Assessing the Effectiveness of Instructional Risk Messages for Effective Hazards Communication and Risk Perception

  • Sellnow, Deanna (PI)
  • Lane, Derek (CoI)
  • Sellnow, Timothy (CoI)
  • Spence, Patrick (CoI)

Grants and Contracts Details


In any natural disaster, constructing and communicating an effective warning message is often the variable that saves lives. To be successful, however, communicators must overcome several serious constraints. For example, sharing probabilities to help people make decisions about their level of risk is constrained by a wide disparity in how probabilities are interpreted. Moreover, disparate levels of risk science literacy and number sense literacy among people and groups create comprehension disparity constraints. Still another constraint stems from the fact that we live in a world a worried public demands certainty about scientific information regarding potential crises that cannot be fully comprehended. Those charged with communicating risk messages about earthquakes (both early warning and operational forecasting) are challenged by these constraints. This project seeks to address these constraints by merging instructional risk and crisis communication literature and visual design techniques with seismology science information to create, test, and improve early warning and operational forecasting messages about earthquakes. Ultimately, designing and implementing effective instructional risk communication messages about earthquakes has the potential to save lives. The USGS SAFRR is interested in understanding how human perception of risk communication affects the use of earthquake warnings issued by the USGS. Risk communication experts from the College of Communication and Information at the University of Kentucky are uniquely positioned to provide the expertise needed to develop and test instructional risk messages. Applying the team’s message design and testing approach to earthquake warnings will advance research in effective instructional risk communication to include the realm of seismological science. Dr. Deanna Sellnow, Dr. Timothy Sellnow, Dr. Derek Lane, Dr. Patric Spence and others at the University of Kentucky have extensive experience developing and testing messages for such agencies as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). They have the capacity to collaborate with subject matter experts at the USGS to gather information that would be included in hazard warnings, develop messages using principles of effective instructional risk communication, test the messages and assess the effects of each component among different target audiences, and use the data from the message-testing analysis to design and refine them into effective messages. The primary measurement outcome variables are the public’s knowledge comprehension, fear arousal levels, self-efficacy or self-protection confidence levels, behavioral intention, and visual acuity. Ultimately, effective instructional pre-event and crisis response communication campaigns will result in appropriate actions from receivers. The study will pay particular attention to issues such as phrasing probabilities and the public’s ability to comprehend their degree of danger. We propose the following tasks: 1) Develop early warning and operational forecasting messages based on input received from the Art Center and Subject Matter Experts. 2) Conduct a pilot study to test the viability of these messages using focus group and survey procedures. 3) Based on results obtained from the initial focus group and survey data, refine the messages in collaboration with the Art Center and Subject Matter Experts. 4) Conduct a comprehensive message testing analysis on a broader audience(s) using a mixed methods design (e.g., focus groups, surveys, and experiments). 5) Compose a data-driven report that (a) describes elements of the most effective strategies for early warning and operational forecasting messages and (b) provides sample messages employing them. Risk communication experts in the University of Kentucky College of Communication and Information have pioneered an approach to message-centered risk communication research (e.g., Sellnow, Ulmer, Seeger, & Littlefield, 2009; Sellnow, Sellnow, Lane, & Littlefield, 2012). A message-centered approach to risk communication creates opportunities to discover the most compelling and effective approaches to message design and expression for selected audiences in the precise contexts under consideration. The data generated by these projects, then, has the capacity to assist information providers, particularly those responsible for issuing early warnings, in determining the best way to share essential information in high risk or crisis situations (Sellnow & Sellnow, 2010). To summarize, the primary assumption of a message-centered approach to risk communication is: “The right messages, presented in the right way, at the right time, can save lives.”
Effective start/end date8/17/138/16/14


  • US Geological Survey: $199,721.00


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