Talking about floods: be brave and leave out the numbers!

Community Questions from Skegness
Catherine Morgan
Monday, 1st August 2016

Over the last ten years, many research projects have wrestled with the age-old challenge of how to ‘persuade’ the public that they are at flood risk and that they should do something about it. This challenge is often boiled down to an inability to communicate flood risk effectively, yet the public need is far more nuanced than merely finding the right statistical analogy to a 1 in 100 return period.

The excellent EU KULTURisk project investigated flood risk communications and considered two important questions:

  • What do we want to achieve with our flood risk communications?
  • To what extent should communications aim to convey robustness (scientific content), richness (depth and detail) or saliency (relevance to user needs)?   

From a flood risk authority perspective, the answer to the first question is that we want people to be aware of their flood risk and to take actions to reduce the impacts both before and during a flood. With that in mind, we need to carefully consider the balance between scientific robustness, information richness and message saliency within our communications.

For example, many previous approaches to communication have aimed to present scientific information to ‘educate’ the public about flood risk, with attempts to simplify the scientific content to make it easier to understand. This approach is ineffective as teaching flood probability will not lead to people making a flood plan.

At the Environment Agency, we held a series of public dialogues, and alongside our partners talked to members of public who had been flooded or were at risk to understand whether current flood risk information was meaningful or would result in them taking action. The feedback was that authorities focussed far too much on the scientific information and there was often too much detail. Few communications addressed their needs.

So what are those needs? What were we told?

People need to know how a flood will affect them; what it will do to their homes and how it will disrupt their lives. Authorities have often shied away from such stark content in communications as it may cause fear or panic. Key to avoiding that fear is to combine the reality of a flood with positive, empowering communications on how to avoid those awful impacts. People need to know what they can do as individuals; what they can do as a community, and equally as important; what authorities are doing and how we provide support.

So, what of return periods? A most sage comment made during our public dialogues compared flood risk information to a play at a theatre; flood risk professionals focus on what happens behind the scenes, whereas people just want to see the show. In the UK we have brilliant flood risk data and models, and maybe we feel that it’s important for the public to know about the excellent science which feeds our flood maps, scheme designs or forecasts. However, despite the technical capability which allows us to identify risk, design an intervention and understand the risk reduction, people need to know:

  1. If they are at risk? “Yes, although we’ve built a defence, if we have a flood bigger than 2007, water will come over the wall.”
  2. What do they need to do? “Sign up to a warning, make a plan, think about measures to protect your home or move valuables, talk to your neighbours about it…”
  3. What are the authorities doing? “continuously monitoring weather and river levels, maintaining defences, operating gates, providing temporary defences….”

Of course, some people will always be interested in the technical data and detail, but saliency, ensuring that our information is meaningful, relevant, actionable and empowering is key to improving how we enable the public to manage their flood risk in the future.


Dr Jacqui Cotton

Principal Scientist, Environment Agency

Jacqui is a principal scientist at the Environment Agency, working in the team that delivers the Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Research and Development Programme. She manages the programme’s Policy, Strategy and Investment theme which includes strategic approaches and policy responses to managing flood risk and the social, health and economic impacts of floods.