When making decisions about risks and threats, people in high-stress situations will typically rely more on perceptions driven by emotions and instinct than on technical facts.

In high-stress situations, additional efforts must be made to communicate messages about voluntariness, personal control, familiarity, fairness, and trust.

The following are practical tips risk communicators can use to address each of these items during message development.


To communicate voluntariness, risk communicators should deliver messages that

  • make the risk more voluntary
  • encourage dialogue by using two-way communication channels
  • ask permission
  • ask for informed consent

Personal Control

To communicate personal control, risk communicators should deliver messages that

  • identify things for people to do (for example, precautions, preventative actions, protective actions, treatments, and memorials)
  • indicate your willingness to cooperate and share authority and responsibility with others
  • delegate and give important roles and responsibilities to others
  • tell people how to recognize problems or symptoms
  • tell people how and where to get further information


To communicate familiarity, risk communicators should deliver messages that

  • use analogies to make the unfamiliar familiar
  • have a strong visual content
  • use appropriate comparisons
  • describe means for exploring issues in greater depth


To communicate fairness, risk communicators should deliver messages that

  • acknowledge possible inequities
  • address inequities
  • discuss dilemmas, options, and trade-offs


To communicate trust, risk communicators should deliver messages that indicate

  • voluntariness, controllability, familiarity, honesty, openness, transparency, disclosure, knowledge, competence, objectivity, and fairness
  • caring, concern, and empathy
  • similarities between the sender and receiver, or at least a personal stake in the issue
  • partnerships with trustworthy partners and independent third-party sources of information


The previous tips are drawn from module two (“Theories, Tools, and Special Topics”) of world-renowned risk communicator Dr. Vincent Covello’s video-based course Pathway to Risk, High-Concern, and Crisis Communication.

As with other information contained in the course, the tips can be a great aid when developing strategies and messages in high-stress situations.

Pathway Prompt: Do you have any additional tips for communicating about the above areas of concern?

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 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.