Golden rules for a risky business?

The siting of radio masts is one of the topics that today seem guaranteed to grab the attention of both the public and the newspapers. With passionately held views springing from all sides, sometimes accompanied by graphic accusations, how should businesses and professionals involved in this potentially controversial area try to steer a course in dealing with public perceptions of risk?

The answer to is be guided by a set of `golden rules` of communication, according to Dr Simon Gerrard, a specialist in the perception of risk, based at the University of East Anglia. In a presentation today (27 June) at the Society for Radiological Protection’s meeting on Radio wave exposures, he will explain how these ’rules’ might apply to the public’s attitude to mobile phones and to the base stations radio masts needed to make the handsets usable.

People’s perception of risk, and what makes them choose various options, is a complicated mixture of their attitudes to various factors. The three strongest factors, however, are their dread of what might happen, how big a catastrophe that would be, and the extent to which they feel they can control the risk – is it something that has been imposed, either involuntarily or with their acquiescence?

Attitudes to mobile phones present an interesting conundrum. Using and carrying around a handset is very common nowadays. Although most people cannot fail to be aware of the health scares and continuing research into the medical and biological consequences of using a mobile, for the vast majority the perceived benefits of having a portable personal phone hugely outweigh the perceived risks. But although logic suggests that to get a good phone signal anywhere you want to use your mobile needs a comprehensive network of transmission masts, a great many people are not happy about living or working in close proximity to a transmitter. Living near a mast is widely perceived as a dangerous thing to do – and often something which can be imposed without your agreement.

Ten or twenty years ago there was a tendency for businesses working in areas where there is public disquiet to take the view that `They’re only worried because they don’t understand how it works. We understand the science, and we know it’s safe.`
Today, says Dr Gerrard, that view – the `deficit model` – has been blown out of the water. Research into the way people perceive risk ? what it is that worries them and how much is worries them – has shown that scientific understanding is not the only key. There is of course a role for science, but the overall picture is based on levels of uncertainty about different factors – the picture is in shades of grey, not in black and white. For mobile phone masts, for instance, people’s concerns are not just about the effect of radiofrequencies, but also about the ethics of the big businesses involved and whether the licensing agencies have adequate resources to police and manage what the network operators are doing.

Being guided by a set of `Golden rules`, based on PR and marketing experiences, is vital today for any business operating in an area where there are public concerns, whether it be mobile phones or nuclear waste, says Dr Gerrard. It’s vital that such businesses engage with the community and listen and respond to its concerns in an appropriate way. His top tips are:
– Accept that everyone is a legitimate part of the debate and be aware of the context in which the risk and issues are being played out. What are the social demographics of this particular community and has it, for instance, already been involved in a similar process?
– Target the information you put out in sophisticated way with specific information that meets the needs of the intended recipients. Make sure they can understand it.
– Engage in a `stakeholder` dialogue with the community. Don?t rely on leaflets or television – be available for face to face meetings.
– Finally, beware the over-enthusiastic application of golden rules ? each risk situation has its own set of complex characteristics!

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Dianne Stilwell alfa

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