TipSheet: Seven Principles To Allay Chaos Surrounding Crisis

Communicating on risk-related issues is a challenge under the best of circumstances. The public and the media are rarely guided by a strictly empirical approach to assessing risk: "Based on the facts, how likely is X to harm me, and what harm is it likely to cause?" In a crisis, as the stakes are raised, the communications challenge escalates. Audiences demand immediate information about the risk, what's being done and who's to blame. To further complicate matters, some experts believe a crisis environment may make people less inclined than usual to fully consider the facts before coming to judgment. In such situations, they argue, we are more likely to fall back on "mental shortcuts" - what some people call intuition. Author Malcolm Gladwell explores this topic in his popular book, Blink, which spotlights the workings of the so-called "adaptive unconscious." But whatever you call them, these shortcuts are thought to be a function of our aggregated personal experiences and belief systems. It is very possible, therefore, that in a crisis people don't just make judgments faster, they also make them differently. This helps explain why, especially in a crisis, simply arguing "the facts" of an issue of risk may not be sufficient to affect public perceptions and behavior. This is not to say that facts and science aren't important, but rather that they may well fail unless coupled with strategies to speak to the less logical, more emotional side of the equation. In this context, here are several principles helpful to communicators who must wrangle with risk in a crisis: Be honest and transparent: The ethical duty of a public relations professional to communicate honestly and accurately is never more important than in matters of risk to life or health. It is entirely appropriate to inform and reassure the public when allegations of risk are false or overblown, but take care not to over-reassure when data is incomplete or equivocal. (Remember, too, that in many cases information gathered in the early hours of a crisis ultimately proves to be inaccurate.) Address not just the actual risk, but the sources of the fear or anger that underpin public perceptions: Although each communications challenge is unique, risk perception tends to be affected by several "non-scientific" factors that are fairly consistent across situations. A few of the most important: Control vs. lack of control. A situation typically seems less risky when we are in control than when we are not. For this reason, risk communication messages often can be made more powerful by telling people what they can do to mitigate or address a perceived risk. Exotic vs. familiar. The more familiar we become with a risk, the less concerned we are about it. Communicators who are trying to avoid undue panic over unfamiliar risks must find ways to demystify the risk, using simple language and analogies that enable audiences to see it in a useful context. Voluntary vs. involuntary. Most people are less afraid of risks when they feel they are accepting them by choice rather than having the risk imposed on them by others without their consent or knowledge. "What did you know and when did you know it?" is a sure-fire question any organization will face in a crisis; the belief that information has been deliberately withheld is one of the greatest drivers of public outrage. Beneficial vs. non-beneficial. In general, consumers are less likely to view a product or activity as risky if it is highly valued, especially if losing access to it would cause significant problems or inconvenience. Use third-party experts to enhance message credibility: In his discussion of "mental shortcuts," psychologist and author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion Robert Cialdini observes that when people feel too overwhelmed to think carefully through a decision, they rely heavily on informed experts to do the thinking for them. Typically, the most credible voices are those outside the organization in crisis. And importantly, credibility is in the eye (and mind) not of the PR professional, but of the target audience. Be certain that you are choosing spokespersons that key stakeholders will see as trusted sources. To borrow from Thomas "Tip" O'Neill's observation that "all politics is local," all risk perception is personal. Especially in the overheated environment of a crisis, effective risk communication cuts through the theoretical and the complex to explain what this risk means to me and the people I care about most. By being aware of the dynamics of risk perception, and by weaving together facts and meaningful context into a clear and credible message, public relations professionals can better manage the challenges of communicating risk. This article is an excerpt from the just-published PR News Crisis Management Guidebook, which includes 200 pages of crisis management strategies and techniques. Order a copy for you and your team at Karen Doyne is Managing Director, Crisis & Issues Management, Burson-Marsteller, Washington D.C. She can be reached at 202.530.4523, or at

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