Upon reviewing the article, “Risk Communication and Community Right to Know: A Public Relations Obligation to Inform”, I have discovered a few key ideas in real life PR. The article is based on a case study of risk awareness and management of communities that are affected by health, safety, and environmental risks. The study was conducted on two communities, one which did not have a huge awareness of the safety management and information on risks associated with their area, however, the other community was well informed. (Palenchar, 2008)
According to the article, risk is a “cultural phenomenon” that is based on interpretation by the individual. In the past, risk management was approached through a source-oriented method. This method is one that is of non-transparent companies. You give the information out, allow the public to see the good, but not the reality of the situation. Now, the risks associated with living in chemical environments are approached in a social relations method. This allows the communities to see the dangers, but also see the steps that are being taken to educate and protect them from risks. One of the programs created, “A Community Right to Know”, gives the public power by telling them the specific information on chemical plants and emissions, etc. This is ground breaking because it allows them to keep the company accountable to specific safety requirements. This development is where the real communication began because of a need for more information shown through community unrest and the relief given by the company in the form of communication. The companies involved that were successful in their communication used safety education to empower their community. They used advisory panels, forums, handouts, web sites, to inform their community of the risks in their area, but also the steps to take in case of emergency. (Palenchar, 2008)
Something that surprised me was that in communities where the information was available, not many people knew all aspects of the information. In a high risk area, I would think that people would take advantage of any information that was available to them. Another thing that surprised me was that the more the people were educated about the risks in their environment, the more comfortable they were in that environment. I would think that seeing a cartoon character telling my children what to do in case of a chemical spill or explosion would be disturbing. However, residents were happy to have their children aware of what to do so that they would be safe. In this situation, the people know that they are in danger potentially, but they choose to live there anyway. This calls for communication that says “We all know that there is danger, so let’s face it together”. People feel more in control when they know the facts and the steps that are being taken to make the environment the safest it can be in the situation. Of the community that was not involved at all in company decisions or information about chemicals and risks, the people were bitter and jumped to negative conclusions. This taught me that without communication, there is poor perception and negative conclusions.
An important thing that I learned in this article is that communication from a company has to have a specific identification or face. The community that supported its chemical plant had a cartoon character for the kids and specific people speaking for the company. The more information they have from the company, the more support they have for the company. Even though the company gives them jobs, schools, and other important resources, they only support them fully when communication is prevalent.
An interesting thing the article brought to my attention is that in living in these areas with risks, people always construct a type of narrative to justify their decision to live there. Once communicators, whether companies or researchers, are aware of this narrative; they can construct further communication with the community that mirrors their own type of narrative. So in a way, the community is creating its own sense of safety by giving the company the type of communication that speaks to them. I would like to know more about this, and whether or not companies are just using the correct communication to alter the perception of their residents, or they are really creating safer, more comforting environments.
This relates to my company, Time Warner, in that my company sends information out to its clients and shareholders that includes the decisions made. This allows the people to be involved, which helps them to trust the company.
This is an interesting article, and I would recommend that you read it for yourself. It shows the real world aspects of PR that aren’t always associated with the “PR” world.
Palenchar, Michael J. (2008).Risk Communication and Community Right to Know: A Public Relations Obligation to Inform. Public Relations Journal. 2, 1-26.