Any endeavor can go off track when people misunderstand the nature of their task. To perform risk communication effectively, it is important to clarify a couple of common misperceptions.

Risk communication is not public or health education.

Risk communication skills play a big role in public and health education, but “education” implies a teacher–student relationship in which an expert transfers knowledge.

Risk communication, on the other hand, is primarily a two-way exchange of information. It is not a one-way transfer.

Pathway Prompt: How might the idea of a two-way transfer of information change your approach to risk communication?

Risk communication is also not public relations.

Typically, public relations professionals attempt to make people see issues the way their clients want people to see them.

Risk communication, however, starts with the assumption that nonexperts have a fundamentally different perspective on issues. Risk communicators believe that the perspective of nonexperts needs to be heard and acknowledged.

Pathway Prompt: Can you think of an example where you have demonstrated to your audience that you’ve heard and acknowledged their perspective?

So What Is Risk Communication, Then?

Risk communication is a two-way conversation in which an organization informs—and is informed by—those interested and affected.

For organizations, the following are the primary outcomes of risk communication:

• Reduce risk through informed decision-making.

• Share information and engage with people about what the organization is doing to reduce risks.

• Encourage people to participate in a constructive dialogue about what they can do to reduce risks.

The most important goal of risk communication is to build, strengthen, and repair trust. Establishing a trusting relationship and a sense of connectedness applies to all types of risk communication.

Pathway Prompt: How might the recognition of risk communication as a two-way transfer of information help to build trust?

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

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.


National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council. (1989). Improving Risk Communication Washington, DC: National Academies Press. p. 21.

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.