Never give a reporter a reason to argue

“You’ll lose. The use of absolutes, such as never, always or promises in crisis communications will get you in trouble because you make it easy for reporters to find an argument.”

reporter_headerThis is just one of the gems shared by Dr. Vincent Covello, speaker of this year’s Wisconsin Hospital Emergency Preparedness Program (WHEPP) crisis seminar on April 24 and 25. Dr. Covello shared his professional journey into the world of national crisis with humor, insight, sophistication and intuition.

The risk and communication training, offered in Stevens Point and Madison, was brought to us by WHEPP, in partnership with the Wisconsin Hospital Association (WHA). Dr. Covello, founder and director of the Center for Risk Communication in New York City, shared his national and international experiences as a consultant and PIO in high stress situations, such as pollution and/or oil spills, hazardous waste, radiation, worker safety, natural disasters and disease outbreaks.

Dr. Covello made it very apparent in the beginning that risk communication is the central portion to informed decision-making. Because of this, it’s important to present the material clearly and effectively. “People under stress typically want to know you care before they care about what you know,” said Covello. “Furthermore, people under stress usually have difficulty hearing, understanding and remembering information. Your talking points should be clear, brief and simple.”

Dr. Covello walked participants through a number of crisis scenarios and case studies and emphasized the importance of maintaining control of the message in ANY situation. The key is to be calm, consistent and credible. He says you should anticipate questions; say what you know, not what you think, be empathetic, don’t speculate, prepare talking points, repeat key messages, stay on topic ad use transitions and bridging techniques. He also discussed programmic considerations to consider.

Seven cardinal rules for effective risk communication:

1. Accept and involve the receiver of risk information as a legitimate partner. “People have a right to participate in decisions that affect their lives,” Covello said.

2. Plan and tailor risk communication strategies. Know that different goals, audiences and communication channels require different strategies.

3. Listen. “People are usually more concerned about trust, credibility, control, dread, uncertainty fairness and compassion, than about the technical details of a risk,” he said. “To identify the real concerns, you must be willing to listen carefully to and understand your audience.”

4. Be honest, frank and open.

5. Coordinate and collaborate with other CREDIBLE sources.

6. Plan for media influence. “The media plays a major role in transmitting risk information. They are your friends. In fact, think of the media as your 90-year-old grandmother, who is hard of hearing and plans to give you her inheritance,” Covello said. “Treat them with respect, repeat yourself often and be as kind as you can.”

7. Speak clearly and with compassion. “Technical language and medical jargon are major barriers to effective risk communication,” he said. “Abstract and unfeeling language often offends people. Acknowledge emotions, such as fear, anger and helplessness, they are typically more effective.”

To help guide us through these rules, Dr. Covello explained and exercised 12 basic message-mapping acronyms to use when talking with reporters or members of the media. Covello says you can use any of these mapping templates to create effective messages in high stress or concern situations.

CCO: Use CCO when asked a question with high emotion. Steps: Compassion, conviction and optimism. For example: “I am very sorry to hear about…”; “I firmly believe that …”

WHAT IF: Use when asked a low probability question. Steps: Repeat the question (without negatives), bridge, state what you know factually. For example: “You’ve asked me what might happen if…”; And what we do know is…”

BRIDGING: Use when you want to return to your key points or redirect the communication in your favor. For example: “And what’s most important to know now is…”; “However, what’s most important now is…”; Before we continue, let me take a step back and repeat that…”

BAD NEWS/1N=3P (one negative equals three positives): Use when breaking bad news or starting with a negative. D. Covello recommends balancing one bad news or negative with at least three positive or constructive messages.

AGL-4 (average grade level minus four): Use when responding to high stress questions. Covello recommends providing information four or more grade levels below the average grade level of the audience.

GUARANTEE: Use when asked to guarantee an event or outcome. As I mentioned earlier, Covello swears against using absolutes in any risk communication situation. For example: “You’ve asked me for a guarantee, to promise something about the future; the best way I know how to talk about the future is to talk about what we know from the past and the present; And what we know is …”

YES/NO: Use when asked a yes or no question that cannot be answered as such. The best way to handle this type of question is to indicate that it would be difficult to answer as a yes or no, say why, then respond with the underlying concern.

IDK (I don’t know): Use when you don’t know, can’t answer or aren’t the best resource for that question. For example: “You’ve asked me …; I wish I could answer that question…”; “This is not my field of expertise, I will do my best to get the best resource for you.”

FALSE ALLEGATION: Use when responding to a hostile question, false allegation, or criticism. Be sure to repeat and paraphrase the question without repeating the negative. Indicate the issue is important to you. Indicate what you have done, are doing, or will do to address this issue.

27/9/3: Use this template when in high stress situations. Dr. Covello recommends you to be brief and concise and use no more than 27 words, in 9 seconds and only use three main messages.

PRIMACY/RECENCY: Use when responding to high stress questions. Provide the most important items or talking points first and last.

RULE OF 3: This is another template for high stress or emotionally charged question. Provide no more than 3 messages, ideas or points at one time.

Dr. Covello provided advanced messaging as well. Those can be found here.

Unfortunately, I was only able to attend the morning sessions. The training also included using PowerPoint presentations and how to mp out talking points for certain high stress or emotionally charged events and/or situations. If you attended the session, please comment below on other take-aways and other nuggets of information.

Dr. Covello also shared an expansive website with crisis templates, worksheets and articles for anyone interested in learning more. Visit

This post was researched and written by Trish Skram, WHPRMS member and media/public relations specialist II at Mercy Health System. Feel free to connect with Trish Skram on her Facebook page at Trish Skram “PR Gal” or on LinkedIn.

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