EIIP Virtual Forum Presentation – July 9, 2008

How Do You Effectively Communicate Flood Risks?
A Dialogue on Applying Risk Communication Principles

Timothy Tinker, PhD
Senior Associate, Strategic Communications Team
Booz Allen Hamilton

Gerald E. Galloway, Jr., PE, PhD
Glen L. Martin Institute Professor of Engineering
Affiliate Professor of Public Policy
University of Maryland

Avagene Moore
EIIP Moderator

The following version of the transcript has been edited for easier reading and comprehension. A text transcript is available from our archives. See our home page at http://www.emforum.org

[Welcome / Introduction]

Avagene Moore: Good morning/afternoon everyone. On behalf of my associate, Amy Sebring, and myself, welcome to the Virtual Forum! We are pleased you could join us today, including our first-timers. We want you to feel comfortable about participating, and we will be giving instructions as we go along.

If you were with us last time, we had planned a session for today on revisions to the Stafford Act. We will be returning to that topic in the Fall, and we are hoping to have some very exciting news about that later. In the meantime, we could not resist when we were presented with the opportunity for today's topic, since it is very timely and our guests are both very well known experts.

Our topic today is "How Do You Effectively Communicate Flood Risks? A Dialogue on Applying Risk Communication Principles." The name is from a 'thought paper' and the authors are very interested in getting some feedback from you -- hence the dialogue part. The paper is linked from our Home Page and the Background Page. There is also a flyer for the Booz Allen Hamilton Center of Excellence for Risk and Crisis Communications, as well as a nice Power Point of the points from today's presentation linked from the Background Page.

Please note, there is a related poll/survey question on our home page, "Which system communicates flood risk most effectively?" Please take a moment after our session to respond if you have not voted already, and review the results to date. Now to introduce our guests:

Dr. Gerald E. Galloway, Jr. is a Glenn L Martin Institute Professor of Engineering and Affiliate Professor of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the US Army Corps of Engineers Institute of Water Resources. He was a Presidential appointee to the Mississippi River Commission and in 1993-1994, led a White House study of the causes of the 1993 Mississippi River Flood. More recently he chaired an Interagency Levee Policy Review Committee for FEMA and a study of flooding in California's Central Valley.

Dr. Timothy Tinker is a Senior Associate with Booz Allen Hamilton's Strategic Communications team. He is focused on developing a new Center of Excellence for Risk and Crisis Communication for the Firm. As a nationally and internationally recognized expert in risk and crisis communications, Tim works in both public and private sectors such as homeland security, defense, emergency preparedness, public health, health care, energy, environment, and more, to successfully help clients anticipate, prepare and practice science-based and system-wide risk and crisis communication.

Avagene Moore: Welcome to you both gentlemen, and thank you for being with us today. I now turn the floor over to Dr. Galloway to start us off please.


Gerry Galloway: Thank You. The recent flooding in the Midwest, reminded us all of the devastating effect of such events. It certainly brought back to my mind similar flooding that occurred in the Midwest in 1993 that left hundreds of thousands of people without homes and the economy of our heartland in shambles. Unfortunately, the pictures we just saw of Iowa, Illinois and Missouri looked, in many cases. like those in New Orleans right after Katrina. While most of us recognize the economic losses that are taking place -- we see them reflected in grocery store prices --far fewer of us understand the social impacts of flooding that will place exceptional stress on the fabric of the family, drive people from their neighborhoods never to return, and in some cases result in the permanent breakup of families and communities.

To me, the saddest comments I hear is from people who have been affected by floods are. "I didn't know I was at risk." "No one told me that we had a problem." "If I'd only known." All of these indicated to me that while many floodplain residents recognize they are near a river, few understand the risks they face. That is our challenge: how do we look across the table to convince people that they must take actions to mitigate the risks that they face?

Today, we want to talk about communicating risk to those who live in a floodplain, or who are subject to flooding from too much water on land that does not drain quickly. In the Midwest floods of 1993, almost half of the homes were flooded were not in the floodplain but in areas where the drainage systems and streams could not handle enormous volume of water in a multi-day, multi-week rainfall event.

