The Risk-Communication Playbook: Risk in Modern America, Part 2

May 15, 2019 Updated: May 15, 2019


The writer Upton Sinclair may not have invented risk communication in the United States, but he surely provided one of the most important, most faithfully likened models that has been followed, for better or worse, ever since.

Sinclair’s “The Jungle” exposed the appalling labor and sanitary conditions that pervaded the meat-processing and -packing industry in early 20th-century Chicago. It was a spectacular wake-up call, and though Sinclair, an unapologetic socialist, was at least partially moved by political goals to pen his masterpiece, no one could ignore the substance of his story.

Whether socialism, communism, or capitalism was ultimately the solution, Sinclair had clearly identified the problem.

At some level or another, those who utilize risk communication to advance their agendas in 21st-century America owe a debt to Sinclair. That statement certainly isn’t intended to be a criticism, in any way, of Sinclair or his signature work. It is rather to observe that the sincere, important tone of the work of pioneers such as Sinclair and Sierra Club founder John Muir is too often hijacked by modern-day personages and organizations whose biases are often more obvious and troubling.

There’s a formula used to communicate the importance of a particular risk utilized by those who hope to profit from a scary message. In this context, the word “profit” may, and often does, refer to monetary gain. But it can also refer to political gain. Sometimes, it can refer to personal gain as measured by that nebulous term “self-esteem,” which is to observe that the United States has no shortage of would-be Erin Brockovichs, convinced they have heroically uncovered the latest evil plot to poison their neighbors and babies.

The end game in any risk communication effort is a “call to action.” The nature of the call to action varies with the goal(s) of the person or organization issuing the call. The goal may be an increase in donations, votes, sales, ego, or something else. Sometimes, the goal may be legitimately altruistic—sincere attempts to avoid threats that are both immediate, significant, and scientifically defensible, but these instances are increasingly rare. That doesn’t, of course, prevent anyone and everyone who uses risk communication from laying claim to exclusive, unselfish motivation.

Risk-Communication Playbook

One can’t help but wonder if playbooks exist for using risk-based communication to accomplish a goal. I suspect that several such documents exist, on Madison Avenue, in the headquarters of both major political parties, and at hundreds of other locations associated with decision-makers, or would-be decision-makers, in modern-day America. That playbook would probably involve these three steps:

Identify the Risk as Worthwhile. The risk has to be scary and has to potentially involve a large enough focus group to make it worth further effort. Even minute exposure to the elements plutonium or beryllium are extremely dangerous, but so few people ever come in even theoretical exposure to those elements, there isn’t much of a market for those risks. On the other hand, exposure to asbestos was wide-ranging in decades past, so it’s a very attractive market. Likewise, exposure to lead is relatively common, but only rarely is that exposure at all dangerous, both because lead is far less toxic than elements such as plutonium and beryllium, and because the concentrations of lead that one is commonly exposed to are so very minute.

Establish Your Expertise. This may mean that one, personally, is an expert in the field. This is the route most-often preferred by tort attorneys and environmental NGOs. Alternatively, this can mean that one has the ability to identify legitimate, sincere, and unbiased experts in the field(s) at issue. This is the formula that legacy journalists and most politicians follow.

Present a Solution. The details here don’t often matter. If you can uniquely identify the risk and confirm the importance of the risk, the nature of the solutions is pretty much superfluous. When one dives deeply into blackmail, the size of the ransom rapidly fades from consideration.

This playbook works, so it’s very often used.

A Case Study

Returning to lead, as an example, it’s long been established to be a dangerous toxin. Most of the public thinks of it that way and neither knows nor cares that what makes a substance toxic involves a route of exposure and the amount of the substance to which one is exposed.

Children who eat lead paint chips are in danger because the route of exposure (ingestion) is particularly dangerous with lead and because lead paint contains a lot of lead relative to its toxicity. On the other hand, whether you use an aftermarket water filter or not, the water we drink will always contain some measurable amount of lead, but that amount is so small in both cases that it presents no risk. The principle “the dose makes the poison” applies, as it does for every other substance on Earth.

Relative toxicity notwithstanding, condition one has thus been long fulfilled: Lead is perceived as scary and since we all drink water, the pool of interested parties is huge. Condition two has been fulfilled because concerns about lead have been around for a long time. An expert is not needed, because “lead is dangerous” has become part of common knowledge. The important issues of the route of exposure and amount of exposure can thus be safely ignored by those who wish to cash in on fear of lead.

Which brings us to step three. People market products designed to remove lead from the water you drink and the air you breathe. Pet bowls constructed of stainless steel are marketed as lead-free, despite the fact that stainless steel, like most every kind of steel, contains a minute but measurable amount of lead. Is there any way for the lead in stainless steel to break free of the metal’s crystalline structure on the microscopic level? Not really, but the public has little time for such nuances. If our pet bowl manufacturer wants to cash in on lead-phobia, then he must call his product “lead free.”

This model has been applied to a host of items that put the public ill at ease. Indeed, neither the organic food industry nor the non-GMO craze would exist without it. But, as we shall see in the next installment to this series, the use of risk communication to market products has recently taken an ugly turn, one that involves one of my favorite beverages: beer.

Richard Trzupek is a chemist and environmental consultant as well as an analyst at The Heartland Institute. He is also the author of “Regulators Gone Wild: How the EPA Is Ruining American Industry.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.