Does Downplaying a Crisis Prevent Panic and Is It Good Leadership?

The following is a commentary on and outline of the Department of Health and Human Services’
Risk Communication Guide for Public Officials (2002).


Image for postQuote from Deja Flu: the forgotten lessons of the 1918 pandemic by E Rosalie



The First Rule

Never downplay the crisis or minimize the risks. The cardinal rule of risk communication is the same as that for emergency medicine: first, do no harm. You may do harm if people get the wrong impression. Minimize the problem and people may put themselves at risk.

Avoid paternalistic thinking. You do not have the right to decide if people can handle the truth. That said, people think differently under stress. You must carefully plan your message to meet the needs of the public. Poorly planned messages, mixed messages, and inaccurate statements can all directly lead the public into harm’s way. Do no harm.


Do Not Assume You Do Not Need Help

Most communications mistakes are made by those who are not prepared to speak but feel compelled to do so anyway. Mistakes often happen to people with good intentions because research on risk communication shows that the best practice is counterintuitive. That is, our instincts on how to lead in a crisis are poor.

Don’t assume you’re not in need of help; Don’t be shy about asking for it. Always take advantage of whatever professional communications support is available to you. In a crisis, experts in risk communication must be consulted or situations can quickly destabilize communities and lead to outrage.

If you have access to a public affairs office, use it. You can also hire a local public relations consultant or ask a corporate public relations executive to volunteer to help you meet your challenges.




MYTH: Risk communication is more likely to alarm people than to calm them.

Truth: Not if done properly. For this reason, consult a specialist. Especially those who lead large groups of people have a duty to ensure their messages serve the audience, educate, and inform. Don’t simply alert and alarm. Give people the chance to express their concerns, ask questions, and receive accurate answers.

People have the right to make their own decisions with full knowledge, and if people take risks because you misinformed them that can create outrage. Any of these pitfalls can cost you the public’s trust. You cannot help people who don’t trust you.

Genuine panic is rare. Good communication keeps it that way. Survival instincts often lead people to do things like stockpiling, etc. They do this when they feel unsafe and when they do not trust that we will protect them.

Mixed messages can cause this. Do not allow the irrational fear that the truth will cause panic to leave people in a state of uncertainty. That is far worse than any bad news.


MYTH: Many issues that arise in times of crisis are too difficult for the public to understand.

Truth: No, they aren’t. Part of your job is to help the public understand these issues no matter how complex they may be. The public may not make technical decisions, but their opinions deserve consideration by those who are making those decisions.

Failing to accurately represent the situation can skew the risk perception of the public in directions of overestimation or under-appreciation. Both will cause harm and both will make the situation worse.


MYTH: Risk communication is not my job.

Truth: Yes, it is. As a public servant, you have a responsibility to the public. Integrate communication with the public into your job and help others do the same. Never get defensive. Never shame reporters. It is your job to get information to the public and serve them.

The press has a duty to the public as well. Never refuse to work with the media. The media’s role is to inform the public, which will be done with or without your assistance. Work with the media to ensure that the information they are providing the public is as accurate and enlightening as possible.

Make people available to the media who can handle the dramatic influx of questions. Consider establishing a temporary office to handle questions surge. Again, the press will inform people with or without you. It is to your advantage that it be with you.


Be honest and open.

Once lost, trust and credibility are almost impossible to regain. Never mislead the public by lying or failing to provide information that is important to their understanding of issues.

Losing trust can cause a situation to go from bad to worse and there is no bottom to how bad a situation may get.



People are unlikely to tolerate risks perceived

  • as being imposed
  • as controlled by others
  • to have little or no benefit
  • to be unfairly distributed
  • to be manmade
  • to be catastrophic
  • to be generated by an untrusted source
  • to be unfamiliar or “exotic”
  • to affect children


People will more readily accept risks perceived:

  • to be voluntary be
  • as under an individual’s control (that means the same threat bothers people less if you give them the information and they determine what risk they are comfortable taking; do not decide for them)
  • to have clear benefits
  • to be distributed fairly
  • to be natural
  • to be statistical (the public often struggles to accurately perceive exponential numbers and large-scale figures; that can lead them to underappreciated risk, so that must be considered in drafting messages)
  • to be generated by a trusted source (people may tolerate a trusted source deciding what risk is acceptable, but those who don’t trust the messenger won’t)
  • to be familiar
  • to affect adults more than children


The never-ever-under-any-circumstances list

  • Never attack
  • Never be smug, show disgust, or lose your temper
  • Remain calm, attentive, and polite
  • Never convey frustration, indifference, or let your emotions interfere with your positive communication
  • Never blame
  • Never make guarantees
  • Avoid humor, especially about health or risk
  • Never deliver off-the-cuff remarks relating to the crisis
  • Refute negative allegations succinctly and without lending credibility. Do not deliver a counterattack and do not take it personally if reporters ask about it. That is their duty and it is yours to answer.
  • Avoid highly charged terms and don’t cite national problems or excuses. People feel a need to assign blame in crises, but it’s counterproductive. Focus on the people and leading them effectively.
  • Do not contradict organizations collaborating with you. “XYZ says this, but I personally think…” This is not the time to share your opinion.
  • Listen. Do not disagree with the concerns of the public; respond to them. Do not limit reporters’ access or you may be perceived as untrustworthy.
  • A failure in risk communication never falls on the public. Mistakes in risk communication are avoidable, but not on your own. You need help and asking for it is the first step on the path of great leadership.


Source: Communicating in a Crisis: Risk Communication Guidelines for Public Officials. 2002. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.