The Role of Instructional Risk Messages in Communicating about Food Safety

Since its inception in 1991, the International Food Information Council Foundation has been dedicated to effectively communicating science-based information on health, food safety and nutrition for the public good.  As such, food risk communication - in its broadest sense – communicating both benefits and risk, based on the most authoritative and credible food science - is a fundamental underpinning of all our programs and publications.

We are particularly pleased that Dr. Timothy Sellnow and Dr. Deanna Sellnow of the University of Kentucky have contributed a feature article on the role of instructional messages to this edition of Food Insight.  Their powerful yet simple model provides clear and memorable guidance for health professionals and stakeholders alike.

Few would argue with the claim that effective communication is critical when dealing with risks and crises.  For more than a decade, we have worked with the National Center for Food Protection and Defense to identify the best practices for risk communication—focusing particularly on the food supply. Our unrelenting motivation for doing this important work stems from our mantra: “The right words at the right time can save lives.”

Based on decades of risk communication message design and testing research, we are firmly convinced that what one says and how one says it influences not only public perceptions of risk, but also the actions people do or do not take as a result. The fruit of our labor is a practical audience-centered framework for creating highly effective instructional risk messages.  Ultimately, instructional risk messages designed using this model result in more accurate perceptions and more appropriate behavioral intentions among receivers regarding food-related risks than what is typically provided by experts and in the media today.

As illustrated in our diagram, the IDEA model for instructional risk communication consists of four key components:  internalization (I), distribution (D), explanation (E), and action (A).  The following paragraphs describe each of these components in detail.

Diagram 1.  The IDEA Model for Effective Instructional Risk Communication

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First, internalization focuses on gaining and maintaining audience attention by demonstrating the relevance of the potential risk to them. Based on results of our research, effective risk messages motivate receivers to internalize the message by emphasizing proximity, timeliness, and personal impact. 

Proximity (a.k.a. closeness) is achieved, for example, by intentionally focusing on the existence of the potential risk in the geographic location inhabited by the receivers.  In the case of ground beef contamination, for example, pointing to familiar establishments and products in the region of the receivers will pique interest.  Timeliness is addressed by revealing how imminent the potential threat is or how important it is to act quickly (i.e., time is of the essence).  One challenge risk communicators sometimes face is motivating listeners to internalize risk messages where harmful effects are not immediate. And risk messages speak to personal impact by addressing how likely the potential risk is to harm the target audience and to what degree. It would be difficult, for example, to motivate vegans to internalize a risk message about ground beef contamination.

Second, effective risk messages include an explanation of the situation and how it developed, the science behind it, and what will happen next (including what is being done in response to it). The explanation component in instructional risk communication translates science using familiar terms and practical examples. Most risk messages typically do offer explanation.  To be effective, however, the explanation component must be (a) brief, (b) understandable by the target audience, and (c) offered along with the components of internalization and action.   In fact, our research demonstrates that risk messages that consist only of explanation actually reduce audience confidence and self-efficacy.

Third, effective instructional risk messages propose specific and meaningful actions receivers should take to help protect themselves and their loved ones. Once audience members understand the risk event and have internalized the relevance of it to them, they want to know what they can do to reduce their personal risk. Our research reveals that when messages fail to provide action steps, one of several unfortunate outcomes typically occur.  Receivers may be left with a feeling of learned helplessness or a sense of fatalism in an already difficult situation, or they may actually do precisely the wrong thing in their attempt to do something without knowing what is the best thing to do.

Finally, effective risk communicators make strategic choices regarding message distribution.  Risk communicators must be aware of how different target audiences prefer to get risk-related food safety information. Most important is the disparity among different audiences to access information via various channels. While some segments of our audiences have ready access to many forms of new and traditional media, others have little or no access to either. Effective risk communicators must thoughtfully choose the media through which to share our messages if we are to reach all segments of an at-risk population.

Any topic studied as comprehensively as risk communication can become so complex that practitioners find its utility difficult if not impossible to comprehend. We believe the IDEA model translates this wealth of research in ways that make it meaningful and applicable to risk communication practitioners.  If we are correct, practitioners may use this model to quickly develop risk messages when time is of the essence—messages that will achieve their ultimate goals, that is, to save lives.

Dr. Timothy Sellnow is the Professor and Associate Dean for Graduate Programs, University of Kentucky, College of Communication and Information.

Dr. Deanna Sellnow is the Gifford Blyton Endowed Professor and the Director, Division of Instructional Communication and Research, University of Kentucky, College of Communication and Information.