By Thomas Barker | STC Fellow
This column focuses on a broad range of practical academic issues from teaching and training to professional concerns, research, and technologies of interest to teachers, students, and researchers. Please send comments and suggestions to column editor Thomas Barker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The theme of understanding audiences is not new to technical writers or technical writing teachers. Task orientation is a cornerstone of our work. The instant a writer asks questions about the reader’s need to know, the writer faces the need to shape technical materials in human ways. The art of communicating is to work in the knowledge gaps between existing knowledge and how readers think.
Some materials, such as technical hazard assessments, often clash with readers’ ways of thinking. This is especially so with cannabis issues now facing Canadian risk regulators. What is impairment? How do people think about personal use, and how does that thinking affect use in the workplace or automobile? What role does risk messaging play in helping recreational users make safe decisions?
In risk communication, adaptation to audiences is often based on assumptions about how stakeholders (called transactors, because they are the ones who take risky or dangerous actions) perceive risks. They may or may not perceive wild animals, swimming in surf, taking illicit drugs, or jaywalking as risky. Communicators often use familiar risk comparisons (“as risky as”) to evoke a little healthy anxiety. On the other hand, risk communicators rely on categories of risk takers (risk prone vs. risk averse) to predict and shape risk messaging. Neither technique can boast of being scientific or precise, which may account for the number and visibility of cases where risk communication missed its target audience completely.
In this edition of The Academic Conversation, I focus on efforts risk communicators can take to make risk communication more precise, if not scientific. In this article, I will look at a framework and process developed by Health Canada as a blueprint for aligning risk communication with expert assessments. Next, we will examine how the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission is addressing one of the most pressing communication issues in the province: cannabis-impaired driving.
The Health Canada Framework
In 2006, Health Canada, the regulatory agency in Canada for health communication, took a step back from issues like impairment. Their framework and handbook were designed to make the risk communication process more precise and efficient. The agency’s approach was to identify strategic goals and objectives and then to use guidelines to shape communication products (messages) to align with organizational values. By relying on guidelines, the agency followed a known technical communication practice: set expectations to help readers follow a series of steps.
The framework also focused on decision making and dialogue as concepts to enlighten message design. In doing so, they made a crucial distinction between public opinion and public judgement. Public opinion on a hazard, such as impaired driving, may be one thing, but it probably isn’t based on research or thinking. Hence it may be less sensitive to messaging, or more likely, subject to discounting of some messages for the wrong reasons. Instead, understanding public judgement about a hazard is a much more desirable goal. Judgement suggests deliberation and thought, which are processes that can indeed be addressed through messaging.
Shaping the Health Risk Communication Process
With guidelines in place, the Health Canada approach urges communicators to follow a seven-step dialogic process to develop messages that stimulate safe thinking about health risks. That process includes the following stages:
- Defining the opportunity for communication based on technical assessments of potential risk. Using the term opportunity puts the communication effort squarely in the sights of communication specialists (rather than public opinion experts or marketing communicators).
- Creating a thorough description of the situation to identify key players on both the regulator and transactor sides of the issue.
- Assessing stakeholder perceptions, a key phase of the risk communication process. In this stage both expert and transactor ways of thinking contribute to the communicator’s understanding of the messaging challenge. So assessments of both expert and stakeholder thinking occurs at this stage.
- Comparing these assessments to yield areas where communicative intervention (well-designed messaging) can mitigate and align what might be otherwise separate cognitive pathways.
Stages 5, 6, and 7 guide the communicator in using those pathways to create text and implement and evaluate communication effectiveness in alignment with the framework guidelines. The process, from team to evaluation, is intended to bring rigour into the communication process, seeing communicative acts as important mitigating tools to fill the gaps between the way experts and stakeholders think.
Cannabis Risk Communication Issues in Alberta and Canada
According to the Alberta Liquor and Gaming Commission, cannabis has taken its place with two other highly regulated industries: liquor and gambling. Their website now covers alcohol, gaming, and cannabis. As of 17 October 2018 it will be legal to purchase and carry up to 30 grams (roughly one ounce) of cannabis at a time. It is illegal to drive high, and there are other restrictions that are articulated in the Alberta Cannabis Framework.
Expert and Stakeholder Assessments
The primary expert assessment of the dangers associated with cannabis use (driving and work impairment, access to children, responsible personal use, public health, and illegal marketing) is in The Alberta Cannabis Framework. That framework lays out the approach that the provincial government takes to the safe use of cannabis. It outlines the four policy priorities for cannabis legalization in the province:
- Keeping cannabis out of the hands of children and youth
- Protecting safety on roads, in workplaces, and in public spaces
- Protecting public health
- Limiting the illegal market for cannabis
But this is not a communication framework. From the perspective of the Health Canada Framework, this assessment provides one key element in the matrix of assessments necessary for effective risk communication. These assessments outline important elements like legal restrictions, definitions of impairment (blood content), and legislation. They represent the regulatory policies in place that shape healthy and safe use. The other element in the matrix is stakeholder assessments. These policies are not communication, but instead are starting points for message design.
Message design comes after stakeholders have expressed their thinking on the health and safety aspects of cannabis use. Stakeholders in Alberta include municipalities, industry representatives, law enforcement, and the public. Engagement activities with these groups cover topics like public use, public safety, purchasing, and economic implications.
These results (summarized on the Government of Alberta website) provide insights into how these important groups think about the topic.
Risk communication begins by examining these two sets of ideas and finding gaps. For example, in the case of impaired driving, the public seemed to align with government policy. According to the website, “Almost all Albertans who participated in the online survey and telephone survey in the summer supported zero tolerance for any drugs for new drivers and drivers under 18, just like there is now for alcohol.” Public understanding and acceptance of alcohol-related impairment can provide a theme for risk-communication messaging.
In cases where alignment is less obvious, the Health Canada communication framework advises, that “the purpose of a written plan is to ensure that all essential elements have been engineered into a well-focused and coordinated effort.” The emphasis is on a systematic process that leads to effective communication. The communication designer can engineer out the risk of communicating by “using methods and tools to systematically define … stakeholders, identify their interests and priorities, and design and implement strategies and communications that address these explicitly.”
The shaping of risk communication materials would do well to follow the strategies and processes in the Health Canada risk communication framework. This model allows for a dialogic process that works in the intersection between expert and stakeholder knowledge. This framework provides a way for communication designers to approach a difficult subject—such as cannabis-impaired driving—with purpose and strategy.
Alberta Cannabis Framework. “Cannabis Facts.” Alberta Liquor and Gaming Commission. https://aglc.ca/cannabis/using-cannabis-responsibly.
Alberta Cannabis Framework. “Cannabis Legalization in Alberta.” Government of Alberta. https://www.alberta.ca/cannabis-legalization.aspx.
Alberta Cannabis Framework. “What We Heard: Stakeholder Feedback.” Government of Alberta. https://www.alberta.ca/cannabis-what-we-heard.aspx.
Health Canada. “Strategic Risk Communications Framework.” Government of Canada. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/corporate/about-health-canada/activities-responsibilities/risk-communications.html.