Risk Comm 101: Where It All Begins

This is the second installment in a basic risk communication series, adapted from a U.S. government training manual. The first post looked at the basics of what risk communication is; this post lays out a theoretical framework from which you can build plans and conduct risk communication work.

The four theoretical models[i] from which we draw practical applications in risk communication are summarized below:

  1. Trust Determination Theory – states that only when trust and credibility is established can we rely on the risk information that we receive. Trust determination factors such as empathy, caring, dedication, commitment, competence, expertise, honesty and openness, which are noticed very quickly by stakeholders, are important for us to accept a risk message as credible. Also, credible third-party endorsement is a valuable part of this model; when another credible source supports the risk communicator, it becomes easier for us to trust in the messenger and what he has to say.
  2. Risk Perception Theory – states that many factors affect how we perceive risks. We’ll discuss outrage factors, in later posts of this series, such as worry, anger, anxiety, fear and hostility, and how, when coupled with risk and hazard, can change our attitudes and behavior. Most importantly, we’ll learn how crucial it is for us as risk communicators to understand and speak to people’s emotions and not just their questions concerning a real or perceived risk.
  3. Mental Noise Theory – focuses on how we process communication during stressful conditions and how this stress limits our attention and ability to understand them. Just like Risk Perception Theory, we’ll learn in the posts that follow that our emotions may drive our decision-making abilities, and that only by packaging our risk messages in very specific ways can we reach our intended stakeholders.
  4. Negative Dominance Theory – states that negative thoughts, words and feelings dominate our reactions in high concern/low trust situations. We’ll learn in a future post to employ positive messages at every opportunity so that our risk information receives more attention and is remembered.

All right, who’s with me?

An often overlooked, and sometimes fatal, communications faux pas is neglecting the most important people that are – or have the potential to be – affected by some type of risk or hazard. That is, your stakeholders.

The definition of a stakeholder may vary, but here’s one that fits the bill:

A stakeholder is an individual or group that has an interest, opinion, concern, perception or need concerning an issue.[ii]

They’re your most important customer. A stakeholder can be an individual, a group, a community, an agency, an employee – anyone who is or might be affected by a hazard or a risk decision.

Identifying stakeholders is a necessity and should be a vital part of your organization’s communications plan. Identifying your stakeholders should be an easy task to accomplish. You look at some of your stakeholders every day – your employees, co-workers and their families. After that come your direct and indirect customers. Next, you profile your community to find out who might need to be added to your list: media members, political figures, teachers, businesses, special interest groups – the list goes on and on.

When a crisis occurs, it’s vital to get your message out to the right people in the right way. By identifying and constructing audience-specific messages, you’ll earn credibility very quickly.

Some steps to consider when identifying stakeholders:

  1. Who will be affected?
  2. Who might perceive they are affected?
  3. Who will be involved or collaborate with our organization?
  4. Who will be upset if not involved?
  5. Who was involved before on a similar issue?

The Seven Cardinal Rules of Risk Communication

  1. Accept and involve the public as a legitimate partner
  2. Listen to the audience
  3. Be honest, frank and open
  4. Coordinate and collaborate with other credible sources
  5. Meet the needs of the media
  6. Speak clearly and with compassion
  7. Plan carefully and evaluate performance

The Seven Cardinal Rules of Risk Communication, published in 1988 by the EPA, is a policy guidance document. Its central premise is that what people mean by risk is much more complicated than what technical experts commonly mean by risk. [iii] In other words, it is essential that you differentiate between the values that your stakeholders place on the risk and the data you have to explain the risk.

Covello and risk communications expert Dr. Peter Sandman say that these rules coincide with an important event in the evolution of risk communications; that is, it corresponds with policymakers offering two-way communications with stakeholders. For the first time, the authors say, “risk was properly seen as consisting of two almost independent, basic elements, hazard and outrage.”

In a nutshell, these rules state that if you’re proposing a response to a real or perceived threat, you must listen to your stakeholders’ words, understand their emotional attachment to the issue and, most importantly, allow them the opportunity to voice their concerns.

Playing by the rules?

The U.S. Navy thought it had a “political win-win” in September 2003 when the organization proposed a practice-landing field for jets near Roper, N.C. Go ahead and read this short Wall Street Journal story, and then look at the following breakdown:

  1. Accept and involve the public as a legitimate partner

The Navy referred to the site as being “in the middle of essentially nowhere,” and underestimated the communities’ strength in their efforts to oppose the site. For example, after a meeting with Navy officials proved to be a fruitless endeavor, many citizens of Roper teamed up with the town mayor and became a very strong political base.

2. Listen to the audience

When local farmers met with the Navy in the winter of 2003, they were told either they could sell their land or the Navy would condemn it. A Navy officer even said that any legal fight would be futile because the Navy had more lawyers than the farmers could ever afford to hire. By not accepting citizen’s feelings and concerns into account, the Navy isolated their stakeholders. It now became an “us vs. them” scenario instead of everyone working toward an amicable consensus.

3. Be honest, frank and open

While reviewing Navy documents, it was found that the Navy ignored concerns from their pilots about bird collisions. It was also found that one Navy planner complained of having to reverse engineer environmental studies to justify the Navy’s claims.

4. Coordinate and collaborate with other credible sources

The article states that the Navy struck a deal with two senators, but there is no indication that the service sought out other interested stakeholders as part of the discussion, most notably the citizens of Roper.

Some Roper residents said that their opposing views on the landing field proposal received very little support from the North Carolina senator. Additionally, one senator’s spokesperson said that the senators “only had one deal, and that was that the basing decision would be made solely on the merits by the Navy.” The senators might have been credible partners for the Navy, but do you think they were for the citizens of Roper?

5. Meet the needs of the media

6. Speak clearly and with compassion

By saying that risks are “manageable,” calling the proposed site “nowhere,” and discounting stakeholders’ legal efforts, the Navy showed no concern or compassion for the communities’ feelings on the issue.

7. Plan carefully and evaluate performance

If the Navy applied risk communications principles and tactics in this case, do you think they would have built their landing field? Or, do you think their “political win-win” turned into a lose-lose?

That’s it for part two in this basic risk communication series. Next week we’ll look at risk perception, how to enhance personal and organizational trust and credibility and more!


[i] Covello, V.T., and Sandman, P., Risk Communication: Evolution and Revolution. In: Wolbarst A, ed. Solutions to an Environment in Peril. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001, pg. 164-178.


[i] Covello, V., Hyde, R., Peters, R., Wojtecki, J. Risk Communication, the West Nile Virus Epidemic, and Bioterrorism: Responding to the Communication Challenges Posed by the Intentional or Unintentional Release of a Pathogen in an Urban Setting. In: Journal of Urban Health: Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine. June 2001. pg. 382-391.

[ii] Dr. Vincent T. Covello

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