Risk in a High-Risk Community: Uncertainty and Control

In 1992, Palenchar & Heath published a study in the Journal of Public Relations Research about “how lay members of high risk communities express their views on the risks created by the manufacturing facilities that operate near their communities.”

With Houston’s robust petrochemical industry, re-examining risk communication processes and message content seems worthwhile. Risk communications, as the name applies, deals with “actual risks, the perception people have of them, and the content of their thoughts and comments. Public relations practitioners, including risk communicators, have to understand the actual risk involved, but more importantly people’s perceptions of the risks, variables that affect those perceptions, and the communication that results from, and subsequently influences, those perceptions.”

The risk communication process variables defined by Palenchar and Heath are uncertainty and control.

“Uncertainty is a central variable in the risk perception and communication process.” Because risk breeds uncertainty, which in turn makes people uncomfortable, the result is information seeking as a means of uncertainty reduction control. This is a natural response to uncertainty.

The variable of control is divided into internal and external with external being the outside forces that have control over a risk source and internal as an individual’s feeling over their own destiny. By logical extension, “risk communication processes and statements are more likely to be effective to the extent that they empower citizens of a community of risk”, which is relevant also to crisis communications.

In summary, the authors studied the connection between risk process variables and the content of community messages about risk from the rhetorical perspective. This is a useful exploration with practical application because it is ‘imperative for risk communicators to understand each stakeholders’ zone of meaning, which are based on demographics, awareness levels, risk perceptions, and knowledge of risk-emergency response measures. Essentially this study takes risk communication in the direction focusing on both message content and process. I hope that there is continued research into risk communication processes so that practitioners’ have applicable data on understanding publics, messaging, and policy.

Contributed by Karen Blanchard, APR, Naumann Blanchard, LLC president


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