Matthew Seeger on Crisis and Risk Communication

People communicating ideas

We live in a world where crisis is common—natural disasters, disease outbreaks, and acts of terror, to name a few. When a crisis happens, how do we make sure we’re prepared for it, and how do we communicate about it effectively and quickly? Matthew Seeger, Ph.D., answered these questions during his presentation at the ADBCAP Symposium on May 16th in College Park, Maryland. This symposium was a chance for collaborators from the Animal Disease Biosecurity Coordinated Agricultural Project (ADBCAP) and interested stakeholders to come together for two days of talks on project accomplishments, biosecurity risk communication, and building biosecurity-related communities of practice.

An Expert in Crisis and Risk Communication

Matthew Seeger Keynote Speaker at the 2019 ADBCAP Symposium
Matthew Seeger Keynote Speaker at the 2019 ADBCAP Symposium

Matthew Seeger is the current dean of the College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts at Wayne State University. He is an expert in the field of crisis and risk communication, having worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Science Foundation, and the World Health Organization (WHO). He is the author or co-author of ten books on crisis and risk communication.

During Seeger’s presentation, he emphasized that risk communication isn’t just about the messages being sent: the messages being received are equally important. He cited the National Resource Council’s definition of risk communication (1): “Risk communication is an interactive process of exchange of information and opinion among individuals, groups, and institutions. It involves multiple messages about the nature of risk and other messages, not strictly about risk, that express concerns, opinions, or reaction to risk messages or to legal or institutional arrangements for risk management.” Risk communication is a process, he emphasized, not a singular event. And it’s a process that’s always changing as communicators learn from their mistakes.

Creating a New Approach to the Crisis Life Cycle

After the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001, envelopes containing anthrax were mailed to media offices and government officials. This was one of the first major bioterrorism crises that the CDC had to communicate to the public. Seeger was working for the CDC at the time and recalls that this event led to a major shift in crisis communication, resulting in a “holistic approach to the crisis life cycle.” He emphasized throughout his talk that a crisis is a process—it has a life cycle. Any crisis will follow certain stages, making crises, somewhat ironically, predictable in nature. Some key features of all crises include:

  • A need for rapid response: this is where communication comes in.
  • They are complicated and “cascading”, meaning they have a domino effect. A crisis is never just one event, it is one event that leads to other events. In relation to biosecurity, one cow getting infected with a disease leads to other cows getting infected, which in turn leads to financial losses for the producer, and potential beef/milk shortages.
  • There are multiple causes.
  • They are predictable in their evolution.

Another key feature of crisis communication is that it exists in a very high-consequence context: there’s no such thing as a little mistake. If you mess up with crisis communication, you really mess up, sometimes costing people their lives. For example, if a natural disaster occurs and people aren’t told to evacuate on time, they could die. However, even if you don’t have all the information or answers, you need to communicate anyway. Silence is never better than communicating something, even if that communication is just to say that you don’t have all of the answers, and to acknowledge what people are feeling. With crisis communication, addressing people’s feelings and reactions is just as important as addressing the facts and science.

When Risk Communication is Most Effective

Risk communication is more effective coming from community leaders, not just from technical experts. Seeger refers to these leaders as “cultural agents”. People are more likely to trust information coming from a powerful community leader that they know and feel safe with than from an anonymous scientist who doesn’t necessarily have their best interests at heart. This is especially true in the agricultural community, where people trust each other and word of mouth more than they trust the government. Furthermore, it’s not enough to just tell people about the importance of something like biosecurity or crisis management; you have to tell them why those things are important, and incentivize them.

According to Seeger, the pre- and post-event stages in the crisis life cycle are the most important. During the pre-event stage, there is an opportunity to change behaviors in order to reduce risk. With farming, this could be implementing hygiene practices and quarantining new animals/animals returning from a show, exhibition, or fair. It’s also important during this phase to develop relationships with agencies, officials, veterinarians, and anyone of authority who will be involved in the event of a crisis, rather than waiting to meet them mid-crisis. Development of plans and strategies should be done before a crisis occurs. Plans need to be set and understood in advance, so that when a crisis happens, action can begin immediately and efficiently. Consensus and consistency among communicators is crucial in order to avoid misunderstanding and miscommunication.

The Challenges in Farming Communities

Sheep farmer talking with other farmers about raising sheep.There are challenges that arise with crisis and risk communication in farming communities. Risk recognition poses a significant challenge because different people have different perceptions of risk. A farmer of 30 years will likely have a different sense of significant risk than someone who has been farming for five years. As Seeger stated “risk is culturally defined”. Another critical challenge is upward communication. The people who are most likely to notice signs of disease or infection on a farm are the lower-level workers. However, getting the message up to their superiors can be difficult, because their superiors may not listen to or value what they have to say.

Important elements of the post-event phase of crisis and risk communication are designating spokespeople, understanding of crisis circumstances, understanding of crisis responses, cooperation with agencies, organizations, and stakeholder groups, and open communication. Questions of blame and responsibility always come up in a crisis, so it’s critical to be prepared to field them. Understanding of crisis response can be broken down into the following points:

  • What are we doing.
  • Why are we doing it.
  • What you should do.
  • Why you should do it.
  • What others are doing.
  • How you should do it.

Open communication is especially important in farming communities, where people are influenced by the actions of their neighbors and peers. An open line of communication between communicators and farmers can help people understand what they should do and why, even if it’s not what their peers are doing.

A Catalyst for Change

The conclusion of Seeger’s presentation outlined a few of the ongoing challenges with crisis and risk communication:

  • Uncertainty – you won’t have all the answers, and you will still have to communicate anyway.
  • Speed – you have to communicate quickly.
  • Social media – social media can be a platform for rumors and false information to spread like wildfire. However, it is also one of the best ways to reach people today, so agencies and organizations should be utilizing social media to reach their audiences in a crisis.
  • Clutter – there is often an overload of information during a crisis and platforms become cluttered.
  • Risk fatigue – people get tired of constantly hearing bad news and tune it out.
  • Rumors and fake news – again, social media can play a large role in this. It is important to not only provide information and communicate, but to also make sure to correct false information that may cause panic.
  • Social amplification of risks – in a crisis, people often worry about or focus on the wrong thing, ignoring the real problem or underlying cause.

A positive outcome of a crisis is that it can be a catalyst for change. Through a crisis, people learn what they’ve done wrong in the past and how to make improvements for the future. As Seeger stated, “crises are some of the primary factors of social change in our society.”

1.) National Research Council. 1989. Improving Risk Communication. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

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