The Hirons’ team was lucky enough to have a 90-minute session with the man who wrote the proverbial book on crisis communications. To be more accurate, Vincent Covello, Ph.D. has written or edited more than 25 books and published 75 articles on risk assessment, management and communication. He is the founder and director of the Center for Risk Communication, a job that takes him all over the world. Covello said last year he earned the third most frequent flier miles in the nation, an impressive 4 million. He still works part time at the World Health Organization (WHO) which sent him onto the front lines of disaster some 30 years ago when he was working there while on sabbatical from academia. Since then, Covello has managed crises such as Ebola, nuclear power plant meltdowns and the threat of pandemic influenza. He has a lot of advice on how to deliver the best messages during the worst circumstances.
During his early years in the field, Covello said crisis communications were merely based on conventional wisdom, but now neuroscience has allowed researchers to “open up the black boxes” of our minds. For instance, they’ve found that one negative equals three positives or what Covello and his team now call “1N=3P.” He explained that since our brains tend to focus more on negative information, it takes at least three positive messages to undo the harm of only one bad one. You need at least four to pull ahead. After that, the economic law of diminishing returns goes into effect and positive messages become less mitigating.
The research has also found that in most high-stress situations, around 95 percent of the questions affected people ask can be predicted in advance. Covello said there are 120 frequently-asked questions about Ebola and a whopping 420 when it comes to radiological disasters. Nuclear power plants can’t even be licensed anymore without having what’s called a “dark website” ready to go live in the event of a leak that will answer some of those questions. Covello said it just reinforces how important crisis communications have become in the modern world, even for problems as old as time. For example, there are 50 questions that have been identified to give peace of mind to the terminally ill. Once again, the rule of three applies here as Covello said the best way to answer the question of “How long do I have to live?” is by giving worst, average and best case scenarios.
The power of the number three is also evident in the “27/9/3 Rule” shown on the Periodic Table for High Concern Communication that Covello helped developed. He credits media mogul Ted Turner for making this rule back in the early years of CNN. Turner told researchers that TV news would only use a nine second soundbite from most officials, no matter what the topic. So researchers recommend to whittle down your message to 27 words you can say in nine seconds that contains three points. During the recent spread of the mosquito-borne Chikungunya virus, for instance, WHO told the public to remove standing water around their homes to kill mosquito larvae, wear protective clothing to prevent bites and use insect repellent. Each point can be expounded upon with three sub points, if needed, in what’s called “Message Mapping.” At least 50 national agencies are training their spokespersons to use this method. Listen for it next time you’re watching a news conference to see who’s putting Covello’s expertise to good use.