Before we get started, let me say a word about risk. When we talk about a flood event, normally we are talking about the hazard-a 100 year flood or a 2% flood. Risk takes this hazard with its probability of occurrence and factors in the consequences to those in the floodplain should the hazard occur. Recurrence intervals don't mean too much to the average citizen but being told that the risk is having water in your home over the eaves defines for the risk.

Dr. Tim Tinker and I have been thinking a lot about how to best communicate risks to people who many times just don't want to listen. As we all appreciate, the nation has been successful in convincing our citizens of the risks involved in smoking, not wearing seatbelts, and careless activity in forests that would result in forest fires-not to Smokey bear's liking. Why can't we do the same thing with floods?

Tim and I laid out seven principles that we believe can help guide risk communication efforts. They are built on the experience in other risk communication fields, as well as our own personal experience in dealing with floods. We will quickly go through these seven principles and then open it up for discussion.

Principle #1: Communicate in Multiple Ways

Principal one is pretty straightforward. You have to communicate using multiple means. Large companies use radio, television and print to get their message across and to get it across in different ways.

Today, when we communicate, we communicate information about flooding on an almost a one-dimensional basis-you're either in or out of a 100-year floodplain and there is no real definition of risk. We all know that being on the outside of the hundred year line on a FIRM doesn't provide you a lot more protection than being on the inside of that line.

We're beginning to see what risk maps would look like-maps that would tell users that they live in an area where they could be under 15 feet of water and the economic costs to them would be $200,000, should that flood occur. Today when people using the computer find an interesting site, they want to drill down for more information.

We've got to provide that depth of information and variety - multiple means of presenting multiple messages - to those who live in the floodplain. Tim, How about principle 2?

Principle #2: Understand How High Stress Changes the Rules

Tim Tinker: So, why do the communications rules change for high stress issues and events? Based on communications science and research, we know that with high stress issues people can become less trusting, tend to think more negatively, have difficulty processing large quantity and complex information, and their perceptions may vary from reality.

Perceptions, for example, are a powerful factor in influencing how the public perceives the acceptability or unacceptability of a risk, be it flooding or some other hazard. And the risk perceptions research had identified three major perceptions, or what we refer to as "fear factors" These are Trust, Benefit and Control (TBC). Depending on how well we understand and manage these three factors in the context of flood and flood risk, we have the ability to enhance our identity as a trustworthy source, increase people's sense of control and convey clear, fair and substantive benefits. How can we in the flood risk mitigation community use the TBC template to improve public trust, benefit and control?

Principle #3: Probability Plus Values Equals Real Risk

Risk is a two-sided coin, so to speak. Gerry described the one side of the risk coin, "probability and consequence," or the likelihood of loss and the impact of loss. Equally important, is the flip-side of the coin, public values, or what the public cares about and stands to lose in the event of a flood, be it mild or catastrophic. Loss of life and limb, family and friends, property, health and safety, financial ruin, are a direct threat to public values.

Challenging though, from a communications perspective, is the nature of values and attitudes. Behavioral research indicates that values and attitudes are fairly stubborn based on personality and human experience and don't easily change. A finding that we've essentially ignored since 9/11, convinced us that the public's attitudes toward preparedness can be changed given the right information, conditions and ample time. Yet, just the opposite has proven to be true and public resistance to ready them for any and all hazards has remained fairly constant. The real opportunity for us from a risk communications perspective is in the area we term "soft biases," or opinions, temporary states of mind that are subject of influence.

Misconceptions are a good example of a soft bias, and when understood and managed properly, misconceptions can work to our advantage. How so? Misconceptions can tell us where people are getting the information wrong or right. And if accurately identified, we can then pinpoint the values/information to counter the misconception and convert the values/information into benefits.

