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Communication During Risk

The CERC Rhythm flow chartToday we continue our series highlighting Crisis + Emergency Risk Communication’s (CERC) Psychology of a Crisis resource.  Please be sure to check out our other emails based off this resource, 4 Ways People Process Information During a Crisis and Mental States in a Crisis.

In this final email, we will focus on how to address the psychology of a crisis through the CERC Rhythm, which demonstrate how the situation changes during each phase of a crisis and how risk communication can be applied during each phase. Using this framework for crisis communication, we hope you will be more equipped to support individuals through this pandemic and any future crises, generally.


Important information and assumptions are set during the pre-crisis stage even before a crisis occurs. Develop plans and establish open communication during this phase. Provide an open and honest flow of information to the public: Generally, more harm is done by officials trying to avoid panic by withholding information or over-reassuring the public, than is done by the public acting irrationally in a crisis. Pre-crisis planning should assume that you will establish an open and honest flow of information.



During this stage of acute danger, the priority for all is basic safety and survival. The more stress felt in a crisis, the greater the impact on the individual. Important causes of stress include the following:

  • Threat to life and encounters with death
  • Feelings of powerlessness and helplessness
  • Personal loss and dislocation, such as being separated from loved ones or home
  • Feelings of being responsible, such as telling oneself “I should be doing more"
  • Feelings of facing an inescapable threat
  • Feelings of facing malevolence from others, such as deliberate efforts that cause harm

During the initial phase, the following CERC concepts are important:

  • Don’t over-reassure
  • Acknowledge uncertainty
  • Emphasize that a process is in place to  learn more
  • Be consistent in providing messages


During this phase, the crisis magnitude, the concept of personal risk, and the initial steps toward recovery and resolution are in motion. Emotional reactions vary and will depend on perceptions about the risk and the stresses people experienced or anticipated. Once basic survival needs are met, other needs for emotional balance and self-control emerge. People often become frustrated and let down if they are unable to return to more normal conditions. Early selfless responses to the emergency may fall away and be replaced by negative emotions and blame.

The following CERC principles apply to the maintenance phase :

  • Acknowledge fears
  • Express wishes
  • Give people things to do
  • Acknowledge shared misery
  • Give anticipatory guidance (foreshadow)


When the emergency is no longer on the front page, those who have been most severely affected will continue to have significant emotional needs. Emotional symptoms may present as physical health symptoms such as sleep disturbance, indigestion, or fatigue. They may cause difficulties with interpersonal relationships at home and work. At this point, organized external support often starts to erode and the realities of loss, bureaucratic controls, and permanent life changes come crashing down. To maintain trust and credibility during the resolution phase, keep the expressed commitments from the initial phase. Failures or mistakes should be acknowledged and carefully explained. 

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