The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.
—George Bernard Shaw
Dr. Vincent T. Covello is one of the world’s leading experts and practitioners on risk, crisis, and high stress communications. Currently the director of the Center for Risk Communication in New York and Washington, he has held positions that include Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University, and program manager at the National Science Foundation, where he became one of the founders of the field of risk communication. He is the author of more than 150 articles in scientific journals and the author/editor of more than 20 books. Dr. Covello is a consultant, writer, speaker, researcher, and teacher. He is a frequent keynote speaker and has conducted communication skills training for thousands of professionals.
What is your background?
I have had the opportunity to shape and learn from the research and application of the field of risk, crisis, and high stress communication since its origins, and have seen its importance and relevance extend out across an ever-growing range of topics. I have worked with hundreds of private companies and nonprofit organizations, and served as a communication adviser to national and international organizations, including the World Health Organization, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Defense, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Nuclear Regulatory Agency, the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation. This has given me the benefit of seeing my work applied nationally and globally in areas including environmental incidents, natural hazards, disease outbreaks, terrorism, industrial accidents, occupational safety, air pollution, water contamination, hazardous waste, physician-patient communications, vaccine safety, product safety, operational disruptions, and organizational change.
What motivated you to write this book?
The enormous societal and economic impact of high stress communication has been powerfully, often painfully, brought home during the COVID-19 pandemic. But even before that, my experience with professionals and managers across so many fields who must communicate in emotionally charged situations showed me how much they needed knowledge of the principles and practices of risk, crisis, and high stress communication. I wanted to give them a substantive, yet digestible means to access this knowledge.
The ability to communicate effectively in a high stress situation is a competency that differs in significant ways from other generic communication skills because it operates in the territory where feelings and facts may collide. If done well, it can enable beneficial solutions and constructive behaviors even in the face of fear and anxiety. In a public health or environmental hazard situation, it can save lives. Poor communication in high stress situations can have disastrous consequences.
The scientific literature on risk, high concern, and crisis communication has expanded enormously in the past three decades, drawing on the work of behavioral scientists, social scientists, engineers, economists, statisticians, medical scientists, toxicologists, epidemiologists, industrial hygienists, lawyers, media studies, neuroscientists, and a host of other disciplines. The field has benefited from these new understandings. I wanted to take these new understandings and turn them into concrete and practical recommendations that professionals across disciplines can apply.
Who is the audience for your book?
Addressing risk, crisis, and high stress situations is an essential communication competency for managers, engineers, scientists, and technical professionals. Professionals in every field can be thrust into situations demanding specialized high stress communications skills, whether they are confronting an external crisis or leading organizational change. My hope is that the book will serve the leaders, technical professionals, and communicators in public and private sector organizations looking for a one-stop reference and evidence-based practical guide.
I also designed the book to serve as a resource for teaching and training, from graduate and professional courses in communication to specialized workshops in risk, crisis, and high concern communication.
What are the greatest challenges facing risk communicators today?
Profound technological, economic, and social changes have upended many of the traditional ways that risk-related information is communicated. Three of the biggest impacts of these changes are that: (1) experts and authorities are much less trusted; (2) whom to trust is now a central topic in virtually all risk, high concern, and crisis communications; and (3) the way that people seek information about risk, high concern, and crisis issues has shifted from traditional broadcast and print media to online sources and social networks, which function very differently.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further reshaped the communications landscape in extraordinary ways. Because of the harm being caused by the pandemic, the need for effective risk and crisis communication has never been greater. Navigating the pandemic called for sophisticated communication skills, not just for public health officials, but for leaders, managers, and technical professionals in all public and private sector organizations. Even professionals well-skilled in risk, crisis, and high stress communication faced unprecedented challenges. Few organizations were prepared for the communication challenges. Messages, despite being based in science, were often confusing and frequently changing, as experts quickly learned more about the disease and its means of spread. And the audience for the messages —essentially everyone on earth —had difficulty hearing and understanding even clear messages, as they were experiencing high levels of stress, uncertainty, and anxiety about virtually every aspect of their lives.
In addition, COVID-19 was the first pandemic in history where social media was used on a massive scale to communicate information aimed at keeping people safe, informed, productive, and connected. Unfortunately, social media also created a communication infodemic – defined as an overabundance of information, both online and offline, that is overwhelming in its volume, largely unstoppable in the speed and breadth of its spread, and which includes as much, or more, unreliable, misleading, and inaccurate content as it does facts and useful advice.
As I was writing the book, I was incorporating new research and new experiential learning in the face of unprecedented challenges.
What unique features make this book stand out in the market?
Communicating in Risk, Crisis, and High Stress Situations offers a common framework for the major principles, strategies, and tools in the field. The book brings together in one resource scientific research and practical, hands-on guidance on such critical topics as trust, stakeholder engagement, misinformation, messaging, and audience perceptions in the context of stress. It contains both theoretical background and many practical tools and tips that can be readily employed.
I wrote each chapter to be self-contained. I have also provided extensive lists of resources for those who want to further probe particular topics. The intent is to make it easier for readers to home in on issues, such as stakeholder engagement, communicating numbers, decision-making tools, warning systems, working with the media, theory, message development, or evaluation.
Unique and particularly valuable is the inclusion of case diaries and case studies that powerfully illustrate key lessons in the book—providing an opportunity for learning through storytelling. Each chapter of the book contains at least one case diary, or a personal account of my tenure and experiences in the areas of risk, high stress, and crisis communication. Many of these cases are COVID-19-related and will help the reader understand the communication failures and successes our world has experienced over the last two years.
Where can we find you online?