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Clear crisis communication in a world of fake news


As the world wrestles with the unprecedented ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the need for clear, consistent and reliable information has never been greater. With public awareness being a key part of tackling this public health crisis, our work on the Lloyd’s Register Foundation Institute for the Public Understanding of Risk (IPUR) at the National University of Singapore (NUS) has been in the spotlight.

We have been working with NUS to develop IPUR since 2016. The decision to base this global operation in one of Asia’s foremost academic institutions reflects a gap in public understanding of risk in the region. This regional focus allows IPUR’s work – and the Foundation grant – to have the greatest impact.

Prof Koh Chan Ghee, Lloyd’s Register Foundation Professor in the Public Understanding of Risk and Director of IPUR, explains: “People make decisions based on their perception of risk. Often, these perceptions differ greatly from the actual risk itself. IPUR is helping to address this by building a greater understanding of the processes and factors involved in forming public opinion.”

A study led by IPUR Research Fellow, Dr Catherine Wong, found that high levels of public trust in the Singapore Government was associated with low levels of compliance with the COVID-19 preventive regulations for some groups. Dr Wong explained that: “The government’s communications and management of the situation made people feel safe. However, this creates a paradox of trust and a wrong assumption that, as a competent government is managing the risks, little or no individual action is further required.”

The Foundation’s funding is also helping to develop the next generation of experts and leaders in risk management and communication through fellowships and studentships. One beneficiary, Lesley Cordero, 2018 recipient of the LRF IPUR Fellowship, is now a Senior Disaster Risk Management Specialist at the World Bank.

Lesley notes: “Crises like COVID-19 call for critical time management, clear and transparent messages to the public, and assured governance.” Speaking at an online forum on COVID-19 crisis management organised by the Philippine Centre of Excellence for Defence Development and Security at the National Defence College of the Philippines (PCEDS-NDCP), Lesley highlighted three attributes that were crucial for a government when communicating risks in a crisis: consistency, clarity and credibility.

“Constant communication on what the government is doing, managing expectations and then addressing the issues head on are important. The public needs information more than ever”, said Lesley, “In the absence of clear credible information, people turn to alternative sources – including fake news.”

Apart from carrying out research and education, IPUR is building connections with policy makers in the government, the industry, regulatory bodies, the media and the wider public. Its work spans a wide range of disciplines, including engineering, statistics, sociology and psychology.

Ng Kai Lin joined IPUR’s internship programme in May 2020 to study the gap between expert and public perceptions of climate change risks and sea-level rise in Singapore.

“I thought it was important to address the misalignments between what we know and what is being done about it, particularly for climate change since it’s increasingly seen as an urgent issue for Singapore,” she opines.

As part of the internship, Kai Lin has crafted questionnaires for scientists and the public on their understanding of climate change impacts and corrective actions. She has also dissected reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), then drafted guidelines to help others understand these crucial pieces of climate information.

Ng’s work and that of the IPUR Fellows will feed into the Institute’s Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on Understanding and Communicating Risk, which will be launched on the EdX platform in 2021.

As well as funding students and fellows – with preference given to those from disadvantaged or under-represented communities, our grant has been used to establish an endowment that underpins some key appointments. These include a professorship, entitled the Lloyd’s Register Foundation Professor in the Public Understanding of Risk.

For more information, please visit IPUR's website.

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