Improve Your Communication of Rare Events After They Happen

Hurricane Ian before Florida landfall
Pre-event communication and graphics are done well by the National Hurricane Center before a hurricane makes landfall; many impacted by the event will not have power or internet connectivity after the event.

Low-likelihood, high-consequence (“rare”) events present special challenges for effective communication. Pre-event plans are often well understood and accepted but are quickly found to be not applicable or unacceptable as the rare event unfolds. The greatest challenge is that human thinking quickly evolves from a normal state to a survival state.

The nature of rare events makes them unexpectedly and disproportionately impactful. Rare events can usually be identified within the seven categories of crisis: economic, informational, physical (key plants and facilities), human resources, reputational, psychopathic acts, and natural disasters.

Perceptions of Risk

"Risk does not exist 'out there,' independent of our minds and cultures, waiting to be measured,” state psychologists Paul Weber and Elke Weber. Risk is more subjective than objective. It is a concept invented by human beings to help us understand and cope with the dangers and uncertainties of life.

According to Slovic and Weber, “Subjective judgments are made at every stage of the assessment process, from the initial structuring of a risk problem to deciding which endpoints or consequences to include in the analysis, identifying and estimating exposures, choosing dose-response relationships, and so on.”

The risk associated with rare events impacts different people in different ways. Slovic’s classic paper “Trust, Emotion, Sex, Politics, and Science: Surveying the Risk‐Assessment Battlefield” states, “Danger is real, but risk is socially constructed." Communicating after a rare event is shaped by personal experience and perceptions.

Once a Rare Event Happens

Planning prior to a high-consequence, low-probability event is crucially important. A balanced approach to analytics, narratives and public perceptions is needed for effective communication in the planning stage.

All bets are off once the rare event happens. Those who believed they were in control and had adequately planned now understand that their assessment was inadequate. Those who were not in control of the planning efforts now see their fears being realized. And the degree of the realization will differ, either negatively or positively, from that originally expected.

A Rare Event is More Than a Single Event

The situation is compounded by the fact that a 'rare event' is not one event but rather a chain of cascading events. In other words, events with unexpected impacts continue to unfold after the initial event.

The chain of secondary events following the original disaster prolongs the impact of the disaster and introduces new risks. For example, structural damage to facilities incurred during an initial event leads to additional safety, environmental, and public health risks until a system is returned to its pre-event state.

Perceptions Matter

Therefore, the public may accept a plan for addressing a rare event before its occurrence but will reject it once they experience the actual event and cascading events in the aftermath. The need for communication is large during the recovery phase of a rare event because the deviation from expectations is large. Communication must be truthful, objective, and regular as systems bounce back to pre-event states.

FEMA Guidance

Not surprisingly, organizations in the United States like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) provide guidance on communications during times of emergency and crisis.

"During an emergency, it is especially challenging and important to communicate accurate information clearly to the target audience. Disaster survivors generally look for someone who can communicate valuable guidance, provide leadership, and lead them in problem solving. When you successfully fill that role, you act to reassure survivors that their government and private organizations are working toward community recovery."
– FEMA Manual on Effective Communication


Rare events present special challenges to effective communications.

Pre-event plans are often well understood and accepted but are quickly found to be not applicable or unacceptable as the rare event unfolds.

Our communication approach must be modified to meet the changed psychological state of our audience.