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More than a
traditional PR firm.

More than a traditional PR firm.

Crisis Communications: Perspectives from an Epidemiologist

Post by Linda Thrasher, Himle Rapp's Corporate Practice Leader. You can follow her on Twitter at @lindakthrasher

As part of the Arthur Page Society’s annual meeting in late September, I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Vincent Covello, the Founder and Director of the Center for Risk Communication in New York. An epidemiologist by training, Dr. Covello is clearly a right brain/left brain kind of guy who has leveraged his scientific skills with the communications profession. His forte? Crafting communications to gain peoples’ attention and focus – particularly when they need to take action – in high stress situations. No stranger to tough issues, Dr. Covello has been at the center of designing communications for a myriad of health crises, including foot and mouth disease, biotechnology, flu vaccine shortages, SARS, and environmental issues in Manhattan following 9/11, to name a few.  
 
 
For those of us who spend a good part of our careers counseling organizations on crisis communications, you’ll find his theories intriguing:
 
  • The speed “high concern” information travels? 4 minutes. A decade ago, the timespan was four hours; two decades ago it was 24 hours.
  • What creates a belief for someone during a crisis? 4 pieces of information formm a “credible source.” Once a person forms a belief, it’s extremely difficult to change the person’s view.
  • How much can people digest? Information conveyed in a set of three statements. Think Julius Caesar, “I came, I saw, I conquered.” The first and last statements are the most important. According to Covello, this means 27 words in 9 seconds. Yes, Twitter will serve you well.
  • 1N = 3P + 1 – For every negative statement an organization makes, the statement must be followed by four positive statements.
  • Visuals – In high stress situations, people process visuals far more easily than facts. Need to emphasize 1 part per billion? Show an Olympic sized swimming pool with one drop entering the water.
  • Most compelling? Covello’s theory on trust determination, where he argues that approximately 50% of an organization’s credibility is based on trust. How do people define trust? They want to know that an organization cares before they care what an organization knows. Covello advises organizations in high stress situations to always begin with a statement of empathy and caring before pouring out the facts.
 
Plenty to discuss and certainly plenty to debate with his findings, but no doubt good for thought in a crisis.
 

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