Communicating nuclear: Balancing risk with opportunity

More than others, high-risk industries face special scrutiny from stakeholders. In a 24/7 news cycle, effective communications is mission critical. Committed to transparency and engagement, the Canadian nuclear industry is taking a science-informed, evidence-based approach to communicating with stakeholders. These authors, all established communications professionals, present insights and opportunities when tackling this critical challenge.


A complex industry at a critical point

Today’s global nuclear industry is at a pivotal point, as governments, scientists and uranium miners and manufacturers weigh risk against opportunity. The debate is being fuelled by several factors — the March 2011 events  at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant,  the intensifying national and global focus on a secure energy supply, the impact of fossil fuels on the environment, and  political instability in oil -producing war zones.  The World Energy Council’s 2012 report, Nuclear Energy One Year After Fukushima, notes that almost 50 of its 93 member countries are today actively involved in “operating, building or simply considering nuclear generation as a viable solution for electricity generation.”  As of February 2012, there were 437 nuclear reactors in operation around the world, 63 under construction, 161 being planned and 334 proposed. This is a picture of continued commitment and growth, with China planning 51 reactors and proposing 120, India planning 17 and proposing 40, Russia planning 14 and proposing 30 and the U.S. planning 11 and proposing 19 nuclear reactors. 

Yet with so much going for it, nuclear is also an industry associated with risk.  In September 2012, Japan announced a new energy policy, one which will see the country gradually abandon its nuclear power program. In so doing, it will join Switzerland, Italy and Germany.

In Canada and around the world, nuclear offers many opportunities and benefits to people and the planet, as well as profits for the organizations involved.  Ontario is Canada’s nuclear powerhouse, and a majority of stakeholders in the province (54 percent) support nuclear power (versus 37 percent in the rest of the country). Ontario’s success models the potential for growth across Canada. With 15 percent of Canada’s energy needs currently coming from nuclear, there’s clearly room to grow.

But such growth requires a true understanding of the benefits, costs and risks of nuclear. That’s critical, given the gap between the realities and misconceptions about nuclear. The complexity of the industry, limited public understanding, political shifts and short-term thinking, pop culture perceptions and media bias (Godzilla grabs the headlines) present a challenge. That’s why the Canadian Nuclear Association (CNA) has made stakeholder engagement and communications a key strategic priority.  This article will describe what steps the Association is taking to communicate its strategy to stakeholders and increase their understanding of nuclear.


A dialogue for understanding and growth

The CNA communicates and advocates on behalf of the Canadian nuclear industry.  It represents a diverse and inclusive group of players: nuclear plants, manufacturers, universities, energy companies, nuclear workers councils , consulting firms, related industry associations and more.  Key external stakeholders include regulators, politicians, industry members,   NGOs , researchers and educators, international  markets, media and the Canadian public.

The theme and focus of the CNA’s 2010-2015 strategic plan is “Dialogue for understanding and growth.” According to Denise Carpenter, CNA president and CEO: “In an increasingly complex communications environment, we need to know how to get people’s attention so we can engage them in a dialogue about nuclear and build  an understanding of the range of products and services that our industry brings to Canadians each day. Just how do we translate high-level plans into “Talking Nuclear” with governments, youth, educators, business leaders, and environmentalists?”

To communicate credibly, transparently, and accountably, the CNA chose to take a science-informed, evidence-based approach to create an open dialogue with stakeholders.


Enter mental modelling

True to its scientific focus, the CNA built its 2010-2015 strategic plan and communications on mental models research. This is a proven, evidence-based approach pioneered by Dr. Baruch Fischhoff and his colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University.  The approach is valuable in identifying deeply–held expert and stakeholder beliefs about an issue, an organization or an industry.  It integrates decision science, risk management, risk communications and marketing science to provide credible data for strategy and communications design.  Mental models research helps to discover:

  • What people know that is correct and essential to making an informed decision.
  • What they misunderstand that is consequential.
  • What they do not know that is consequential.
  • What they want to know that is important to them.
  • What criteria they use to judge the trustworthiness and competence of people, organizations, and communications.

From 2010 to 2012, the CNA used several waves of mental models research with internal and external stakeholders, first to develop its five-year strategic plan, then to guide successive annual plans. The research provided in-depth understanding of stakeholder perceptions  necessary for creating opportunities for interactive dialogue, positive change and a focus for the future.  In all industries, especially those with operations perceived as being hazardous and high risk, credible, trustworthy and authentic communications are of paramount importance for growth and reputation. We needed to get a clear picture.

Through the initial mental models research, we wanted to find out stakeholders’ perceptions of:

  • the CNA’s current strengths, weaknesses and challenges within the Canadian nuclear industry
  •  the CNA’s role in supporting the industry, including their considerations on its vision and mission
  • the value that the CNA currently provides to its members and how the CNA might increase that value
  • the elements that should be considered in a strategic plan, including the principles on which it’s based, key areas of focus and measures of success


2010 CNA/Decision Partners Mental Models research

“We are at a crossroads. We’re either going to have a vibrant industry or we’re just going to be hanging on by the skin of our teeth.”

“We have to turn the industry rather quickly and we have to do it seriously and forcefully. We’re at the point where nuclear could easily be written off as an option in Canada. We have to move quickly to put the necessary locks in place.”

External stakeholders expressed concerns – such as those above — about affordability and safety while acknowledging nuclear’s minimal impact on the environment and its contribution to innovation and the economy.

