My Friends Need a Crash Course on Risk Communication

29 11 2011

Last Sunday my friend B was released from the Hospital. He spent a week in a hotel and then flew back to Monterrey. On Monday he saw his cardiologist, and after finding some arrhythmia, the doctor decided to put him back in the hospital. I am not clear on what happened then, but he ended up needing a blood transfusion.

Then I got an email by another one of my friends saying, “Don’t be alarmed, but B needs blood, please donate.”  Needless to say, people were alarmed.

Risk communication #4: Watch your language. Usually, if you start a sentence with “Don’t panic,” people are going to panic. If you say “B needs blood, please donate,” without explaining further, people are going to think there is some sort of emergency.

I called B’s wife, D, to ask what was going on. Apparently, she had been getting a lot of calls from worried friends. Later on, she sent an email explaining the reason people were asking to donate, and that everything was fine.

This made me think about past experiences and rumors. A past experience can really prompt a person’s reaction to a crisis. Think of it this way: If a boyfriend or girlfriend starts with “we need to talk,” and then breaks up with you, you might start stressing when anyone–a friend, a parent, or a teacher– says those words. The same way, if you hear that someone has been in the hospital recently (for a very serious condition) and then hear that person is in the hospital again, you might start worrying.

Take this “pre-worried” population, add some vague information, and things get even more interesting.  The original email requesting blood prompted 11 emails, most of them lamenting that they were not able to donate for different reasons (one of them being smallpox…right…), and wishing that the blood could be obtained fast.

Also, there was the blood. There is something about blood (the mere sight or mention of it) that makes most people nervous.

Risk communication is not only for corporations. It is somethings you use in your everyday life. It sounds like a cliché, but knowing a little bit of risk communication and risk perception can really help you when it comes to communicating with friends and family, or when it comes to spotting potential BS in newspaper articles.

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