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Incoporating Cultural Competence into the Risk Communication & Community Engagement Strategies of the Environment Agency

by Akinkugbe , Seinde , MS

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Communities that promote flood resilience were important drivers of action on flooding.
Residents were more likely to adopt resilience measures that their neighbours had used
(Richardson, Reilly and Jones, 2003).
3.66 Media:
Mass communication is inextricably intertwined with flood risk management. The mass
media is critical to the delivery of flood risk information to the general public. However
journalists are often known to be selective in reports about hazards and pay more
attention to issues that play to outrage factors. This often increases the public’s sense of
outrage and amplifies the perception of risk Wahlberg & Sjoberg (2000). Some of these
factors will be discussed further in subsequent chapters.
3.67 Trust :
In a much wider perspective, the issue of trust is also a major factor in risk
communication. For decades social scientist have lay emphasis on positive relationships
between citizens in a local region and their public bodies (Ruiz and Dragojevic, 2007).
The public relies on the government agencies to provide accurate risk information and
adequate resources to minimise the impact of an emergency. Likewise the government
relies on its citizens to accept and comply with government directives and also participate
and take proactive measures in risk reduction Roberts & Fozdar (2009). Mutual trust and
confidence needs to be built on a fairness of procedural equity which implies: that both
parties involved do not exploit or take each other for granted and that there is “an
acknowledgement and adequate representations of all points of view” (Environment
Agency, 2002, p.10). Decline in trust is seen as a major obstacle for effective risk
communication however some scholars still suggest that an air of uncertainty,
questioning and challenging of the scientific expertise of public bodies is healthy in a
modern society. Whatever the case trust lost is often difficult to regain, therefore building
/ sustaining relationships in a local community represents a viable strategy at the
initiation stage of a risk communication programme (Lofstedt, 2003).


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3.68 Interethnic communication theory
Collins & Kapucu (2008) believes that the main goal of an early warning system is to
ensure that there is a robust system for detecting / forecasting of incidences and to warn
and motivate people to take appropriate precautionary measures. While Sheppard,
Rubin, Wardman and Wesley (2006) maintains that the ultimate purpose is to dispel
myths reduce fears, and, in times of crisis, to alert the public and provide directions for
urgent action. To get people to heed to warning messages is often difficult in a mixed
society as minority groups are known to go through a multi stage process in decision
making Clerveaux, Katanda & Hosoi (2008). Most individuals from culturally and
linguistically diverse groups are known not to make risk related decisions in isolation.
Their response is normally determined in consultation with family, community leaders
and in context of their community’s perception of risk O’Neal (2003).

Rimal & Real (2003) refers to this as the perceived norm’ model and reiterate “the role
that peoples social networks play in initiating and reinforcing both positive behaviours”
(p.188). Lindell & Perry (2004) maintains that ethnic minority often use their social
network groups and extended family as a source for confirming the validity of risk
information before actually heeding to it. Using Hurricane Katrina as a case study, this
normally reduces the chance of an immediate response to warning messages and could
further endanger the lives of individuals. Social units can be used to influence or alter the
perception of individuals who hugely rely on their network for decision making. Therefore
public flood awareness programmes should focus on social network groups i.e.
(churches extended family, mosques social clubs union and schools) which individuals
normally associate with as a focal point for dissemination of risk information Eisenman,
Cordasco, Asch, Golden & Glid (2007).

3.69 Language Barriers


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Many researchers have argued that ethnic communities and visitors are often more
vulnerable than the dominant / mainstream communities Seidenberg (2005). Clerveux,
Katada & Hosoi (2008) argues that many variables contribute to this unequal exposure to
hazards, but communication / language are known to be a common issue which
increases the vulnerability of minority groups. For example people may be less resilient
in an emergency due to inability to speak or comprehend risk information’s produced in
other languages. According to (C. Robertson, personal communication, August 18, 2009)
in recent years, the Environment Agency has managed to provide flood information parks
on its website in other languages. However this was not well thought of as non-English
speakers still had to have a certain level of proficiency in English language to be able to
navigate around the page. As a result this defeated the intended purpose and had to be
scrapped after a while. Translating risk information into other text can be useful in a
multicultural society although most public bodies still embed the norms and values of the
host culture in its communiqué. Science and empirical evidence underpins most of the
work of the Environment Agency thus there is always a chance that there might be a
misapplication of scientific knowledge in risk communication. Frewer (2004) maintains
that this often distorts risk information messages and can be misleading for people
especially with foreign background. This will be discussed further in the next chapter
which looks at the politics of risk communication between scientific experts and lay
people (citizens).

