The Difference between Crisis Communications and Risk Communications: One protects the brand, the other protects people

We tend to conflate the concepts of public awareness, risk communications, and crisis communications, so let’s get some clarity around terminology…

Public awareness

Most of us think of “public awareness campaigns” as efforts that include multiple components (messaging, grassroots outreach, media relations, government affairs, budget, etc.) to help reach a specific goal. Typically it is to raise awareness of a particular issue or threat, e.g., Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

I’ve argued for years that if all you want to do is raise awareness, you might as well stop campaigning. Take breast cancer, for instance. There aren’t many women anywhere that aren’t already “aware” of breast cancer. One in eight of us in the U.S. will be diagnosed with it, and the incidence is even higher in some other parts of the world.

The point is that the goal for public awareness campaigns should be to solve a problem, or make people safer not just acquaint people with it. If 100% of women were aware of breast cancer but no one got a mammogram, you wouldn’t call that a success. The same is true for all awareness campaigns.

For regulated industries like chemicals, transportation, and energy, “public awareness” technically means that you have to show federal regulators that your affected stakeholders are:

  1. Aware of the risk that your products or service pose, and
  2. They know what to do if something untoward happens.

So, the goal isn’t just knowledge but behavior or at least behavioral intent.

Risk communication

Risk communication is the older sibling of public awareness. It is defined as:

“The exchange of real-time information, advice and opinions between experts and people facing threats to their health, economic or social well-being. The ultimate purpose of risk communication is to enable people at risk to take informed decisions to protect themselves and their loved ones.”

In other words, an effective risk communication program raises awareness and behavioral intent, but also helps prevent the risk from occurring. The rock stars in this field are public health organizations who run campaigns to get people to get their flu shots but also take steps to prevent outbreaks in the first place, and to keep them from spreading.  Bottom line for risk communications is to keep people safer.

Crisis communication

In contrast, the goal of crisis communications is typically to keep the brand, or the investors safer.  Wikipedia defines crisis communication as: “A sub-specialty of the public relations profession that is designed to protect and defend an individual, company, or organization facing a public challenge to its reputation.” Crisis communication typically dictates what you do after your public awareness and risk communications programs have failed. If you are really good at public awareness and risk communication, then you’ll have to do less crisis comms. ∞

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