Communicating When People Feel Threatened

Volunteers clean a beach somewhere along the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

Volunteers clean a beach somewhere along the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

I’ve been called on to communicate with people affected by oil spills, natural disasters and other critical incidents. What makes communicating to people affected by these sorts of events challenging is that they feel personally threatened by circumstances outside their control and by people they may not trust. This creates mental noise, which means information doesn’t get processed the way it does normally.

We often see these negative feelings triggered when a local government wants to build a landfill or high security prison in someone’s backyard, or when a military town finds out the local base has potentially contaminated their drinking water.

These are what communication folks call risk comms situations – scenarios in which the stakes are high for both the object of distrust and those with high concern.

Risk is the real or perceived threat of loss of something we value – this, according to the Center for Risk Communication – and risk comms is the collection of strategies, tools and tactics used to exchange information about risk with those affected.

There are several sub specialties, or fields, of risk communication, ranging from marriage or relationship risk communication to crisis and emergency risk communication, where my partner Brandon and I honed much of our craft.

Though there are several categories, there are three corollary principles across them all, according to the Center for Risk Communication’s director – and our sensei – Dr. Vincent Covello:

  1. Risk communication is science-based.
  2. High risk situations change the standard rules of communication.
  3. In order to be successful in communicating risk you must anticipate, prepare and practice.

So why do risk situations change the communication rules? Well, the science says people in risk situations:

  • Have difficulty hearing, understanding or remembering information.
  • Tend to focus on what they hear first and last.
  • Focus much more on negative than positive information.
  • Process information below their education level.
  • Actively look for information from other sources they trust.
  • Want to know first and foremost that the person with the information cares about their fears before they can hear what that person has to say.

So what does this mean for the way a comms specialist should communicate? It means the communicator’s messages must be:

  • Few in number – no more than three.
  • Short – less than 30 words.
  • Digestible – less than 10 seconds long when read.
  • Simple – easy to understand and absorb.
  • Relevant – providing information the receiver seeks, not simply the information the sender wants them to have.
  • Positive – both in style and content – if you’re telling someone something bad, conventional risk comms wisdom says surround the bad with three good messages.

It also means empathy becomes the most important part of the message. An organization’s representatives must convey they understand why people are upset, that they’re upset too and that they genuinely, sincerely care about what those affected care about.

As our crisis communication community grows, we’ll delve more into the moving parts of the risk communication discipline. This is just a primer. If you can’t wait to learn more, though, visit the site of the “Mace Windu” of the risk communication community, Dr. Vincent Covello at

Talk to me, Goose.

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