Risk Communication Theory and Application

Instructor: Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

Communicating with the public sometimes requires risk communications. In this lesson, you'll learn more about risk communication theory and how it applies to public relations.

Caution: Hazard Ahead

Imagine you're driving down the road and come upon this sign:

Risk communication theory deals with communicating hazards to the public.
 Risk communication theory is a way of communicating hazards to the public.

What do you do? Ignore it and continue driving? Turn around and find another route? Hopefully, you take this sign for what it is, a warning that something ahead is potentially dangerous or that you should approach with caution. It is a critical tool for communicating with drivers about possible hazards.

In communications, tools are also needed for communicating risks and hazards to the general public. This lesson deals with the theory of risk communication, how it differs from issue management and ways to apply it to a public relations plan.

What is Risk Communication Theory?

Risk communication is an exchange of information about risks or hazards, between interested parties such as from a government organization to the general public. The goal of risk communications is to facilitate an informed audience who is involved, interested and solution-oriented. This is in opposition to the way we frequently see risk communications handled, and that is simply to alleviate public concern.

Whether the topic being communicated relates to a prescription drug recall, a natural disaster or a terrorist event, risk communications seeks to build understanding to help facilitate informed choices and to connect the dots between the experts or officials and regular people. Risk communications theory differs from issue management in that issue management deals with warning signs that a potential risk is coming. Issue management is a tool for crisis prevention, where risk communications is a tool of crisis communication.

Inside of risk communications are several theories for communicating with the public:

  • Trust Determination Theory: The theory implies that people who are upset tend to distrust the messenger of the information. Therefore, trust must be built with the public over time.
  • Mental Noise Theory: People who are upset have difficulty in hearing, understanding and remembering your messaging. Experts conclude that messaging in this regard should be concise, using visual aids when possible, and repeated to help people remember.
  • Negative Dominance Theory: Individuals under stress are likely to see all situations in a negative light. Communications should avoid too many negative words so that greater value is not assigned to them.
  • Risk Perception/Outrage Theory: This theory concludes that the level of concern among the public is strongest when the situation is involuntary, not beneficial, out of a person's control or associated with adverse outcomes.

All four theories combine to form the basis for risk communications, and are critical for understanding how best to communicate with the public and how to integrate risk communications into a public relations plan.

Applying to a Public Relations Plan

Any public relations plan can benefit by having a risk communications component prepared and ready to go. The fact is, if you wait until you need a risk communication strategy, you have waited too long and will be unprepared when a crisis hits.

Applying risk communications in your public relations allows you to be prepared to deliver helpful, informative information as a credible source rather than allowing misinformation to rule and take over.

Risk communications helps in developing appropriate messaging before, during and after an important event. In a public relations plan, risk communications might look something like this:

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