Crying Wolf, or Not

There’s been a lot of virtual ink spilled in the last week or so about H7N9 influenza. I’ve been keeping an eye on it, and very quietly getting my Program at work to “lean forward.” It’s a good exercise for us, and if this does turn into something bigger, well, we’re the ones who are supposed to be ready. But we haven’t issued anything publicly at work yet. Because, well, frankly, there’s no there there yet.

We practice risk communication for the long-term. We issue alerts and notices sparingly because we want folks to know that when we do say something alarming, that’s the time to sit up and take notice. Our thinking is that the more we amp up small matters, the more we contribute to the noise (and in today’s ubiquitous media, that’s a big problem), the easier it is to tune us out. Alarm fatigue is what they call it.

Which brings me to the point today. What if you HAD to over-warn. About everything. And not because you think it’s the right thing to do, but because you want to to stay out of jail. That seems to be the situation right now in Italy, following the trial and conviction of Italian scientists who failed to “properly communicate the risk of a major earthquake in L’Aquila.”

“Alarmism? It’s the poisoned fruit of the L’Aquila sentence,” says Franco Gabrielli, the head of the Civil Protection Department, the day after the Garfagnana evacuations.

His spokesperson Francesca Maffini says it’s inevitable that scientists are now erring on the side of caution.

“It’s not the verdict itself, it’s the very fact they were put on trial,” she says. “If the risk is between zero and 40%, today they’ll tell us it’s 40, even if they think it’s closer to zero. They’re protecting themselves, which is perfectly understandable.”

I’ve talked about the absolute disaster the L’Aquila earthquake warning suits were before. And this obviously unforeseen, by the government, consequence is just adds to the pile of “how wrong can this be.”

And none of that compares to the fiftieth or sixtieth time one of these middle of the night warnings goes out, and everyone ignores it, rolls over and goes back to bed. And then the warning is right. That’s the danger of not practicing long-term risk communication. It’s the same mindset of people who live on the Outer Banks of North Carolina and don’t evacuate, the same mindset of people who lived in the bayous of Louisiana before Katrina and tried to ride out the storm, the same mindset that prevailed during the US Department of Homeland Security’s failed Homeland Security Advisory System, that seemingly went up and down every day.

This isn’t something that executives and politicians are expected to know anything about. It’s their job to look in charge and respond right now to today’s emergency. And if it doesn’t happen on their watch, then there’s no worry. But for those of us in the trenches, the risk communicators that will be here long after those politicians have moved on, those of us who need the public to trust everything we say that need to stand guard against this.

We need to learn and advocate for long-term risk communication. We need to fight against short-term, one-off risk communication–especially if it’s being done for political gain. Because the only people who will suffer are those folks we’ve sworn to protect.


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