Principle #4: Recognize and Address Audience Fear and Anger

When it comes to informing and educating the public about flooding and flood risk we're dealing with a spectrum of people and emotions, from mild concern to outrage and anger. For flood risk, as well as a host of other hazards, communications research has identified three audience groups that we find, regardless of the hazard. The first audience, are those individuals or groups who readily attend to the message and take action to reduce their risk, also referred to as "allies." The second audience, the "adversary" reject our communications and claims outright regardless of what we say or do and are resistant to any form of persuasion or influence. Our final group, the "ambivalents," are those individuals groups are generally disinterested or unengaged, but given the right conditions and information can be persuaded.

Of the three groups, the ambivalents are a very large, and for the most part untapped resource, and the audience at which we should be targeting our attention, energy and resources. So, what's the secret to slowly moving the ambivalents in the direction of becoming our allies? Part of the answer is in a communications technique we call "reframing," or more simply changing the way people perceive an issue, and in so doing, change the perceived value and meaning of the issue itself.

When communicating flood risk, we can use reframing at a number of different levels. Examples include reframing the public's tendency to dichotomize risk from "safe or dangerous" to a continuum of risk; timeframes, and cost associated with risk, and more. Gerry, Principle 5.

Principle #5: Acknowledge Uncertainty

Gerry Galloway: Principle 5 acknowledges uncertainty. All too often, in communicating risk or even the flood hazard, we don't want to appear to be uncertain or to waffle about the information we have. And so we say we know the answer- exactly. Then later in the question period, we have to reveal that there's a lot of slack in the definition of a 100-year flood elevation and that there's a lot we don't know about the integrity of the levee systems that are protecting people.

At that point, we've lost credibility with the audience. It's far better upfront to explain to the audience what we know where uncertainties exist. In reality, sometimes recognizing this uncertainty helps a person understand why they must take risk into account in their actions. Back to you Tim.

Principle #6:Explain Complex and Technical Information

Tim Tinker: Under Principle 2, Rules Change, we said that in high stress situations people have difficulty processing large quantity and complex information. There a few simple, yet powerful and proven techniques gleaned from risk communication practice that we can use to ensure our communications and messages are clear, concise, brief and usable.

"Chunking" is a combination of techniques we can use to get our messages into a bite-size, digestible and understandable form. There are well over 40 such techniques, but the three high-value techniques are 27/9/3, CCO and 1N-3P.

27/9/3 refers to the average media sound bite or 27 words, 9 seconds and 3 key messages, also known as the Rule of 3. In a low stress environment people have the capacity to process up to seven pieces of information, but during times of crisis, this number is reduced to 3 bites or chunks of information.

CCO stands for "Compassion, "Conviction and Optimism," and was used by Winston Churchill during the dark days of World War II. In his speeches, Churchill, as did many of the great political communicators, recognized that in times of distress is was critical to lead their communications with a statement of empathy, caring and compassion.

Finally, 1N=3P or 1 negative equals 3 positives, which is to say, that if we do have to communicate a negative, be sure to follow the negative with at least three positives to offset the negative or a fourth positive to overtake the negative. Remember, people’s thoughts and emotions are often dominated by negatives during high stress events, thus the need for counterbalancing negatives with positives.

Principle #7: Anticipate, Prepare and Practice for Media Interaction

Most of us are familiar with the expression, "Crisis is not the time to be handing out business cards," or in other words, and especially with the media, it shouldn't take a crisis for us to meet the local reporter working our beat, be it emergency management, homeland security, etc. Ideally, and this requires an investment of time and energy, we and our local print and broadcast reporters should know each other on a first name basis, so that when the crisis does break, the reporter knows who they can (and should) turn to for sound, credible information.

Again, effective relationships and response don't happen overnight. It requires ongoing APP, or Anticipation, Preparation and Practice. It's critical that we anticipate all possible threat scenarios, controversies, vulnerabilities and the concerns and questions associated with flood risk. Based on the anticipation, we can then prepare our communications messages and spokesperson/s. Then, practice, practice, practice until the communication becomes natural, even second-nature.

