporate, but a personal responsibility too.

Seasoned risk management professional Steve Fowler explains:

 So often, risk and safety professionals ask the question, ‘Why am I not being listened to properly? Why am I not being taken seriously?’ The answers to this are many, but the good news is some techniques can be learned to help acquire the skills and confidence needed to be heard.

We recognise that risk communication is intrinsically linked to achieving better outcomes, and identified these skills within the IIRSM risk management and leadership competence framework. We have developed a unique course that bridges the connection between risk management and communications to help professional risk managers be heard and achieve better results.

Working closely with the IIRSM training and professional development staff, this four-hour course will help students understand the relationship between risk and safety management, communications, and reputation. It covers the basic principles of the language of risk communication, explaining commonly used terms, and helps you develop your own ‘risk taxonomy’. Also included in the course is the use of data – a powerful communications ally when used correctly. We look at interpreting risk data and explain the differences between data and information. All these tools support communicating risk and advocating better business decision making.

Good risk communication involves knowing when to use the right tools, so this course also covers the use (and misuse) of risk registers, heat maps, risk dartboards, intranets, reports, and key risk indicators. These are essential tools and this course guides you on which are best for risk communications, when to use them and how.

While technical management tools are necessary for any risk communications dialogue and discussion, equally important is how this dialogue is delivered and the discussion is steered. The course covers the basics of personal risk communication techniques: the use of language and style; developing and framing messages; audience segmentation; and tailoring communication approaches according to the risk, role and background of the individual, department, or organisation. All of these techniques will help individuals be heard, but most importantly, will help identify both the emerging threats and opportunities to reputation as they emerge during any risk communications conversation.

A large part of risk management is managing potential and live issues within the organisation. When these live issues are nudging closer to a crisis, or worse still, a crisis emerges, this requires a step-change in risk communication techniques and reputation management. The priorities change, and the imperatives are invariably more critical. The final segment of the course deals specifically with communication in a crisis, focusing on how best to navigate the threats and opportunities, dealing with fluid situations, and most importantly, being mindful of the desired outcomes, including reputation.

The course also blends the tools and techniques learned with personal experience, textbook case studies, and those case studies that have been more recently reported. The course is highly interactive and includes discussion, dialogue, and short exercises. It is offered online and will also be delivered in the classroom, post-pandemic.

Risk management and communications are not strange bedfellows. As I found out that morning in 1995, you never know when you will be challenged to explain complex risk communication messages to a wide range of individuals that have varying perceptions and understanding of the issues at hand.

It has been my pleasure to develop a course with Steve Fowler covering two subjects I am passionate about and I look forward to seeing the IIRSM members who sign up. The first course of Risk Communications and Reputation Management runs on 17 March 2021.


This four-hour course is £250 plus VAT.  To book and take advantage of an opening offer of discount of 10%, please use the coupon in the image and visit the IIRSM site:


This article was originally published on the IIRSM Sentinel membership magazine and can be viewed here:




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