Following the 2010 mental models research, the CNA 2012 did a National Nuclear Attitude Survey of more than 1000 Canadians, as well as a mental models-based Web  survey of 373 CNA members and 109 stakeholders (in 2011 and 2012). This research, which is ongoing, identifies progress on the key elements in the strategic plan, along with challenges and opportunities. 

Another wave of mental models research identified what stakeholders want to know about critical topics associated with the industry. Sample comments are below.

 “ Climate change continues to be something that is referenced on an ongoing basis and so nuclear is certainly connected to that in a sense that it’s not producing CO2 emissions. It’s part of a larger sustainability solution.” 

“ There’s always going to be concern about safety and the half life of waste and what you do about it, but they have to be honest and upfront about that. They also have to communicate the full range of contribution that the industry makes in terms of security obviously, but also to technology development and economic benefit.”

“The nuclear industry plays an important role in shaping our modern quality of life. Through sterilization, irradiation services, treatment and imaging medicine, as well as providing research and inspiration for research  that has led to many modern day things like electronics and computing. Its role in understanding the future supply of reduced carbon intensive energy is very formative.” 

“Transparent communication supported by transparent operation is important where nuclear builds are taking place.”

Source: 2010 CNA/Decision Partners Mental Models research. 


Communicating nuclear

By engaging stakeholders in several waves of mental models research we gained valuable insights for developing our five-year communications and measurement plans.  What did we do and what will make it work?

First, we recognized that today’s stakeholder universe is complex and highly networked. Conventional communications are ineffective in such an environment. So we built the strategy on:

  • Sociology and psychology, not marketing and PR
  • Insight from social science-based research, not ad-hoc or trial and error approaches
  • A dialogue orientation, not a broadcast, “deliver our messages” orientation
  • An understanding of network effects, not “target audiences” or “publics.”

Our communications strategy is values-based and stakeholder-focused. Our goals are to:

  • Focus and enable the dialogue on Canada’s nuclear future
  • Be, and be seen to be, a strong industry voice
  • Be seen to be and heard to be a nuclear industry that is different than what Canadians expect.

Mental models research was pivotal in jump-starting the dialogue, especially by engaging our stakeholders and identifying their values, interests, priorities and  preferences.  It helped create a sound foundation for authentic communications, and identified shared values and common ground. For both the industry and our shareholders, the following values are paramount : transparency, respect, honesty, excellence, leadership, insight, continuity and accountability.  Our aim is to create communications that balance science and values, risks and opportunities.  So we take a comprehensive, multi-channel approach to focus the dialogue and communicate broadly and deeply on the benefits, costs and risks of our industry.  Here is what we learned about what works :

Create impactful, consistent branding: Our new CNA NU brand strengthens strategy and communications, serves to aligns initiatives, and ensures consistency.

Enrich your web site, social and mainstream media to energize dialogue:  serves  as an interactive hub for all nuclear information in Canada., a micro site, has helped to raise awareness and engage Canadians in a conversation about the role nuclear technology plays in daily life. In 2013, we plan to update and fully integrate our web site  with CNA social media channels to allow the sharing of facts/vignettes via email, Facebook and Twitter. These have helped to spark dialogue and media interest.

Hold milestone events for continuity, connection and consensus:  We hold an annual conference (February), participate in Canada Health Day (May), and  Science and Tech Week (October). We also participate in other industry, NGO and government forums to build and sustain the dialogue throughout the year.

Educate, inform and engage the future: We engage with educators and students at all levels: elementary and secondary schools, colleges and universities to create opportunities for dialogue and to exchange information and ideas. We participate in career fairs, visitors’ centres, tours, student events. We also hold a number of workshops on radiation and waste management to communicate both risk and opportunities.

Build strategic partnerships for inclusiveness and transparency:  These are vital to inclusive, transparent and open discussions.  We work with NGOs, for example Pollution Probe, the Canadian Cancer Society and Corporate Knights.

Advertise key information and issues.   To communicate complex issues of special and broad interest to our stakeholders in a timely way; we also use print and online advertising .

Engage with all levels of government.  Nuclear is a regulated industry with a global policy impact. We communicate with government at every level in order to be part of policy development, and help shape and sometimes lead the dialogue on nuclear matters.

Engage and support members and employees. Highly knowledgeable, well-informed and engaged members and employees  are most essential to successful risk communications. We regularly engage them through face-to-face meetings and workshops, a speakers bureau, micro sites and newsletters.


Measuring up

We measure the effectiveness of our communications in a timely way, using a variety of techniques :

  • Updated mental model research
  • Social media assessments of level of participation, types of participants, range of topics, alignment of interests with CNA interests
  • Web metrics
  • Annual CNA member and stakeholder survey
  • National public opinion research and media trend analysis
  • Online and print advertising reach
  • Metrics on
  • CNA Conference evaluation

Our communications task is far from completed. But we’re learning the art of the possible by using a scientific approach to understand our stakeholders’ mental models, and using those insights to create an open, multi-channel dialogue that’s transparent, fact-based and built on shared values.  In the end, that’s how we’re actively working to balance risk and opportunity, and energize growth and innovation in Canada’s nuclear industry.

About the Author

Kathleen Olson, B. Comms is director of communications for the Canadian Nuclear Association

About the Author

Chitra Reddin is President of Communications Solutions, a Toronto-based firm specializing in strategic communications planning and policy, program development and executive training.

About the Author

Sarah Thorne, MA is a founding partner of Decision Partners

About the Author

Chitra Reddin is President of Communications Solutions, a Toronto-based firm specializing in strategic communications planning and policy, program development and executive training.

About the Author

Sarah Thorne, MA is a founding partner of Decision Partners