Communication Issues Planning (Also see Risk Communication Planning article)

The two key requirements of effective risk communication issues planning are: 1) identifying, analyzing and prioritizing stakeholders and 2) communicator skills training capability. Time and time again, when we work with our clients, if we find limitations in risk communications issues planning it is in these two areas. We also personally experienced this when we worked on safety, health, environmental and other issues when we worked in the chemical industry.


It is important to identify stakeholders that impact your mission, favorably (your supporters) or unfavorably (your opponents), as well as identify other stakeholders that we refer to as “straddlers.” Your straddler stakeholders and your supportive stakeholders frequently have many good ideas to help you regarding your communication mission, goals, messages and action plans. We say many of the good ideas are “out there.” “Out there” also includes internal stakeholders. Finally, how you respond to stakeholders that actively oppose you influences how you are viewed by the straddlers.


Identifying and prioritizing stakeholders can be done formally (various types of surveys) or informally – one-on-one conversations, discussions before or after a meeting (have a cup of coffee) and other methods. We generally, but not always, recommend the informal approach. We have seen many successful outreach programs using informal approaches to stakeholder identification, analysis and prioritization.


Communicator Skills Planning

Regarding communicator skills; we hear stories from our clients like this: “one of our communicators blew us out of the water.”  It happened to us.  In fact there were times when it was us; when we got irritated or angry in a meeting.  Usually this was a well intended communicator, but someone not well trained and therefore unable able to respond in various difficult communication situations.


Risk communicators need to be trained to handle any situation on any issue in any setting in three overlapping communication arenas: 1) genuine negative emotions such as fear, anger, irritation, frustration, concern, worry, 2) agendas such as personal, historical, political, economic, social, cultural, and 3) misperception of risk. Each of these three communication arenas must be recognized both in the planning and in the challenging dialogues that take place in any risk communication issue.


Each of the three communication agendas requires unique skill sets. For example, in a negative emotional situation (let’s take anger) facts are secondary. Your communicators need the ability to empathize and ask open-ended questions before discussing facts. They need “big eyes and big ears” to see if the stakeholder is calming down enough to be able to hear and respond to factual discussions.  In other words, we frequently ask factual questions too soon.  Another dimension is how you or your fellow communicators should respond to anger when it occurs in a large crowd such as is the anger isolated to a few in the crowd or the majority? In an agenda situation, you need to recognize the situation and address their agenda. This usually requires getting to the point quickly. The point may be “You/your organization can’t do something because…” or “You can and will do that…” or “You will have to look into it and the next step is (provide a when in future action).”


Finally, if you are involved with perception of risk, you need the skills to explain science to stakeholders with less knowledge of that science than yourself. Avoid jargon traps and test if A) they understand you and B) want you to continue. The way you DON’T want to test if they understand you is by asking, “Do you understand me?” Instead use, “Am I explaining this clearly?


Risk communication communicators need the ability to:

  1. Be able to respond to any difficult question or statement in any setting on any issue (we believe and we teach that there is no question or statement on any issue in any setting that can not be responded to well.  We actually role play this for students in our workshops)
  2. Know how to apply risk communicator tools such as generic categories of questions and statements, along with structured guidelines for responding to difficult questions and statements
  3. Have excellent non verbal skills both self awareness and observation (Non verbal skills are very critical in the skill area of dealing with negative emotions)
  4. Avoid numerous traps including not taking things personally (That is, removing your “personal stuff” from the setting and becoming a communicator)
  5. Know how to use various techniques such as risk comparisons, numbers and analogies, particularly in the arena of risk perception
  6. How to develop messages for different stakeholders (see Cross Cultural Communication article)
  7. How to deliver bad news – a frequent requirement in the arena of agendas
  8. How to plan, prepare and conduct meetings, both internal and public (see Planning, Preparing and Executing Meetings article).


Risk Communication is a fascinating field. It is not public speaking. It is not spinning or embellishment. It is not about your personality type. It is being open, honest, genuine and sincere and learning the variety of skills necessary in communication about issues with your stakeholders. This will help your organization avoid the common pitfalls that set back both individuals and organizations on challenging issues in today’s society.


Finally, throughout your involvement in risk communication, keep your sense of humor!


Keith Fulton

Sandy Martinez


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