Yesterday my family hit the wall of being quarantined. We were all snippy with each other (did I mention I’m the redheaded mom of two redheaded teenage girls?), and we just wanted life to return to normal. So after a low point last night, we made a plan to make today different. So do you know what we did?

We texted local family and friends the following message:

Driveway Dance Party will be out and about today. Here’s how it works. We’ll pull up in your driveway, crank up the music, and dance with you for one song, then we’ll leave. All dancers should be 6 feet away from each other at all times. Let us know if you’d like to be added to our route. 

Our intent was to spread a little joy during a time of crisis, which I hope we did. And we needed to clearly communicate rules and expectations so we could keep everyone safe. Which I also hope we did.

When tough seasons roll in, communication is more important than ever. Dr. Peter M. Sandman has a theory he calls risk communication. Risk communication is examining both the hazard (how much harm the crisis is likely to do) and the outrage (how upset people are likely to be during the crisis). Sandman’s research uncovered something very interesting. The amount of hazard doesn’t allow us to predict how people will respond. So he created 4 communication tasks based on how we assess hazard and outrage. His tips can be helpful to us during days like these.

“Watch Out!”

Sandman’s first communication task is precaution advocacy. This type of communication should be used when you think that hazard is high and the outrage is low. In other words, if people aren’t taking the risk seriously enough, you should help alert them to the danger. Sometimes people are simply unaware of the risk, while others might be apathetic. A message of “watch out” during a crisis can help to inform some while also challenging apathy in others.

“Calm Down!”

On the other hand, there may be instances when the hazard is low and the outrage is high. Sandman says communicators need to engage in outrage management in these cases. This type of communication works to help put things in perspective. Chances are you’ve seen this type of communication task recently aimed at anyone who is hoarding toilet paper or hand sanitizer.

“We’ll Get Through This Together!”

Some of the scariest moments can be those when both the hazard and the outrage is high. These situations have the potential to become volatile and even dangerous. This is when Sandman says communicators have the task of crisis communication. Jennifer Lois has studied the emotion work of rescue workers. In her book Heroic Efforts: The Emotional Culture of Search and Rescue Volunteers,  she outlines something she calls “tight emotion work.”  She says that in high stress situations we often need short, direct statements aimed at helping people regain control and composure quickly. We can help mitigate the risk when we communicate messages of hope and help.

“And What Do You Think?”

The final communication task we have during a crisis comes when both hazard and outrage are intermediate and manageable. This is what Sandman calls the “sweet spot” because people are interested in dialoguing about something that is “significant but not urgent.” These types of situations allow us to connect with each other without the danger or apathy present in other scenarios.

No matter what your official or unofficial role is, you are operating as a communicator in time of crisis. You are choosing how to participate in risk communication. You are communicating as you post on social media, lead companies, teach online, guide those who are younger, support those who are older, and move throughout each strange and beautiful day during a time of global crisis. Chances are, you’ll need to switch between all four of Sandman’s risk communication messages at different times and with different people. I hope you’ll find his research and his 4 simple messages helpful as you do.

Want to learn more about how Ethos3 can help your company communicate during a time of crisis? Get in touch with us now. 


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