Gerry and I would like to hear your thoughts from your own experience, and we will also be happy to respond to your questions. I will now turn the floor back over to our Moderator.

Avagene Moore: Thank you very much, gentlemen. Now, to proceed to your questions or comments. We especially want to hear about your reaction to these principles, and experiences in this area.

[Audience Questions & Answers]

Shari Brand: How can risk be communicated during non-disaster times?

Gerry Galloway: I would suggest that in non-disaster times, people are more rational; therefore, the job becomes one of laying out the issues in a win-win manner. "If you do this, you will be saved this challenge, and the government will be able to better help you and reduce its own losses."

Tim Tinker: In addition, reframing is especially effective for pre-crisis communications. Let's look at some examples:

Reframe from a dichotomizing of flood risk (safe/dangerous) to a range or spectrum of flood risk -- mild, moderate, severe.

When expressed in a timeframe, how can we move people from thinking about a 100 year/500 year flood to thinking about a 75 year flood, 50 year flood, down to a 1 year flood, chunking-down the problem?

How about in terms of cost, maybe the cost of flood insurance, -- rather than people thinking about a $500 to $1,000 annual premium? Can we reframe it to "a dollar a day?"

Reframe from "Risk-increasing decision" to a "Risk-reducing investment."

Reframe from individual risk to how this will affect you, your family, your community, society at large. Appeal to a higher sensibility; create larger significance -- this is greater than anyone one person -- humanize the risk.

Inert energy -- Good fear/bad fear; good anger/bad anger. Good, bad or indifferent, emotions are an inner source of energy and influence.

These are a number of ways we can use reframing to describe and explain risk in pre-crisis mode.

Warren Campbell: The color codes for New Orleans in the paper are useful, but most people want to know how they personally are affected. If you could use GIS to map flood depths in individual buildings during floods of different magnitudes, and put it on a Web page, it might help. Elevation certificates with flood elevations and lowest adjacent grade make it possible.

Gerry Galloway: There is a lot we can do to improve the information that is available on flood maps. Go to this web site: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/water/flood_risk/flood_atlas/index.htm

This links you to an atlas prepared by the European Community of flood maps from around the world. Look at the variety and how useful you see them to be. There is something there for everyone, and that may be the answer -- tailored maps.

Tim Tinker: In addition to the resource Gerry mentioned, I would highly recommend that the participants consult the work of Dr. Edward Tufte's work on visual communications: The Visual Display of Quantitative Information; Visual Explanations; and Envisioning Information

Butch Kinerney: Thanks to our speakers, and it's good to see so many colleagues in here today. Can you explain (and maybe give some examples) of "reframing" in the context of flood risk communications?

Tim Tinker: Butch -- I provided several examples in my message above regarding the dichotomizing of risk, timeframes, cost. Bottom line, we need to get people to starting thinking in terms of ranges, options, along a continuum rather than "either/or" propositions.

Sandra Batten: Don't you believe it's imperative to convey to the public that EVERYONE is in a flood zone?

Gerry Galloway: Everyone in a flood zone. Yesterday I heard a briefing by several Corps of Engineers employees who are in an advanced training program. One of their assignments was to think about risk communication and in doing so they came up with three fundamentals that, in my view, complement what we have been talking about. That was one of their points. It will take us a while to get people to understand that

Gib Jones: Along a similar vein as the previous question. I would assume risk communication is best done before a disaster strikes. Wait until a disaster hits and it’s too late to do anything about it. Yet a couple of the principles seem to be directly related to how to communicate during a disaster - specifically the "Rules Change" principle. Am I misunderstanding how these principles apply to "peace time?"

Gerry Galloway: We need to be ready to deal with both peace and wartime. It is just that we can use different techniques with people who are not angry than we would with people who are ready to find someone at fault. You need a tool kit to apply to the multiple situations.

Tim Tinker: "Rules Change" applies to any high stress, high concern, controversial or emotionally charged issue, be it pre-flood, flood, or post-flood.

