The Importance of Getting the Message Right in Your Risk Communication Strategy

Man looking at news on tablet

Over the past few years, traditional and online news outlets and social media channels have been filled with information about COVID-19—and much of it has been misleading, inaccurate, or incomplete. This has made it challenging for members of the public to make educated decisions about how to protect their own health: from deciding whether to get a vaccine or booster or when and where to wear masks, to weighing the risks of gathering in crowds, according to Kasisomayajula “Vish” Viswanath, PhD, Lee Kum Kee Professor of Health Communication in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (HSPH). Viswanath also serves as Program Director of HSPH’s Applied Risk Communication for the 21st Century, an online certificate program that equips participants with the knowledge and skills needed to design effective risk communication messages that can guide them through a public health crisis.

The Need to Refocus Public Health Messaging on the Successes

Viswanath points out that throughout the pandemic, some of the major news coverage has missed an essential part of the story by focusing on the failures that have occurred without also celebrating the many successes.

“If you look at the data, the public is smarter than we think. [In the midst of COVID-19], many people were wearing masks, and didn’t go into restaurants, workplaces, or public places,” Viswanath explains. Nonetheless, both the mainstream and alternative news coverages have been focused on the minority of people who defied the recommendations or had differing opinions. For example, there have been many stories of people who refuse to get vaccinated, rather than those who have gotten the vaccine and booster(s). Yet more than 67 percent of people in the U.S. are now vaccinated, even though the unvaccinated minority get the lion’s share of publicity, he says. “By focusing on what we didn’t accomplish—rather than on what we did—we are actually sending the wrong message to the community,” he stresses.
Exploring the Current Dynamics

The reason the media tends to focus on the negative is multi-fold. First, Viswanath says that people often have a preconceived idea in their mind and so they focus on the details that back up their case, often using it to fill a political agenda rather than making sure to communicate the most reputable information.

“This may give the impression that fewer people are complying than really are, and therefore, this might discourage others from adopting the latest public health guidelines,” he says.  In addition, people who are non-compliant with the COVID-19 recommendations often are much more vocal than their counterparts; as a result, they make their voices heard more easily. Finally, examples of people who are defiant to the recommendations can be viewed as more “interesting” for news outlets to cover than someone who follows the directions and does what is expected.

Looking for the Local Data and Story

“We need a completely different way of looking at the distribution of risk. Instead of only presenting a negative view in the news, we can be much more positive and nuanced when we look at the country’s response to COVID. We as a community need to look at both the successes and the failures in order to move forward,” Viswanath says.

Navigating the Changing Landscape

One challenge we need to recognize when it comes communicating risk in a public health crisis such as COVID-19 is that the science is constantly evolving so the recommendations will continue to change as we learn more, he points out. For instance, at the beginning of the pandemic, much was unknown about COVID-19. Over time, we have gained a deeper understanding of how it spreads and how to treat it. As we learn more, the recommendations continue to shift and may vary from one community to the next, depending on each region’s specific circumstances.

“We can’t expect people to be epidemiologists themselves to be able to get the right information and weigh their risks,” he points out. “We need to be able to help them [to assess their local risk] and to model behavior [such as masking], to help encourage people to keep themselves as safe as possible.” In addition, healthcare professionals and community stakeholders also can take this opportunity to explain to people how evidence evolves so they can truly understand the changing nature of the recommendations.

Tips to Guide Risk Communication Strategies

When developing a risk communication strategy, here are several key principles Viswanath recommends:

  • Position yourself as a source of reliable information. You can educate people about the latest details in easy-to-understand language. This requires translating the science into plain English that people without a medical background can understand. Also, be sure your messages have clear action steps so people understand what you need them to do to stay safe or respond to the situation. In addition, collaborate with trusted institutions and organizations to help spread your messages to your target audience.
  • Build the trust of the general public. This requires listening to their concerns and addressing them in an upfront manner. Even when the information you are sharing is not what people want to hear, it’s important to be transparent so they will respect you as a reputable source. This also means admitting when you don’t know the answer to all of the questions, and being honest when information changes, and your recommendations change along with it. “We also need the public to know that all knowledge is partial knowledge at this time. We need to accept what we know today and also accept that this will keep changing, so the recommendations and guidelines will also keep changing to keep up with the latest information,” he says.
  • Create messages that resonate with your community partners and residents. You need to understand people’s needs and concerns so you can frame public health messages to resonate with them. By making sure your recommendations are relevant to your audience—and are also practical for them to implement—this will increase the likelihood of their making the effort to follow them.

Finally, when shaping public health messaging to communicate risk in a public health crisis, also keep in mind that it’s important not to confuse people with details they don’t need or that are filled with speculation. Just stick to the facts and provide clear, actional information, Viswanath says. Well-crafted risk communication strategies can be essential to ensuring that people make educated decisions in the midst of complex conditions and environments.



Viswanath, Kasisomayajula “Vish,” PhD, Lee Kum Kee Professor of Health Communication , Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences,  Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (HSPH); Program Director, HSPH’s Applied Risk Communication for the 21st Century. Zoom interview, June 2022.