Session 5 – Communicating Risk to the General Public

Two Training Contact Hours are available for this session from the Maine CDC Drinking Water Program. Participants interested in applying should email

Wednesday, March 31, 1:30PM-3:30PM

Kathy Hoppe, Maine Dept. of Environmental Protection;
Laura Rickard, Dept. of Communication & Journalism, University of Maine;
Bridie McGreavy, Dept. of Communication & Journalism, University of Maine

Scientists, government officials, and university experts need to be effective communicating risk to the general public. Risk communication involves the exchange of information between experts and people facing threats to their health, economic and social well-being. It enables people to make informed decisions to protect themselves and their loved ones and requires a sound understanding of people’s perceptions, concerns and beliefs as well as their knowledge and practices.

Session Overview


Resilience Dialogues – Crafting High Impact Risk Communication Using Collaborative Science

Christine Feurt, Annie Cox
Coastal Training Program, Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve

Risk communication depends upon science to document the nature of the risk and actions people can take to reduce their exposure. Solutions-based science is the focus of a decade of collaborative science research in the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS). In this model, interdisciplinary research teams partner with environmental managers and communities seeking to reduce environmental risks to their health, economic and social well-being. Collaboration begins during the proposal writing stage and continues throughout the research project. The interaction among researchers, managers and community stakeholders is mediated by a required “collaborative lead” whose role is to facilitate integration and adaptation of the research process to maintain alignment with targeted solutions. This innovative model is challenging, and contrasts with end-of-project models for translating risk communication results to unsuspecting managers and community members. This presentation highlights best practices for risk communication that worked to engage the diverse expertise of stakeholders, develop a shared language around commonly held values and craft solutions-based science that respects the concerns of vulnerable communities. Risk communication based upon understanding the differing mental models used by experts and the public was combined with collaborative techniques to build a systems understanding of environmental hazards, to improve the impact of science based messages. This approach was applied in Maine to sustaining riparian buffer ecosystem services, climate change resiliency and water quality protection. Best practices have been synthesized into the Resilience Dialogues training offered by the Wells Reserve to build the capacity of the next generation of risk communication professionals.

Making the Unmanageable Manageable: A Subwatershed Approach to Protecting Sebago Lake

Paul Thomas Hunt1, Margaret Airey2, Rory Twomey3, G. Andrew Smith-Peterson1, Kirsten Ness1, Matt Lulofs1
1 Portland Water District, Portland, ME
2. University of Southern Maine, Portland, ME
3. St. Joseph’s College, Standish, ME

A video of this presentation is available

Sebago Lake is one of Maine’s most important natural resources because it does so much for so many. In addition to all the outdoor recreation values it provides, it’s also the drinking water supply for 200,000 Mainers. Maintaining the water quality of the lake has been a primary mission of the Portland Water District for more than a century. This effort is complicated by the fact that the people drinking the water are generally not the same ones who are living, working and playing on and around the lake. A second challenge is that there is no crisis: after 150 years serving as a multi-use lake, the water quality of the lake is outstanding by almost any measure.

The District recently completed an analysis of the Sebago Lake watershed that involved subdividing the 450 square mile watershed into subwatersheds and assessing the condition of each. The final product provides a “report card” for each of more than 20 subwatershed lakes. Each of these smaller lakes has a community of residents and users who value it and have a stake in its future. They are more likely to respond to information about the condition of their lake and how to protect it than a request to help protect the much larger lake downstream.

This presentation will describe how this analysis was done, what it shows, and how the results are summarized for stakeholders.

Exploring stakeholder risk and benefit perceptions of Maine’s land-based salmon aquaculture projects

Cynthia Houston1 (student), Dr. Laura N. Rickard1, Dr. Bridie McGreavy1, Dr. Brandon B. Johnson2
1. Dept. of Communication and Journalism, University of Maine, Orono, ME
2. Senior Research Scientist, Decision Research, Eugene, OR

A video of this presentation is available

Greater understanding of the dynamics between aquaculture entrepreneurs and local communities can enhance federal and state efforts to promote a strong and sustainable U.S. aquaculture sector. In particular, as recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) facilities to raise a variety of finfish species are proposed in multiple locations in Maine, research is needed not just to inform technical and biological decision-making, but also to guide best practices for understanding, documenting, and responding to community concerns on proposed RAS sites, practices, and facilities.

Our study reports on one aspect of a mixed method, multi-site case study utilizing semi-structured, in-depth interviews with key stakeholders (e.g., community members, town officials, corporate officers, journalists, and state and local lawmakers) (N = 20) involved in the ongoing efforts to locate land-based, salmon RAS facilities in Bucksport and Belfast, Maine. Adopting a grounded theory approach, team-based, qualitative coding of the interview transcripts followed the ‘‘constant comparative method,” with emergent results informing subsequent data collection and analysis.

In this presentation, we present preliminary findings from these ongoing interviews, which have covered topics including sense of place, environmental risks and benefits of aquaculture, community development and resilience, and public outreach about the RAS facilities. In addition to exploring implications for risk communication and perception theory, we also suggest how emergent data may inform applied communication practice.

Improving Climate Change Communication for Northern New England Farmer

Ruth Sexton Clements1 (student), Sonja Birthisel2, Adam Daigneault2, Eric Gallandt3
1. Ecology and Environmental Sciences, School of Food and Agriculture, University of Maine
2. School of Forest Resources, University of Maine
3. School of Food and Agriculture, University of Maine

A video of this presentation is available

Farmers in New England are currently being impacted by climate change, and are looking for options to adapt their farming practices to reduce risks associated with increasingly variable weather. Successful climate adaptation will likely depend on improved communication from expert outreach providers that incorporates farmer perceptions and values regarding their own farm systems. To identify differences in how farmers and experts view farm systems that could influence climate communication, we conducted mental modeling interviews with 33 small- to medium-scale farmers in Maine and Vermont, as well as 16 researchers, extension staff, and agricultural advisors. Farmers were asked to construct mental models of their own farm systems, while experts were asked to construct models of a farm system that they typically work with. Both groups perceived farm yield and economic viability as highly central to their concept of a well-functioning farm system. However, farmers viewed community wellbeing, environmental stewardship, and farm success as significantly more central to their farm system than did experts. These findings suggest that the higher importance farmers placed on living out their personal values on their farm should be incorporated into climate change communication and adaptation outreach to improve farmers’ understanding of climate risk and methods for increasing resiliency. Training outreach providers on framing climate change information – including both risks and opportunities – in terms of community wellbeing or improving personal quality of life is a good place to start.


Question and answer session with all presenters.