AIHce: Communicating Risk and Effective Crisis Communications

Session speaker Pam Ferrante, CSP, CHMM, told attendees at the American Industrial Hygiene Conference and Expo (AIHce) that crafting direct messages, maintaining open communication, admitting the severity of the situation and providing instructions for action are key elements of effective crisis and risk communication.

Ferrante, president of Pittsburgh-based JC Safety and Environmental Inc., defines risk communication as an ongoing process that helps define the problem and solicit involvement. Crisis communication, meanwhile, consists of the messages that are proposed and promoted during an actual emergency.

The 1982 Johnson & Johnson Tylenol tampering incident, for example, demonstrates a case of successful crisis management, Ferrante explained. The company's communication and accountability played a big part in why it was able to recover after seven people died after taking poisoned Tylenol capsules.

"It was a risky and dangerous message at that time," Ferrante said of Johnson & Johnson's communications approach. Instead of backpedaling or blaming the situation on someone else, the company took responsibility. "They essentially said, 'This is our problem, this is our fault, we are going to fix this and take care of the situation, and we are doing everything to solve the problem.' Many people think this is what kept [Johnson & Johnson] in business."

Other crisis communications, however, serve as lessons in what not to do. Ferrante pointed to the systems and communication collapses involved during Hurricane Katrina.

"The thing I think about most when I think of Hurricane Katrina is the inability of government authorities and elected officials to speak with one voice," she said. "Every time you saw them, they seemed to blame someone else. That disconnect among authorities is a problem – it increases mistrust, insecurity, fear."

Taking in the Message

Ferrante outlined several factors that impact how people receive, accept and process information during a crisis:

  • Risk Perception – How people perceive risk is affected to their perceived ability to control their involvement in the situation, whether they trust institutions, their personal stake in the situation, their understanding of the circumstances and any uncertainty they may have.
  • Mental Noise – Stress affects how people process information. "The higher the level of stress, the more difficult it is for us to process information," Ferrera said. Messages therefore should be simple and be repetitive to break through the "mental noise" associated with panic or anxiety. "As a messenger, if we want to change that behavior, then we have to craft our message to reduce that noise," she said.
  • Negative Dominance – The relationship between how people process negative and positive high-concern information is asymmetrical, Ferrante said. The negative information carries much more weight, so more positive than negative information must be presented. "You don't want to deny the seriousness of situation, but you want to show receivers we are doing something positive to counteract the negative," she explained.
  • Trust – The higher level of trust a receiver has for the person delivering the message, the more likely he or she is to follow the instructions. "Unless trust is established, no other goals can be achieved," Ferrante said. "If trust is already in place, communication barriers are more easily overcome." The key is to develop that trust before the disaster hits so listeners are receptive when an emergency actually occurs.

"The best part of these crisis communication messages is to tell people what they can do and prepare them to deal with what can occur," Ferrante said.

Outrage

In her presentation, Ferrante referenced the work of Peter Sandman, a risk communications consultant who developed the "Risk = Hazard + Outrage" formula. The formula contains four combinations:

  • High hazard, high outrage
  • High hazard, low outrage
  • Low hazard, high outrage
  • Low hazard, low outrage

The recent H1N1 flu scare would fall into the "high hazard, low outrage" category, Ferrante said: It was a serious risk, but the public wasn't necessarily prepared or concerned enough for the potentially serious implications. While the hazard might not be something that can be changed, the outrage level could be raised or lowered.

"You want to move the outrage to where it should be," Ferrante said. "[For a] pandemic, we want them to be in high outrage situation."

While Ferrante allows that the public now may have a better grasp of what pandemic means and how to prepare for one, the current outrage level still is too low. "It's better than it was in April, but we need to make it higher," she said. "Again, we want to give people something to do. If we're going to raise their anxiety level, give them some actions – help them control their anxiety."

Dare to Scare

Ferrante also agreed with Sandman's view that it's okay to scare people. "[We must be] willing to 'dare to scare' people and tell them we are not prepared for every emergency or crisis, nor can we ever be," she said. "Others want to go in the opposite direction, that we can't get people in a panic, [and] have to appear we have everything under control, even if we don't."

Unfortunately, in certain high-impact emergency cases, such as a pandemic or a terrorist attack, it is not possible to protect everyone. People therefore must be aware and be prepared.

"Be willing to identify the worst case scenario and talk about it," she said. "Change the message from 'We are ready, we will protect you' to 'We will do the best we can, but you have to be prepared, too.'"

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