One of the bedrock principles of risk, high-concern, and crisis communications is that people in risk situations typically want to know that you care before they care what you know.
In other words, if people don’t believe you have their best interests in mind, they probably won’t hear what you’re trying to communicate, and they are even less likely to follow your instructions.
For risk communicators, this is of upmost concern. As has played out in the health arena over the past year, communications around the COVID-19 pandemic have life-and-death consequences.
Poor risk management and communication can lead people to
• overreact or underreact
• take inappropriate actions
• lose trust in risk management authorities
Risk, high-concern, and crisis communication should be a two-way conversation in which an organization informs—and is informed by—those interested and affected.
Good risk communication should produce the following results:
• reduce risk through informed decision-making
• share information and engage with people about what the organization in question is doing to reduce risks
• encourage people to participate in a constructive dialogue about what they can do for themselves to reduce risks
At the heart of risk communication is the goal of building, strengthening, and repairing trust.
People’s belief that you care, that you have their best interests in mind, is a key component of this trust.
But how do you show that you care? The following are three steps for showing that you care:
• Speak their language. People are more likely to think that you care if they believe you are one of them, that you share common ground. Is your language too technical for your audience? Is it not technical enough? Speaking in the same register as your audience is one way to build trust.
• Ask questions. How are you? Have your needs been addressed? What can we do better? Soliciting input is another way to show that you care. Whether through online forums, phone interviews, town hall meetings, or other avenues, asking questions gives voice to your audience and deepens connections.
• Communicate through action. Put your money where your mouth is. At some point, talk must translate to action, or trust will be lost. Demonstrating concrete actions and steps you’ve taken to address an audience’s concerns is one of the best ways to show that you care.
Pathway Prompt: In what ways have you communicated to your audience that you care about their concerns?
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.
Covello V. (2011). Risk communication, radiation, radiological emergencies: Strategies, tools, and techniques. Health Physics 101: 511–530; Covello, V. (2010). Strategies for overcoming challenges for effective risk communication. Heath, R. L., O’Hair, H., eds. Handbook of Risk and Crisis Communication. New York: Routledge; Covello, V. (1993). Risk communication and occupational medicine. Journal of Occupational Medicine 35:18–19.