The nuclear industry’s communications to the public after Japan’s March 11 earthquake and tsunami has done little to win its trust or convince it that the industry is protecting their safety, says Baruch Fischhoff, PhD, a communications expert at Carnegie Mellon University.

“It’s apparent they’ve done very little to prepare to communicate for a predictable kind of problem,” says Fischhoff, who chairs the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Risk Communication Advisory Committee. “It seems all improvised.”

Based on psychological research into how people respond to crises, the best way to handle one — whether it’s a nuclear meltdown, terrorist attack or food recall — is to communicate clearly the magnitude of the risks. When it is clear what people should do, tell them that, he said. When it is not clear, explain the uncertainties, so that they know what they are up against.

Instead, he says, the nuclear industry has neglected the public’s information needs, partially due to its perception that the public has irrational concerns — the same tack the industry took in 1979 during the Three Mile Island disaster near Harrisburg, Pa.

“They just dismiss the public as being incapable of understanding the risks and benefits of nuclear power,” Fischhoff says.

Why such caginess? In an April article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Fischhoff analyzes the emotions behind the industry’s decisions and writes that it’s natural that its executives would be angered by accusations of incompetence or deceitfulness. The extreme isolation of its highly specialized workers contributes to an us-versus-them mentality that affects everybody, he says.

Furthermore, under stress, people tend to revert to their instinctive responses, Fischhoff says. The current crisis has led the nuclear industry’s experts to fall back on the disrespectful communications strategies that have failed them in the past.

If the nuclear industry wants to foster public trust, then it should have a communications plan in place before the next disaster, he says. That means crafting messages that address the public’s information needs. That approach will require listening to the public to learn those needs, then validating drafts of those messages with test audiences to make sure they are understandable before sending them out.

“The public wants to know what the experts know in an authoritative, comprehensible way,” he says.

—M. Price