Risk, high-concern, and crisis communicators are often charged with communicating technical information about risks and threats. This isn’t easy, and below are five of the main challenges posed by communicating this type of information.
Challenge 1: Low Probability
Challenges arise for communicating information about events with a low probability of occurring (something, for example, with a one-in-a-million chance of occurring). The issue here is that people’s perceptions are strongly influenced by easy-to-recall events, no matter the actual probability.
Challenge 2: Exponential Growth
“Exponential-growth bias” occurs when people underestimate the speed at which a number can increase because of compounding. This challenge led to misunderstandings and underestimates about the speed that COVID-19 could spread, making it difficult to explain the importance of face masks, social distancing, and other measures.
Challenge 3: Cumulative Risk
Even though an event might have a low probability of occurring at a particular time or place, probabilities add up over time. Because of the misunderstanding of cumulative probability, significant risks can be overlooked.
Challenge 4: Qualitative Words
Qualitative words or expressions are often an uneasy match for numerical probabilities. The word probably, for example, might be used to describe the probability of an event. But the word can mean different things to different people, leading to varied interpretations.
Challenge 5: Numerical Skills
The general US population lacks numerical skills, with almost one in three Americans lacking even the numeracy skills to interpret basic mathematical information in daily life. Because understanding probabilities is even more challenging, this presents a steep challenge for risk, high-concern, and crisis communicators.
Pathway Prompt: Have you come up against any of these challenges? What methods did you use to address them?
Communicating Effectively When Feelings, Fears, and Facts Collide
More information about risk, high-concern, and crisis communication can be found in Dr. Covello’s video-based course Pathway to Risk, High-Concern, and Crisis Communication. This master class introduces communicators to the tools and techniques for communicating effectively—while providing greater insight into why audiences react the way they do during times of stress.
The course comprises nine video lectures and accompanying text modules, plus supplemental materials for putting valuable lessons into practice.
More information about the course, including group rates and partnering opportunities, can be found by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Vincent Covello
Dr. Vincent Covello, director of the Center for Risk Communication, is one of the world’s leading experts and practitioners on risk, high-concern, and crisis communication. He is the author of more than 150 articles in scientific journals and the author/editor of more than 20 books. Dr. Covello is a consultant, writer, and teacher. He is a frequent keynote speaker and has conducted communication skills training for thousands.
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Levy, M., and Tasoff, J. (2019). “Exponential‐growth Bias in Experimental Consumption Decisions.” Economica 87(345): 52–80.
David Robson/British Broadcasting Company (BBC). (2020). “Exponential-growth bias (EGB) is the tendency for individuals to underestimate exponential growth.” Accessed at: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200812-exponential-growth-bias-the-numerical-error-behind-covid-19
Karelitz, T. M., and Budescu, D. V. (2004). “You Say ‘Probable’ and I Say ‘Likely’: Improving Interpersonal Communication with Verbal Probability Phrases.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 10(1), 25–41. https://doi.org/10.1037/1076-898X.10.1.25
National Center for Education Statistics. (2020). Adult Numeracy in the United States. NCES 2020-025. Washington, DC: US Department of Education. Accessed at: https://nces.ed.gov/datapoints/2020025.asp