The Need for Effective Risk Communication Strategies in Today’s Complex Information Environment

As information becomes more immediately accessible—especially through digital platforms—it is crucial to have an effective risk communication plan to reach the right audiences in times of need.

There has been growing awareness in recent years about the risks of serious injuries associated with playing football. But exactly how can organizations best communicate that risk to the people who care about this issue, such as parents of youngsters on little league teams, college football players, and professional athletes?

One common element most effective risk communication strategies share is that they are customized to meet the specific interests, concerns, and habits of the target audiences. This means that parents would require different types of messaging, as well as different distribution channels, than professional athletes to inform them about the risks football poses, according to Kasisomayajula “Vish” Viswanath, PhD, Lee Kum Kee Professor of Health Communication at the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Viswanath is also the program director of Applied Risk Communication for the 21st Century through the Harvard Chan School, where he educates experts and other professionals working in corporations, medicine, government, and nonprofits about the need to manage risk communication properly to achieve a variety of public health and safety goals, garner support for key issues or causes, and handle damage control or reputation management.

“Risk communication is a part of everyday life. It’s something we take for granted,” Viswanath explains. “To communicate risk effectively, we need to understand who the target audiences are and the challenges they are likely to face in assessing the risk and acting on it,” he adds.

Risk communication is a part of everyday life. It’s something we take for granted.

Navigating the Complex Information Environment
This is a tall order to fill, especially with the steady stream of information immediately available today around key issues such as public health risks, environmental concerns, and natural disasters. With the ever-broadening array of traditional, alternative, and digital outlets that exist, some of the information flowing through these channels may not be filtered for accuracy, or may not be put into the proper context for the recipients so they can act on it properly. As a result, there’s the very real danger that people may miss critical facts to guide their decision making, or may take specific actions based on misinformation, which can ultimately lead to unwanted outcomes.

That puts the onus on health professionals, business leaders, elected officials, and others to be proactive in designing effective risk communication strategies. These strategies also need to be implemented in a timely manner at the first sign of any danger that exists in order to reach the right audiences in today’s complex information environment, Viswanath says.

The Need to Develop Effective Strategies

The reality is that risk communication is essential in most sectors and industries today—both for routine situations and also in times of crisis, Viswanath points out. Therefore, professionals must be well-versed in the principles of effective risk communication so they can determine how best to apply them to their own situations and needs, amidst all of the challenges that exists.

In the current complex communication environment with a multitude of platforms, it becomes difficult to communicate risk in a controlled and coordinated way.

“At one time, we were able to communicate risk in a much more controlled fashion,” he explains. “But in the current complex communication environment with a multitude of platforms, it becomes difficult to communicate risk in a controlled and coordinated way.” This means that competing opinions can enter into the mix, making it essential for professionals to steer the people they serve around various landmines that exist to find credible sources of information. What the best sources are, and how people will access them, can vary depending on different circumstances.

Examples of Risk Communication Efforts

For example, Viswanath refers to the H1N1 flu (also referred to as Swine flu) global pandemic in 2009-2010 as an example of a crisis that required the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to apply emergency risk communication principles to educate Americans about the importance of taking preventative measures to avoid getting sick. The messages included encouraging people to get flu vaccines, obtain anti-viral medications at the first sign of symptoms, and stay home while sick to avoid the spread of the illness. (For more details about the CDC’s communication response to the crisis, see its website at One striking fact is that the CDC’s efforts hinged on strategic partnerships with key public and private agencies, health care providers, and the media in order to reach a very broad audience.

Similar types of broad risk communication responses have been critical to respond to natural disasters, such as the danger Hurricane Harvey posed to the greater Houston, Texas area in the fall of 2017. With serious flooding and high winds forecast, public officials used local, state, and national news outlets and social media to advise residents in danger zones to evacuate their homes and seek shelter in safer areas.

It is essential for professionals to steer the people they serve around various landmines that exist to find credible sources of information.

“When Harvey and other hurricanes happened, people were able to take precautions to move to higher ground and shelters to protect themselves. But some people did not pay attention to the warnings and did not evacuate,” Viswanath says. In some cases of these types of natural disasters, people who initially failed to respond to evacuation orders ultimately put themselves and rescuers at increased risk when conditions because extreme.

Key Steps to Develop a Risk Communication Strategy

While every situation is different and needs a different type of response depending on the specific circumstances, there are five common elements Viswanath identifies that can serve as a good starting point for developing any applied risk communication plan.

  1. Prepare for the crisis and be ready for it ahead of time, regardless of what type of crisis it is or whom it will affect. Planning for various scenarios can help you be ready to act when needed, he says.
  2. It’s essential to know your clients or your audience and understand who they are, what they care about, and what their personal situation is. “For instance, you can’t talk about evacuating if people don’t have the means to access a car. You have to be sensitive to the conditions under which the information you share can be acted upon,” Viswanath says.
  3. Sometimes saying less is more. “Being measured in one’s communication of risk, especially in times of uncertainty, is especially critical,” he points out. For instance, this step can be particularly important to save face when you have to change your guidelines or recommendations midway through the process.
  4. Be open about what you know—and also what you don’t know. Telling people you are still waiting to find out more and will share the latest findings as they become available is important to maintain your credibility over the long term.
  5. It’s important to practice and learn from experience. Every situation will be different, so take the time to debrief after a crisis situation and assess what you did well and what areas you may be able to strengthen in the future.

Risk Communication is an Ongoing Process

Regardless of what type of risk you are communicating, or who your audience is that you are trying to inform, it’s important to view your risk communication efforts as an ongoing process that may shift over time but will never go away.

“Remember that risk communication is not a one-time concern,” Viswanath says.  “Rather, you’ll need to continually evaluate your efforts and improve on them as you go along.”


Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health offers Applied Risk Communication for the 21st Century , an online program designed to provide the knowledge and skills needed to design effective risk communication messages