Reuben Mabry: In New Orleans we are having a hard time clarifying for the public the difference in reliability of a design and risk. All our designs are all reliable since they will be built to post Katrina standards, but can differing features have differing levels of risk?

Gerry Galloway: I just spent the morning discussing risk and what it means. Given the NOLA experience, it is obvious that we need to spend a lot more time discussing what risk really means. Adding to simple risk such issues as, how good are your levees? and will someone really shut the gates?, makes it complicated.

Tim Tinker: Reuben, typically, when the public asks about the "technical" aspects of risk or design we should look at their real underlying concerns about safety, control, trust. So combine your technical explanation with some recognition of these more "values-based' concerns.

Gary Dicenta: When you live in an area that has not flooded for 70 years, you cannot get people to take the floodplain seriously. Any suggestions?

Tim Tinker: Yes - reframe the risk from 70 years and chunk-down to what flood risk means for 50 years, 25 years, 10 years, 5 years, and finally 1 year. This approach reframes the risk from distant to proximal.

Gerry Galloway: Did you see the USATODAY story yesterday about the Iowa legislator that said he had just had the 2500 year flood? How do you convince him?

Ray Pena: I agree we have to expand our definition of risk, but I don’t think your definition goes far enough. It doesn’t answer all the "why do people do this" questions you ask early in the White Paper. I think a better definition of risk accounts for potential/probable gain in addition to potential/probable loss for a given event, condition, occurrence, etc., as determined by individuals, groups and communities. People live where they live or do what they do because they determine the potential/probable gain exceeds the potential/probable loss. Opportunity outweighs hazard. Most of the time this works out, even in flood plains, sometimes (1993 and now) it doesn’t. What do you think?

Gerry Galloway: Good point.

Tim Tinker: Ray makes a very good point and we need to expand our framework to include the notion of BENEFIT -- another reframing opportunity -- combine Risk/avoidance/negative with Benefit/attraction/positive

Gerry Galloway: We are dealing with uncertainty since sometimes the person who sees the benefit is getting a shortsighted view. We need to provide an accurate picture of what the benefits really might or might not be.

Cindy Crecelius: Tim, any suggestions for how we combat the common approach of portraying those impacted by floods as "victims?" Specifically, related to the "CCO."

Tim Tinker: There's a very real difference between "empathy" and "sympathy". We want our audiences to empathize, or put themselves in the "victims" shoes rather than feel sorry for the individual. Also, we can use the "victim’s" story to get people to "self-persuade" for the need to take precautions.

Mark Stephensen: For Gerry, in dealing with society's predominate sense of "I'm not accountable for my actions, but you are accountable to me for yours", what message do we send to the ambivalents concerning our perception that they need to pay attention to risk?

Gerry Galloway: I do need to say that communication is a two-way street. When you send out a risk message your need to have someone at the other end who is listening, and vice versa. Somehow we need to emphasize personal responsibility. We all need to reach out to find out what risks we face and share in getting that word out.

Betty Hollister: We've spent $1.3 billion on flood control infrastructure here in Las Vegas. I have difficulty coming up with a flood risk message (in the desert) for those living downstream of a detention basin their tax dollars have paid for. In other words, they paid for flood protection and now I'm telling them they may not be protected. Any advice?

Gerry Galloway: JBH Just be honest. We are living in a period of rapid change. The flood threat is a function of changing climate, more development, and gaining a better understanding of the threat itself. We need to tell them that we cannot promise any specific level of protection -- we are all participating in an effort to buy down risk with multiple programs.

Tim Tinker: Betty -- For "Low Probability, High Consequence" events, there are a number of things we can do to move people from low attention, to involvement and urgency to being engaged at some level -- e.g., link the issue to other similar yet important needs, appeal to emotions that can become triggers for action, give people things to do to increase their level of interest and engagement.

