Risk Comm 101: A Frame of Reference

NOTE: This is the first part in a series about – well – basic risk communication (hence the title!). It is adapted from an old (but surprisingly still-relevant) manual on the topic, assembled by the U.S. Coast Guard’s Public Information Assist Team (of which I was a proud member twice in my career). Found this document on my hard drive recently when looking for something else related and decided to serialize it here, with some edits and updates. It’s good, I promise!

“Over the past thirty years, our country has witnessed a tremendous take-back by the public of power over environmental policy. In the 1970’s, people were largely content to leave control in the hands of established authorities, such as the Environmental Protection Agency. In the 1980’s, however, the public reasserted its claim over environmental policymaking. People became visibly upset, distressed, and even outraged when they felt excluded.”

— Vincent T. Covello and Peter M. Sandman in “Risk Communication: Evolution and Revolution”


Risk communication is based on several theories, and much work has been done in the field to prove that practical applications adapted from these theories work in high concern/low trust environments: a pandemic, a natural disaster, a human-caused disaster – any situation that affects people’s safety, health, family, etc. When those whom we trust to provide us with important risk information show lack of concern for our values and feelings, when they put profit in front of people, and when they hide behind technical information, we almost automatically discount what they have to say and are left searching for answers.

So let’s break it down…

“A science-based approach for communicating effectively in high concern, low trust, sensitive or controversial situations.”

– Covello

By “sensitive” we’re referring to situations involving emotions, blame, shame, etc., and by “controversial” we’re referring to situations involving legal, moral, ethical, etc. issues.

Risk communication principles and applications are “science-based” because they are developed from the field of behavioral science research and practical experience. Many researchers continue to study and publish in professional, peer-reviewed publications such as those from the Society for Risk Analysis in Falls Church, Va., and The Harvard Center for Risk Analysis in Boston. Many scholarly articles and books have been published on the topic. In addition, university educators are teaching risk communication theories, principles and concepts as part of their curricula.

Why risk it?

We see risk communication messages every day. From the time we wake up until we lie down for bed, we are bombarded with information concerning our health and safety. We see it on food packaging; we see it in restaurant bathrooms; we see it on cigarette packs; we see it on television when an actor is promoting a new, cure-all medicine.

We live in a society that demands timely information – now more than ever. This holds true even more so when the information we need concerns our health, the safety of our loved ones or impacts to our environment.  Needless to say, it’s extremely important that we get well-timed and well-crafted risk messages through to our stakeholders early in the communication process.

For the purposes of this series, we focus on a specific aspect of risk communication: one that involves situations where there is a high concern level coupled with a low level of trust.

For example, if a hazardous waste disposal company with a disreputable history wants to build an incinerator in your community, you might have a high concern (potential negative health effects of hazardous waste)/low trust (company with little or no credibility) situation.

Three goals to aim for

1. Increase the public’s knowledge and understanding

Risk communication scenarios often involve highly technical information, which, to the layperson, may be difficult to comprehend. We’ll discuss ways here to present this information so that the average citizen understands what the risks are and how to make an informed decision about them.

2. Enhance the speaker’s trust and credibility

According to prominent risk communication researcher Dr. Vincent Covello, this is sometimes the primary goal of risk communication. Only when trust and credibility is established, Covello says, can the sharing of information begin. Establishing and enhancing your trust and credibility is the foundation of any risk communication effort, and the importance of these factors cannot be stressed enough.

3. Resolve conflict

As noted in the earlier example, if there is a proposal to build a hazardous waste disposal site in a community, there most certainly will be conflict. You can never underestimate the strength of people in large groups. Grassroots organizations, influential community leaders, environmental activists and concerned citizens will raise their voices if they feel threatened. The last goal of risk communications is to resolve real – or perceived – conflict by being open, forthright, and honest and by promoting constructive dialogue with your stakeholders.

That’s all for now – next up, we discuss four theoretical risk communication models and identifying stakeholders.



[i] Dr. Vincent T. Covello

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