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Book review: Handbook of Risk and Crisis Communication

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2010. Book review: Handbook of Risk and Crisis Communication. Technical Communication 57(2):221–222.

Heath, R.L.; O’Hair, H.D. eds. 2009. Handbook of Risk and Crisis Communication. Routledge, New York, NY. [ISBN 978-0-8058-5777-1. 683 p, including index. $225.00 USD.]

Risk is a fact of life and, if we’re unfortunate, becomes manifest as crisis. For those who must communicate risk to avert crises, or communicate solutions when risk becomes crisis, the Handbook “explores the scope and purpose of risk, and its counterpart, crisis, to facilitate the understanding of these issues from conceptual and strategic perspectives” (p. i). It accomplishes this through 33 diverse, often fascinating chapters.

Risk is a subtle concept, poorly understood even by experts, and ranges from the trivial (which product to purchase) to the intensely personal (relationships) and thence to the inconceivably large (global warming). Indeed, averting, mitigating, and recovering from crisis may be one reason human society evolved. Risk perception is an intensely human thing, therefore subjective and socially constructed, and this creates significant communication challenges.

Ortwin Renn concisely captures the book’s message: “The ultimate goal of risk communication is to assist stakeholders and the public at large in understanding the rationale of a risk-based decision, and to arrive at a balanced judgment that reflects the factual evidence about the matter at hand in relation to the interests and values of those making this judgment” (p. 80). This exemplifies a sea change in communication theory, from an antiquated approach in which communication flows in only one direction (from expert to audience) to a nuanced modern approach based on dialogue and negotiated consensus. The Devil’s in the details, and the book explores those details deeply, rigorously, and insightfully.

Chapters range from straightforward, easily understood advice to rigorously reasoned but often nearly impenetrable theoretical jargon. For practitioners, Vincent Covello’s chapter is a gem that extensively, clearly, and pragmatically describes modern risk communication best practices. At the other extreme, Kevin Ayotte, Daniel Rex Bernard, and H. Dan O’Hair provide a turgid and forbidding description of the epistemology and rhetoric of risk that practitioners will be tempted to skip, thereby missing one of the book’s hidden gems. It’s not easy reading, but it repays close reading.

Though expansive in scope, the book has a significant omission: how an organization’s internal politics, hierarchy, and communication structures affect both perceptions of risk within the organization and its efforts to prevent, respond to, or recover from risks. Despite introductions to the main sections, there’s also no attempt to present a final summary or synthesis. This is disappointing, but not a severe flaw in a book designed to comprehensively survey the state of the art in risk communication research. This omission detracts from the book’s value, since readers will have to work harder to create their own synthesis than were the book designed to lead them, step by step, to a holistic understanding of solutions to the challenges of risk communication.

The book is pricey ($225 USD), but not because of attention to detail. The type is uncomfortably small for my aging eyes, and the copyediting and proofreading are frequently shoddy, with missing punctuation, copy/paste errors, phrases that take two or more reads to comprehend ("is largely irrelevant the explanation of it apparent dangerousness" [p. 64]), and occasional gross infelicities (misattributing Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech to As You Like It [p. 192]). These occur on nearly every page of many chapters, though most chapters were tolerably well proofread. Combine this with overly academic prose, and many chapters are unnecessarily difficult to read and comprehend.

The editors’ content selection is much stronger, with a high quality of thought expressed in almost all chapters, though stronger developmental editing would have improved the quality by reducing the length; as a crude estimate, the book could have been shortened by 20% simply by eliminating redundancies and tightening verbose prose. The book would also have been more effective if the chapters had been developed as parts of an integrated whole rather than as separate contributions on a range of topics, but perhaps that’s an unfair criticism for a book that wasn’t designed as a self-contained monograph.

These caveats notwithstanding, the book is a strong and important contribution to the field of risk communication and contains copious literature citations for those who want to read further.

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