The battle for hearts and minds? Evolutions in corporate approaches to environmental risk communication

In recent years there has been a great deal of discussion on the potential for a shift away from modernistic or technocratic approaches to decision making on risk towards more open, inclusive, and deliberative approaches. The authors consider (a) the reasons why some companies have taken the first step in this transition by exploring the potential of more open and communicative approaches to environmental risk management, and (b) the effects that opening up can have, particularly on perceived levels of trust between corporations and stakeholders on matters relating to environmental risk. For the companies surveyed, the nature of their activities, the significance of formative events, and the failure of more traditional forms of risk communication to reduce conflict and to build trust amongst stakeholders have impelled them to experiment with new approaches to risk communication. It is found that, in the short term, such experiments are seen by managers to have had mixed effects: in contexts where trust had already been lost, open engagement can lead to an initial deterioration in relations between companies and stakeholders. However, it is also argued that in the longer term trust can be built through such open engagements. It is suggested, therefore, that opening up and engaging on matters relating to environmental risk may lead to a ‘j-curve effect’, with an initial deterioration in levels of trust being followed by a gradual improvement in levels of credibility and shared understanding over time.

Gouldson A; Lidskog R; Wester-Herber M (2007), Environment and Planning C, 25, pp.56-72.