The Art of Becoming a Strong Risk Communicator: Training Opportunity Funded by SOT STEP


By Matthew Wolter posted 06-26-2014 14:20


wolter.jpgWith the wonderful financial assistance from the Society of Toxicology (SOT) Supplemental Training for Education Program (STEP), I was able to attend a valuable short course at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts, from May 19–21, 2014. The short course was “Effective Risk Communication: Theory, Tools, and Practical Skills for Communicating about Risk.” Some of the general course objectives included:

• Analyze the key components that make up risk perception,

• Develop strategies to enhance understanding and trust among audiences while minimizing conflict on risk issues,

• Craft organizational policies and messages,

• Practice critical risk communication roles, and

• Network with other risk communication professionals from around the world.

Personally, I took this course in order to strengthen my background in Environmental Health because our program at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee is relatively new and I have not had the opportunity to take any courses on risk communication. Being a PhD graduate student in a School of Public Health, I feel that it is my duty to graduate as a leader for the public health community and strong communication skills are eminently important.

My experience in the Boston area began with amazement and curiosity; I couldn’t help but think of all the apt scholars who have walked through the halls of the Harvard campus and the strong history in the Boston area. The short course commenced with a check in and continental breakfast, followed by the classroom orientation, welcome, introductions, program overview, and learning objectives. My first indirect lesson came during the introductions. We were instructed to talk to our nearest neighbor for five minutes and then we would go around the room introducing our neighbors to the entire class. As my fellow classmates were introducing their neighbors in vivid detail, I realized that I had spent too much time talking and not enough time listening and asking proper questions. Therefore, within the first hour, I was reminded of the importance of being a genuine careful listener and asking appropriate questions.

Ragnar Lofstedt led the course and provided us with his book, Risk Management in Post-Trust Societies. The first topic of discussion was an introduction to risk perception and communication. After the introduction, Susan Dudley led a discussion on policy makers. Then after the group lunch, we had a two-part series on the effects of emotion on risk perception. Monday evening ended with a reception at the Harvard Faculty Club. Tuesday morning consisted of discussions on lessons from the media and constructing mental models. After lunch, we did a case study as a small group and then had a panel discussion with three risk communication experts. Wednesday consisted of a discussion led by Dr. Lofstedt on the importance of trust in risk communication and then a small group case study exercise on acrylamide, concluding at 1:00 pm. 

Over the next 12 months, I foresee this course helping me to become a stronger leader for the community as I enter the work force. The communication practices discussed in this class will be helpful in the near future as I work on writing my dissertation, preparing publications, and giving presentations. Even though a month has taken place since the completion of the course, I have created life-long memories that are strengthened by over 20 supplemental documents, a book, 15 pages of notes, and a contact list of class attendees for future networking.