Risk Communication in Emergency Preparedness and Response

Risk communication is the real-time exchange of information, advice and opinions between experts or officials and people who face a hazard or threat to their survival, health, or economic or social wellbeing. The purpose is to enable people at risk to make informed decisions to mitigate the effects of a threat such as a disease outbreak, and take protective and preventive measures. Risk communication is proven to be a critical tool in emergency preparedness and response

Community engagement usually accompanies risk communication. It is the process of developing relationships and structures that engage communities as equal partners in the creation of emergency response solutions that are acceptable and workable for those they impact. The goal of community engagement is to empower communities to confidently share the leadership, planning and implementation of initiatives throughout the health emergency response cycle.?

Lessons learned in risk communication and community engagement initiatives in every public health emergency have informed subsequent response efforts, leading to planning that better integrates risk communication into operational activities and brings communities to the forefront as valued and essential partners for effective, equitable and inclusive emergency preparedness and response.

Risk communication and community engagement works alongside other technical areas to ensure that accurate information is delivered to communities in ways that are acceptable and workable for them. During public health emergencies, people need to know what health risks they face, and what actions they can take to protect their health and lives. Accurate information provided early, often, and in languages and channels that people understand, trust and use, enables individuals to make choices and take actions to protect themselves, their families and communities from threatening health hazards.

Risk communication is an integral part of any emergency response. It is the real-time exchange of information, advice and opinions between experts, community leaders, or officials and the people who are at risk. During epidemics and pandemics, and humanitarian crises and natural disasters, effective risk communication allows people most at risk to understand and adopt protective behaviours. It allows authorities and experts to listen to and address people’s concerns and needs so that the advice they provide is relevant, trusted and acceptable.

The major challenges in risk communication during epidemics and other health emergencies include the rapid transformation in communications technology, including the near-universal penetration of mobile telephones, the widespread use and increasingly powerful influence of digital media which has had an impact on ‘traditional’ media (newspapers, radio and television), and major changes in how people access and trust health information.

Important gaps include the social, economic, political and cultural factors influencing people’s perception of risk and their risk-reduction behaviours. Guidance is needed on the best approaches for strengthening emergency risk communication (ERC) capacity and sustaining them for potential health emergencies.

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