Risk Communication in Practice

Provide clear and accurate information. In communicating about biotechnology to a nontechnical audience, information needs to be translated into everyday language. Explanations using ordinary words can help the public gain more realistic ideas about the technology - what it is, what benefits it offers, what concerns it raises - and how it is being used. For instance, the subject of DNA can be introduced with an analogy to videotape: both are linear and carry information that must be decoded. Genetic engineering can be viewed as similar to editing videotape. Like videotape, DNA can be cut and spliced back together; it can be copied; segments can be removed, duplicated, or moved to another position; segments from different sources can be combined into one; pieces can be put in reverse orientation, and so on.

Through experience, a number of useful observations have emerged. Among these are:

• There is no one-size-fits-all talk suitable for all audiences. Knowing who the audience is and what their concerns are allows speakers to deliver information focused on subjects most important to them.

• In talking about benefits and risks, good communicators strive to present balanced, credible information that seeks to inform, not convince, the audience.

• Legitimate concerns posed by certain combinations of crop-trait-location deserve to be acknowledged and, where possible, applicable risk-management strategies can be described.

• A balanced discussion of potential risks includes consideration of the risks of not using the technology, choosing instead to continue current practices.

• Statements presented as fact will have more credibility when supported by documentation that can be verified.

• Good communicators are wary of the tendency to speak authoritatively about a subject on which actual knowledge lies somewhere between experimentally proven fact and personal belief. (Presenting speculation as fact and drawing major conclusions from irrelevant, out-of-con-text, or untrue "facts" are transgressions commonly committed by groups opposed to the use of biotechnology.)

• No one knows everything. It is only sensible to acknowledge that for some questions, the answers are not known.

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