Solis, Hightower and Kawaguchi (1997) posit that language is the most dominant type of
communication and is known to be an important way of expressing cultural identity.
Developing an average proficiency in English Language often requires time and patience
and quite often, older migrants might never even develop the appropriate skills to
communicate in the host community. Some cultures are even known to demonstrate an
unenthusiastic attitude when listening to risk communiqués from younger people or other
gender and there is also a chance for non-verbal forms of communication i.e. (body

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languages and gestures) to be misread during community interaction projects (Lyn &
Petersen, 2007). Overcoming cultural and language barriers is vital in disaster
management as this can reduce the vulnerability of minority groups (Martin 2003). A
fundamental tenet of disaster management is that every member of the society has: “…..
a basic right to safety and it is also a fundamental obligation of all governments to
ensure that their citizens are protected to a reasonable degree from known risks, and
that citizens are informed and warned of any risks known to governmental officials that
threaten public safety” (Etkin & Davis , 2007, p.7). In recent times, “contemporary risk
communication has brought in legislative changes that require government agencies to
inform the public about a particular risk The Community right to know Act” (Horlicks -
Jones & Jones, 1993, p.27). As such it is imperative that the Environment Agency devise
an alternative and effective means of communication flood risk information.

Conclusion of chapter
People who identify as African, Afro Caribbean, British India, Pakistani, Bangladesh,
Chinese or other ethnic minority group accounted for a major amount of the UK
population in 2000. This is further projected to increase significantly by 2025 (Lupton &
Power 2004).

Norris & Alegria (2008) maintains that:
Disaster risk communication in particular is challenged to meet the needs
and demands of this diverse population. These issues are complex
because the effects of ethnicity and culture are pervasive. They may
influence the need for help, the availability of help, comfort in seeking help,
and the appropriateness of that help (p.15).

In this chapter, the author reviewed the concept of cultural competence and risk
communication. Evidence gathered from literatures suggests that there is a correlation

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between ones culture and the perception of risk. The chapter also looked at the
challenges of communicating risk in a multi – ethnic society and draws open a discussion
on how to promote disaster awareness in ethnic minority communities. The next chapter
picks up on those arguments surrounding the communication of risk between scientific
experts and lay people. It also examines the concept risk perception and identifies those
outrage factors that influence perceived risk.


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Chapter 4.O Literature review
This chapter picks up on those arguments surrounding the communication of risk
between scientific experts and lay people. It also examines the concept of risk perception
and identifies those outrage factors that influence perceived risk. It will demonstrate that
a risk communication programme that offers the fact but fails to take individual perception
into consideration is solely incomplete in a multicultural society.

4.1 Risk communication: Experts and lay people
Sandman & Covelo (2001) traces the evolution of risk communication back to the 1980s
and further maintain that it is a fairly new area of study which has evolved over the years
through four distinctive stages namely: An era where risk was ignored, Era where risk
data was explained, period where community dialogue on risk issues started and the new
era of risk consultation where the public are seen as stakeholder.

4.2 Risk Ignored
In the pre – risk communication, public agencies and scientific experts shared the same
credence that risk communication was unnecessary as long as there was an adequate
system of risk management in place. Therefore risk managers placed more emphasis on
controlling the risk themselves hence assuming there was no point communicating risk
information to the public, since they thought they would not respond or understand
warning messages. The public themselves were happy to leave control of environmental
policies in the hands of the authorities Ivy & Petersen (2007). .

4.3Elucidation risk data:
In the mid to late 1980s, government agencies began to face a stiff opposition from the
public as a result of people re-asserting their claims over environmental policies. People

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became more upset, concerned and livid when they felt excluded from issues on
technological projects and risk based decision making. Consequently experts tried
communicating risk by aligning public views with theirs in regards to the acceptability of a
particular hazard Sandman (1987). Lofstedt (2003) suggest that this era was
characterised by a top down approach in which information was passed down from the
experts to the lay people. People were not allowed any input to the risk management
decisions and had to make do with the scientific terminology in risk communication

Hilgartner (1990) describes this form of communication as one way approach / deficit
model. This model assumed that the public (laypeople) were somewhat ignorant and
exhibited illogical insights when confronted with risk issues. Therefore the main objective
of the scientific experts was to bridge this perceived knowledge gap between them
scientific experts and lay people through public enlightenment campaigns. Scientist and
policy makers attempted to explain risk data better by presenting technical information in
public meetings and communication messages Kuene, Morrens & Loots (2007). However
the dominant approach taken by agencies only made members of the public more cynical
about the intentions of the experts and regulators following incidents like the Chernobyl
nuclear accidents Kasperson, Golding &Tuler (1992).The main problem associated with
communication in this era was that the model was authoritarian and did not allow for
dialogue with the public. Beck (1992) maintains that this failed to recognise people’s
perception of risk and infinite views of risk management. The deficit model will be
examined further in subsequent chapters.

