Author: Nina McGrath
Section: Best practice
How to talk about food risk
In crisis situations, the best way to talk about food risk is to take the following steps: evaluate your situation, know your audience, tailor your messages, evaluate and optimise your messages and engage with others to learn.
In Europe today, our food is arguably safer and more accessible than ever before. Despite this, there appears to be an increasing lack of public confidence in the food supply. A proactive approach to communicating about food would help to restore consumers’ trust in the authorities and help them to understand how to eat safely and healthily.
The European Food Information Council (EUFIC) has published a handbook on two areas: food risk communication in general, and in crisis situations. When the risk communication is poor, the public bases their food choices on insufficient or inaccurate information. This can lead to people feeling confused, angry or betrayed, losing trust in the communicator, or turning to non-credible information sources. EUFIC’s handbook guides the reader through a sequential step-by-step process for developing and implementing an effective risk communication strategy.
Step 1 – Evaluate your situation
Performing a systematic evaluation of the risk, the environment and a self-analysis of yourself as a communicator helps to achieve an objective understanding of the situation. This is a crucial first step in developing an effective risk communication strategy. The analysis, which is performed before starting to communicate, takes the form of a checklist of questions, including:
- What are the scientific facts about the risk?
- Who will be affected?
- Is there a history of similar events?
- Are there any ongoing political campaigns or media coverage related to the risk?
- Why are you communicating about the risk?
- Why now?
Step 2 – Know your audience
Food risk information is not universal and not all audiences are alike. Different risks affect different people, depending on diet, lifestyle, socio-economic status and so on. It is therefore essential to determine who will be affected and how people engage with food risk information to ensure they receive and understand the messages. Tools such as focus groups, interviews, surveys, observational research, and social media research are used to gather information about audiences. The better you know your audience, the more you can tailor your messages to their characteristics, concerns, feelings and needs.
Step 3 – Craft your communications
The goal of food risk communication is to make sure all your audiences understand potential risks related to food and diets. If necessary, provide them with practical actionable information. Developing key messages helps ensure the content of your communication is clear, accurate and useful.
Communication materials need to be tailored to the intended communication channel. For example, eye-catching visual communications with limited text are useful for social networking sites, while websites provide a platform for text articles with more comprehensive information and supporting visuals. For audiences that favour non-digital communications, television and radio are suitable for announcements of breaking news that require immediate action (such as in a food crisis).
Step 4 – Listen, evaluate, optimise
Risk communication is a two-way process, which does not stop once your messages have been sent. Monitoring the direct response and the ongoing public discourse around the issue can provide valuable insights into the effectiveness of your communications and your audience’s perceptions of the risk. This can be done using media or social media monitoring tools, website statistics, or surveys. Importantly, this feedback can help identify misunderstandings or misinterpretations, which need to be corrected as quickly as possible to avoid misinformation spreading widely.
Step 5 – Engage with others
Food risk communication is complex and involves many actors, including scientists, journalists, bloggers, food companies, consumer organisations, governments and public health authorities. Routine collaboration and on-going dialogue with other stakeholders can be established through maintaining lists of organisations and contacts with an interest in the same topic, and regular information sharing and meetings.
By engaging with others, you get a better understanding of the perception of the risk, potential audience concerns or unintended consequences of your communications; greater support from relevant partners; enhanced reach and impact for your communications; and fewer potential conflicting or incoherent messages reaching the audience. This ultimately leads to higher public trust in the food supply chain and a greater willingness among the public to take action when needed.