Warren Campbell: My experience after the "big one" is that the most vocal people are not accepting any input. Before the big flood, they are not interested and it is difficult to reach the media. Media are looking for controversy or stories that gain readers, listeners, or viewers. After the big flood, they are trying to find out who they should sue because they dropped their flood insurance because it was so expensive. Any strategies for dealing with this?

Gerry Galloway: We need to work with the media before the event and 'school' them.. After the current floods I have found the media much more receptive to looking for the long term solution rather than someone to blame.

Tim Tinker: Warren, here's where we need to understand our audiences. For flooding we're dealing with basically three types of individual groups -- allies -- 20%, adversaries --20% and ambivalents -- 60%. Our focus should be on our allies and the huge untapped resource of ambivalents.

Michael Mitchener: How do you suggest addressing denial? The principles you've stated would work for those who understand they are at some level of risk, but many people simply think it couldn't happen too them. How do we best approach helping them realize they are at risk without turning them off?

Tim Tinker: Michael, refer to my response to Warren. Denial is a way to control fear, so we need to address the underlying causes/concerns/apprehensions that lead to fear.

Brian Walker: Good morning/afternoon. I am involved in California's new flood risk notification effort. I appreciate the principles discussed that take people's apathy, fear, and general need for more positives then negatives communicated to them. Governmental communications (letters) are typically concise, technical, and do not take these principles into account. Tim, do you recommend that a State's "risk notification letter" can be this sensitive and informal?

Gerry Galloway: There is no reason why a letter can't be written in non-jargonese fashion. You need to enlist some help from good writers.

Tim Tinker: Brian, as Gerry said earlier, all of our communications need to address both the informational/intellectual/rationale side as well as the emotional/visceral response that can motivate the desired decision and action.

Dave McDowell: Tim, can you speak to the effect of over-dramatization? My experience is that many people ignore public information because it is overblown to the point of the "Reefer Madness" propaganda movies of years past. The Department of Natural Resources communicates to people as if they’re idiots with no common sense, and they over-simplify "danger statements" to the point that people ignore them.

Gerry Galloway: Dave, One of the challenges with risk communication is getting local political leaders to join in the message dissemination, and bring the risk home in non-dramatic ways. Telling people they are at risk is not a fun operation and many officials would rather let the Feds do that. We know that people better believe people they know and that starts with the people they elect. We need these elected officials to be part of our solution. This is not just a federal problem.

Tim Tinker: Dave, what you're referring to is akin to the use of "fear appeal" or "fear marketing," and if used properly and ethically, can be quite effective. For a fear appeal to work there a specific conditions we need to satisfy:

  • Problem is relevant, and why
  • Consequence of not taking action is serious, but not exaggerated
  • Specific action to prevent the consequence
  • Action is perceived as effective in preventing the consequence
  • Action is easily doable


Avagene Moore: That's all we have time for today. I am sorry we did not have time for all of your questions and comments. They were all good ones. Thank you very much Gerry and Tim for an excellent job and we appreciate your time and effort and sharing these ideas. Thanks also to your associate at Booz Allen, Susan Kalweit, for assisting us with the presentation. Please stand by just a moment while we make a couple of quick announcements:

Again, the formatted transcript will be available later today. If you are not on our mailing list and would like to get notices of future sessions and availability of transcripts, just go to our home page to Subscribe.

Before we adjourn, please take a moment now, or after you review the transcript to Rate today's session and/or write a review or post your comments. You can access the form either from today's Background Page or from our home page. If you do not have time to write a short review or comment, then please just take a moment to do the rating. It should take less than a minute, and will assist future visitors to our site to find useful information.

Our next session will be July 23rd when our topic will be the upcoming review of the Target Capabilities List. This is an outreach effort from the FEMA program office, and you will not want to miss it.

Amy and I will be attending the Natural Hazards Workshop in Colorado this next week, and if you are planning to go, please look us up in the Poster Session!

Thanks to everyone for participating today. We stand adjourned but before you go, please help me show our appreciation to Gerry and Tim for an excellent job.