4.4 Community dialogue
Attempts were made to salvage the reputation of public bodies and build public trust
through increased transparency in the late 80s. Regulators became more visibly aware
that it was imperative and better to explain risk data in cases where the hazard was large

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but debate was minimal. On the other hand, when the hazard was low but the public
outrage was high, analysing risk did little in diffusing tense situations Frewer (2004).

Pigeon, Hood, Jones, and Turner & Gibson (1992) maintains that risk communication
has developed into a key topic, and that there is a growing unity of approach between the
psychological and socio-cultural disciplines. Their report also observed the increasing
acceptance that risk management is essentially multidimensional, extending far beyond
structural measures of risk reduction. This explains the increasing prominence of risk
communication that risk managers can no longer manage technological risks solely
through structural engineering methods Lichtenberg & MacLean (1991).This logic applies
to flood risk management, building defences to prevent flooding is no longer sustainable,
floods are a natural phenomenon and can never be totally controlled Tapsell , Burton ,
Oakes & Parker (2005). As the costs of flood damage increase and more building takes
place in flood plains so a communications programme that seeks to educate people to
take preventive measures to mitigate flood damage is considered essential (Horlick -
Jones & Jones , 1993).

Bostrom & Lofstedt (2003) argue that there are two approaches to risk communication,
either to reduce people’s fears about a risk or to get them to show more concern more
about their safety. Health risk communications, with programme’s based on marketing
and consumer research take the latter approach, whilst the traditional route for
communicating environmental risks aims to reduce people’s fears. A vital element in
planning a successful risk communication programme knows what the beliefs, attitudes
and behaviours of the intended audience are. (Johnson, 2002). This is a particularly
daunting task in the culturally heterogeneous society of the UK. Risk communication can
only be considered successful if it engages all the diverse communities who may be
affected. This necessitates risk managers devising risk communication strategies that are


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appropriate and effective across a wide range of socio-cultural contexts. (Vaughan,

4.5 Deficit Model of Risk Communication
Most public agencies use the deficit model of risk communication. In this model, the
public are regarded as one homogenous unit and only one format of communication is
used. Problems identified with this model are that it does not allow for a discourse with
the public as they were seen as irrational Sturgis & Alum (2004). The deficit model
assumes that the expert view is dominant; information is usually one-way and often
expressed in technical terms of probability and statistical comparisons Fisher (1991). The
communication is geared to serving the needs of the communicator rather than the
needs of the recipients of the message Lewenstein (2003). The model fails to recognise
that the public may hold potentially infinite views on the nature and management of
hazards and the privileging of one view, the expert view, over another serves only to
alienate the audience ( Beck , 1992).

Figure 3 : Examples of risk communication activities : Adapted from Kuene ,
Morrens & Loots (2007)

Examples of traditional risk communication:
-Information meetings, website
. -Communication of results, newsletter
Examples of modern risk communication:

-Risk perception questionnaire
-Involvement of local stakeholders:
Dialogue on research tools, on the concept of flood risk management
-Action-plan: structuring the interpretation of results for policy making


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Also see Appendix for table depicting deficit model of risk communication viewpoint from
deficit or informing end of the spectrum to the two way partnership approach

Risk Perception
The Health Protection Agency defines risk perception as “ones opinion of the likelihood
of risk (the probability of facing harm) associated with performing a certain activity or
choosing a certain lifestyle” (HPA, 2011). While Sjöberg, Moen & Rundmo (2004)
describes it as the “subjective assessment of the probability of a specified type of
accident happening and how one is concerned with the consequences” (p.8). As defined,
risk perception is made up of three uncertainties, the possible outcome of an event, its
estimated probability and people’s judgement about these two factors. That judgement is
made not just on the physical characteristics and possible consequences of the risk but
on a series of subjective judgements. One’s perception often forms a core issue in most
risk decisions we take and all risk involves some sort of judgement that is perceived
Fishcoff (1995). For example one might decide to smoke despite knowing the risk
associated, but may show outrage at a perceived risk imposed on us such as living near
a nuclear power plant. Whereas the true risk (a scientifically evaluated risk) would
evaluate smoking as a higher risk activity, the lay people will show more concern and
outrage at the nuclear power plant due to dread and the fear of the unknown ( Slovic &
Weber , 2002).

In similar circumstances the NGO, Oxfam (2008) international highlights the differences
in perception of risk between emergency relief agencies and the local community during
a flooding event in Mozambique. While the responding agencies referred to the flooding
incidence as the disaster, the local people perceived it as an act of God with the positive
side effect that increased the fertility of the soil. Bradbury (1989) suggest that different
views of risk often lie at the heart of disagreement about the best course of action on risk
issue between experts and members of the public. Peoples assessment of risk cannot be

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