When developing communication strategies and messages in high-stress situations, it is helpful to understand the four basic communication theories that form the foundation of risk communication:

(1) Trust determination theory

(2) Negative dominance theory

(3) Mental noise theory

(4) Risk perception theory

The theories are briefly described below, and more information about these theories can be found in module two of Dr. Vincent Covello’s video-based course Pathway to Risk, High-Concern, and Crisis Communication.

Trust determination theory

Trust determination theory states that trust is the most powerful factor influencing how people make risk-related decisions. The more trusted the source of information, the more acceptable will be the messages, messengers, and channels for acquiring information.

Negative dominance theory

Negative dominance theory states that people under stress put much more weight on negative information than on positive information. Three to four positive or constructive messages are typically needed to offset negative information.

Mental noise theory

Mental noise theory states that people in high-stress situations often have great difficulty processing information—hearing, understanding, and remembering.

The ability of a stressed and upset individual to process risk-related information is often reduced by as much as 80 percent.

Risk perception theory

Risk perception theory states that risks are generally more or less worrisome, fearful, and acceptable if perceived to have certain characteristics. These characteristics concern such qualities as familiarity, uncertainty, scope, origin, and benefits. A complete table of these characteristics is included in the text module for the second lesson of Dr. Covello’s course.

Bonus Tool

This week’s blog post contains a bonus tool, the IDK (“I don’t know”) template.

Most have been in the difficult situation of having to say, “I don’t know.” While you would always like to be able to answer your stakeholders’ questions, this isn’t always possible, because sometimes the information they seek isn’t yet available.

Few things cause as much anxiety as having to tell an already-stressed stakeholder that you don’t know the answer to their question. But there is a way to go about it that produces the best results:

(1) Start with a positive statement to show that you’re listening and to demonstrate empathy and caring. Then say, “I don’t know.”

(2) Follow up by saying how you will get the information.

(3) Tell the person asking the question what you do know.

Here is an example: “You’ve asked me … I don’t know the answer to your question. I’d be happy to follow up by doing … In the meantime, I do know …”

Communicating Effectively When Feelings, Fears, and Facts Collide

Dr. Covello’s video-based course Pathway to Risk, High-Concern, and Crisis Communication 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 info@pathwaycommunication.com.

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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